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Top Shelf: Taking stock of Tampa

Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos, both first overall picks of the Lightning, will center the top two lines in Tampa Bay. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos, both first overall picks of the Lightning, will center the top two lines in Tampa Bay. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

It doesn’t take much to spark debate within the walls of THN’s office.

Whether we’re barking about who the real face of the NHL is or merely which sub joint within a five-minute walk of the building provides the best bun for buck. Engaging each other in lively conversation is sort of what we do.

During the course of the summer, Tampa Bay has become one of the more consistent starting points for a lively back and forth.

Co-worker John Grigg liked the Lightning even before it inked Alex Tanguay this week.

But our annual Yearbook predictions have Tampa on the outside looking in when it comes to playoff teams in the East.

According to capgeek.com, Tanguay’s one-year deal will pay him $2.5 million to be one of Tampa’s top-six forwards this season.

Incidentally, imagine the player you could sign for the money that represents the discrepancy between what Tanguay and Martin Biron thought they’d sign for and what they ultimately got in return for their services.

Based on last year’s salary and their history of performance, both were likely sniffing around for about $5 million a season. Tanguay ended up signing for half that three months after free agency hit, while Biron is set to make $1.4 million on a one-year deal with the Islanders. That means, between the two players, about $6 million was lost somewhere in the wash. Chalk it up to a rare case of restraint on behalf of NHL GMs.

Regardless of how it came to pass, Tanguay’s presence in Tampa certainly strengthens the team’s forward corps. The Bolts bought out Vinny Prospal earlier this off-season and, Prospal’s chemistry with Vincent Lecavalier aside, you have to think out with Prospal and in with Tanguay is a good move for Tampa.

Most of the talk about a Lightning strike in 2009-2010 revolves around an improved defense. This is where the theory of relativity rears its ugly head. Yes, Tampa’s blueline gang is much improved over the rag-tag bunch that was absolutely ravaged by injuries last year. It would be a complete miracle if the squad didn’t dramatically improve on the 3.28 goals per game it allowed last season, better than only three teams in the league.

Still, let’s not get too carried away with Tampa’s rearguard renos. Mattias Ohlund, a UFA signee, will be 33 in a matter of days and is probably as valued for his ability to tutor Swedish countryman Victor Hedman as he is for his ability to dramatically impact the outcome of games. Speaking of the No. 2 overall pick from last June’s draft, Hedman certainly looks like a beauty, but we all know the perils young defensemen face trying to break into the world’s best hockey league.

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The real man of mystery on defense is Andrej Meszaros. A smooth skater with size, Meszaros was limited to just 52 games last year, his first with Tampa. He won’t turn 24 until the start of the season and there’s still plenty of upside to explore in a kid who looked like he could evolve into a puck-moving, 50-point blueliner during his first three years in Ottawa.

Other than that, depending on how you rate Paul Ranger, there isn’t a ton to get excited about on the back end.

It will be better, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good.

One area for genuine optimism is up front, where the Bolts have a poster boy who’s due for a bounce back and a sophomore who had a strong second half.

Lecavalier may have lost his running mate in Prospal, but he’s gained about five months worth of time to heal the damaged wrist he was playing with all of last year. Obviously the 29 goals and 67 points Lecavalier put up last year is well below what he’s capable of producing. Whether it’s with Tanguay, Ryan Malone or old buddy Martin St-Louis on the wing, expect a return to form this season for a guy who, at 29, is in the dead prime of his career.

Steven Stamkos is still very much at the outset of a career that’s ready for takeoff. He endured a sketchy start to an expectation-filled rookie season, but really came on in the final months and at the World Championship in May.

A 1-2 punch of Vinny and Stammer up the middle could be the envy of about 90 percent of teams in the league by December.

But with a ‘D’ that’s still unproven and a goaltending duo in Mike Smith and Antero Niittymaki that isn’t yet drawing comparisons to Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog, a top-eight finish is far from sewn up.

Stay tuned to see how one of THN’s hot summer debates turns out.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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