The Washington Times - September 15, 2009, 10:53AM

In an effort to spruce things up in this space, we’re going to try out a couple of new repeatable ideas. First up will be a segment we call “Team to Watch.” It is pretty simple — just some teams that are going to be worth monitoring this season, either for improvement, decline or circus-like attributes (here’s looking at you, Phoenix).

The first installment is the franchise that was the league’s biggest circus last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning.


Who’s new: LW Alex Tanguay, D Viktor Hedman, D Mattias Ohlund, D Matt Walker, D David Hale, D Kurtis Foster, LW Stephane Veilleux, C Brett McLean (camp invite), F Drew Miller, LW Todd Fedoruk

Who’s gone: LW Vinny Prospal, RW Radim Vrbata, LW Matt Pettinger, a lot of AHL-caliber players wearing NHL sweaters

A (lightly reserached) guess at the lineup:

Alex Tanguay-Vinny Lecavalier-Steve Downie

Martin St. Louis-Steven Stamkos-Ryan Malone

Stephane Veilleux-Jeff Halpern-Drew Miller

Todd Fedoruk/Paul Szczechura-Ryan Craig-Adam Hall/Blair Jones

Mattias Ohlund-Viktor Hedman

Paul Ranger-Andrej Meszaros

Matt Walker-Kurtis Foster/David Hale/Matt Lashoff/Matt Smaby/Lukas Krajicek

Mike Smith

Antero Niittymaki

Reasons for hope: The defense is completely revamped. Thanks to injuries and poor roster construction, the Hershey Bears were icing a better defense corps than the one the Caps saw in March and April from the Lightning (that’s not a joke, even if it’s worth a chuckle). Good health from Ranger and Meszaros plus competence from the wunderkind Hedman and this is a legit, middle-of-the-pack or slightly better defense corps — and that alone might be worth 15-18 points in the standings.

Toss in “The Leap” from Steven Stamkos and a return to top-5 in the world status from Lecavalier and dreaming about a return to the playoffs isn’t that absurd.

Reasons for despair: As much as it appears the on-ice product is improved, the off-ice situation is still a mess (the zoo in the desert is overshadowing it a bit). There isn’t as much depth at forward this year (having like 34 forwards under contract was a but much last camp anyway). And there is still the little matter of Mike Smith proving he can stay healthy and be a legitimate No. 1 goalie in this league. He’s shown flashes, but he’s got to put it all together at least once. 

Final take: Trusting this team to have a smooth season with few distractions is not easy, but if it happens Rick Tocchet could be in line for Jack Adams consideration. The Lightning should be entertaining to watch, and few teams can match the wide range of potential outcomes — this team could end up with 70 points and another high draft pick or it could end up with 94 and sneak in the playoffs. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Twitter this (an homage to one of the great lines in Caps media history by Comcast’s Lisa Hillary): @erlendssontrib, @OrenKoules, @TBLightning