The Lightning opened training camp this year in Innsbruck,
Austria, site of the NHL's International Challenge. Hoping to
promote unity, the team passed on a chance to stay at a plush
downtown hotel-casino and instead sequestered itself in a
mountain chalet. Except for one fishing trip and a dinner at a
castle, about the only fun thing the Lightning did in Austria
was take a 65-mph trip down an Olympic bobsled run that knocked
a few players silly.
Lightning fans know all too well what that bobsled run must have
been like. Last year their team plummeted down the NHL standings
so precipitously that fans and players alike were left
weak-kneed and woozy. In 1997-98 Tampa Bay's offense finished
last in every major statistical category and ranked as one of
the worst in modern history. This spring Art Williams, a retired
insurance tycoon and former high school football coach, bought
the team and tried to put the brakes on its slide. Williams
allocated money for free agents and okayed a $100,000 face-lift
of the players' facilities at the Ice Palace. Then, in his
wacky, Southern-fried style, Williams declared that the team's
No. 1 draft pick, center Vincent Lecavalier, was going to become
the "Michael Jordan of the NHL."
So far the rookie is doing fine. Flanked by veterans right wing
Mikael Renberg and left wing Stephane Richer, Lecavalier should
pump some life into a Lightning offense that was about as
powerful as static electricity last year. Coach Jacques Demers
is already comparing Lecavalier's on-ice determination with that
of future Hall of Famers Steve Yzerman and Doug Gilmour, but
what the Lightning could really use are some future Hall of
Famers on defense. Even with goalie Bill Ranford, who won the
Conn Smythe Trophy in 1990 after guiding Edmonton to the Cup,
and 1997 No. 1 draft pick Paul Mara, the defense may be as bad
as the offense was last year. "We still need to know who is
going to step forward on defense, but we are a much improved
team," says Demers. "We're on the right track."
Perhaps, but as every bobsledder knows, going up a mountain is
much harder than coming down.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOHN TAMANIO [Drawing of golden hockey puck]
The Lightning scored only 33 goals in 353 power-play chances
last season, a meager success rate of 9.3% and the worst
percentage by any team since that stat became official in 1967-68.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
--Tampa Bay must overcome a defensive corps that lacks skill and
mobility, which makes the Lightning vulnerable to forechecking.
--Two veteran pickups, forward Wendel Clark and goaltender Bill
Ranford, need to impart leadership, something Tampa Bay sorely
lacked last season.