Rangers, Lightning Czech in for NHL season
The 2008-09 NHL regular season premieres on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday with a game from Prague between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers, teams that each underwent a dramatic offseason makeover (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 12:00 p.m. ET).
The clubs will also play on Sunday in Prague at O2 Arena, with both games sold out. Tampa Bay is the designated home team for Saturday's game, with the roles reversed for the second Czech clash.
Just four years after the franchise's Stanley Cup win, Tampa Bay finished with the worst record in the league last season. The silver lining was the opportunity to select forward Steven Stamkos as the top overall draft pick.
The expectations are high for Stamkos, known for his offensive acumen, as he joins Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis to lead the Lightning attack.
Stamkos scored in one of two Lightning preseason wins over New York last week.
New ownership took the helm in Tampa Bay in the offseason and immediately went on a spending splurge, with over half of the lineup remade. The Lightning acquired a quartet of former Pittsburgh Penguins — Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Adam Hall and Mark Recchi — in addition to longtime Washington Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig, erstwhile San Jose Sharks defenceman Matthew Carle, and Radim Vrbata, who enjoyed a career season with the Phoenix Coyotes.
The depth up front was such that three-year NHL veteran Michel Ouellet was placed on waivers and sent to the minors earlier this week.
The club's most intriguing offseason move was the hiring of Barry Melrose as head coach. Melrose has spent most of the past dozen years in the broadcast booth after helping guide the Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup final in 1993.
The flurry of activity has rejuvenated interest in in Tampa, although the team will be temporarily taking a backseat in the Florida sports market while the Rays compete in baseball's postseason for the first time in their history.
Major changes in Tampa
The question remains whether it is a case of too much change in too short a time for the Lightning. In addition to the issue of trying to forge chemistry with a ton of new faces in tow, Tampa Bay's top six defenceman are quite green by NHL standards, averaging 24 years of age.
One of the new faces on the blue line is expected to be six-foot-seven rookie Vladimir Mihalik, who will follow in the very large footsteps of fellow Slovakian giant Zdeno Chara.
Mike Smith will be given a chance to establish himself as a No.1 NHL goaltender, with Kolzig and possibly Karri Ramo waiting in the wings if he falters.
The Prague game will feature two longtime defencemen of the Ottawa Senators in new jerseys. Andrej Meszaros suits up with Tampa Bay after an August trade, while Wade Redden signed with New York after 11 seasons in Canada's capital.
The Rangers also find themselves in transition after a second consecutive exit halfway through the playoffs. Veterans Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka departed to play in Europe, fashionista Sean Avery signed with Dallas, and Brendan Shanahan couldn't come to terms with general manager Glen Sather and is currently not employed.
Pressure on Drury, Gomez
The void means that Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, both in their second season with the club, will be asked to step up in terms of both production and leadership.
Drury on Friday was named the franchise's 25th captain.
Like Redden, Markus Naslund signed with the Rangers after a career's worth of games with a Canadian club. The Swede spent nearly 12 seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, where he amassed 346 goals and 410 assists.
New York also acquired the talented but mercurial Nikolai Zherdev from Columbus, as well as longtime Buffalo Sabres defenceman Dmitri Kalinin, the two most significant players among the team's other new additions.
Naslund's compatriot Henrik Lundqvist is the key to New York's hopes for the upcoming season. The netminder has logged 195 regular season games in the past three years for the Rangers, posting 17 shutouts over that span.
New York went 1-5 in preseason games with NHL clubs, trounced Swiss club Bern and posted a comeback victory over Russia's Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
Tampa Bay was 3-1 in North American before defeating HC Slovan Bratislava and Eisbaren Berlin in European tuneups.
The Rangers and Lightning split four games last season, with Tampa Bay taking the last two contests.