When the news broke over Twitter that Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman had traded for 41-year-old goaltender Dwayne Roloson during the Winter Classic last weekend, everyone was in disbelief. One, the timing was peculiar. With Mike Smith out due to injury, they'd just given rookie goaltender Cedrick Desjardins his first two games in the NHL, and he won both without too much trouble. So the Lightning faithful was reassured that Desjardins was the answer in goal that the team needed.
But then Chris Botta, a long time New York Islanders writer, made that tweet from the press box of Heinz Field on January 1st, and the entire landscape of the hockey world changed.
Just as Mike Brophy from SportsNet, I immediately thought that Yzerman was putting the league on notice - that he felt they could win the Stanley Cup this year with pretty much the team that he has. The addition of Marc-Andre Bergeron just nailed down that idea. And, halfway through the season, the Tampa Bay Lightning are sitting among the top teams in the NHL right now. So, with those moves, it's obvious that Yzerman thinks this team is ready to win now.
That's not just egotistical pride in the team that he's the general manager of. Yzerman's captained three Stanley Cup winning teams - plus was an excutive for a fourth. Not only that, but he put together the Olympic gold-medal winning Canadian men's hockey team. If anyone can judge whether a team's Cup worthy or not, it would be Steve Yzerman.
The shocking part about this business isn't the continuation of Steven Stamkos's goal scoring dominance, or that Steve Downie has still been able to channel his frustrations more constructively, or the acquisition of Simon Gagne, or the re-signing of Martin St. Louis (who was still bitter about being left off of the Canadian team Olympic roster by Yzerman), or the resurgence of captain Vincent Lecavalier, or the fact that the Lightning have been able to stay in the hunt with the statistically worst goaltending tandem in the NHL. No. The shocking part about this all is the huge impact a new owner, new GM, and a new coaching staff can have on a team.
Remember, the Lightning aren't that far removed from the dismal failures and the circus of the past couple of seasons. They've finished with a sub-.500 record for three season in a row, and haven't been in playoffs since 2007. They had the sixth overall pick in the 2010 draft (Brett Connolly), the second overall pick in the 2009 draft (Victor Hedman), and the first overall pick in the 2008 draft (Steven Stamkos). There was infighting with the ownership, incompetent coaching, and the ugly possibility of relocated reared its ugly head once again.
The genuinely shocking part is that they're going from a 24-win 2008-2009 season, to potential Stanley Cup contenders two years later. To put that in perspective, the Lightning already have 24 wins. And they're literally halfway through this season, having played Game 41 last night at the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Lightning fans are still reeling from it all. For the first three months of the season, any little negative thing - players' slumps to team slumps to shutouts against the team - would have them running for their nuclear fallout shelters. But now, with the addition of Roloson, suddenly there's a fragile hope that they might not only make playoffs, but go deep into them.
I say "fragile" because the past three seasons have deeply scarred the Lightning faithful. It's really hard to believe that such wonderful things can happen now after all of that craziness. So many people are still sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Last night's 8-1 loss against the Pens is a classic example of a bad instance that will send the fan base into a knee-jerk panic.
Still, the Southeast Division is rising in the NHL, and it's being led by the Tampa Bay Lightning. It could be possible for at least three - possibly more - of the teams in the Southeast Division in the playoffs this season. Potentially, there could be an Eastern Conference Final between two Southeast Division teams, as crazy as that may sound.
But, it's only halfway through the season, and there's still a lot of hockey to be played. It's looking very promising, however. And thanks to Steve Yzerman, there's hope once again in Tampa Bay.