Goaltending, goaltending and goaltending.
That's the easiest way to sum up how Tampa Bay went from being an Eastern Conference finalist last season to finishing well outside the playoff picture this season. And it will be the biggest offseason focus for Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman as he begins to tweak a roster that already possesses some top end talent at forward, including Rocket Richard winning Steven Stamkos, who finished the season with 60 goals.
The veteran tandem of Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon did not live up to the preseason billing, which helped lead to rough stretches in the first half of the season. While Garon was able to provide some stability coming down through the middle part of the season as Tampa Bay was able to get back in the playoff picture, Tampa Bay's play in net was not the team's strength.
So as Yzerman starts to assemble his offseason game plan, finding a No. 1 caliber goaltender is at the top of the list. And whether that comes through the trade route for a player such as Corey Schneider or Jonathan Bernier, or through free agency perhaps for Tomas Vokoun, it is an area the team needs to shore up for both the short term and long term.
Lack of overall depth on the defense will also be looked at by Yzerman, who needs a legitimate No. 1 defenseman almost as much as a No. 1 goaltender. While 21-year-old Victor Hedman may one day grow into that role, the Lightning would like to find someone who could play alongside Hedman on a top shutdown-style pairing, with potential unrestricted free agent Ryan Suter on the top of Tampa Bay's wish list should Suter reach the free-agent market.
The Lightning has found some depth at forward to go along with top-end talents such as Stamkos, Teddy Purcell, Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier. College free agent J.T. Brown out of Minnesota-Duluth seems to be a solid find in his late-season audition, while Cory Conacher, who is second in the American Hockey League in goals and points, appears to be knocking on the door to make the jump up from the AHL.
Tampa Bay was on a seven-game winless streak to start January and staring at a meeting with defending champion Boston on Jan. 17, a late goal by Dominic Moore led the Lightning to a 5-3 victory that proved to be the kickstart to a 14-5-2 stretch that launched Tampa Bay back into the playoff picture late in the season.
The Lightning battled inconsistencies throughout most of the early part of the season and sat on the outside of the playoff picture, even dropping to last in the conference by the middle of January. But Tampa Bay started to turn things around following a Jan. 15 victory against Boston and jumped to within three points of a playoff spot by March. The sails went out of the season, however, when goaltender Mathieu Garon suffered a partially torn groin muscle three minutes into a game against Ottawa on March 6. Including the loss to Ottawa that night, the Lightning slipped into a 1-5-1 slide that thwarted the late-season rally.
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