Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Lightning Get A Kick In The Nuts From Bruins, Melrose, Their Own Goalie

What a day to be associated with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

First, Radim Vrbata leaves town after more or less saying that his career with the Lightning is causing him psychological distress.

Then, Barry Melrose publicly excoriates everyone from Len Barrie to Steve Stamkos. This guy is pissed about being a scapegoat, and is not afraid to say so. Furthermore he is a media professional, and therefore knows what to say if he wants to make headlines without setting off lawsuits or suspensions (Sean Avery, are you listening?).

Then, Vinny Lecavalier is forced to "lead" his team while sporting a first-class shiner on his left eye... courtesy of the notorious brawler Jochen Hecht. For the record, Hecht gave up 3 inches and 20 pounds in that matchup. He has had 4 fights in his 8 seasons, compared to Lecavalier's 18 fights in 9 seasons. Nice, Vinny.

Then, the Lightning get absolutely whipped by the Bruins. Yes, it was a 1-goal game with 17 seconds left. But the game confirmed that the Lightning are no longer a competitive team -- they looked timid, confused, psychologically broken. They are in a doormat death-spiral, when they ought to have been jostling for playoff positioning by now. If not for the Bruins' blink-of-an-eye 3-0 lead, which pretty much sucked the energy out of the contest, Boston might have won this game by 6 or 7 goals.

To top it off, goalie Mike Smith ripped his teammates after the game... offering the possibility that they might just be a "dumb team". Meanwhile, on the other side of the locker room, Rick Tocchet suggested he might dress only 8 skaters in the future. This is all eerily reminiscent of the Dallas Stars' locker-room implosion after they faced the Bruins last month... is Claude Julien using psychological warfare to crush the spirits of his opponents? Stay tuned.

What does all of this mean for the rest of us? First of all, it confirms that playoff berths must be earned, not bought. Tampa seems to have even less chemistry than last year's Sens and this year's Stars. Turns out there's a difference between building a Stanley Cup champion and casting for a bad horror flick.

But more importantly, it effectively takes the Lightning off the map for the rest of the season. It's inconceivable that, even given an entire season to try and turn things around, this team could get it together and make a run at the 8-seed. Sooooo... time to start thinking "fire sale" when you think of Tampa.

The Lightning have a slew of vets on contract for-this-year-only, including: Gary Roberts ($2.4m), Mark Recchi ($1.5m), Chris Gratton ($1.25m), Marek Malik ($1.25m), and Olie Kolzig ($2.5m). If this franchise has any common sense at all, it will unload all of the above before the trade deadline for draft picks and prospects. This would clear a large amount of cap space and allow Tampa to begin a true rebuild -- presumably with another #1 pick this summer.

But, like a star dying, a Lightning implosion/rebuild might affect the entire solar system. Roberts and Recchi could offer veteran leadership for young contenders like Boston and Chicago. Kolzig might conjure up one last run at glory for a desperate bubble team like Edmonton or New Jersey. Chris Gratton is as adept as anyone in the league at filling a jersey and collecting a paycheck, but might be willing to chip in some secondary scoring if asked nicely.

[update: Never mind about Gratton. He was placed on waivers, a pretty sure sign that he no longer carries trade value.]

Keep an eye on these guys as we get closer to the deadline... it's not like they've been afraid to pull the trigger in the past.

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