By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001
1. Can Nikolai Khabibulin regain prime form?
The 28-year-old said he has "no doubt" he will be the same goaltender who had a 2.13 goals-against average and eight shutouts for the Coyotes in 1998-99. If he can shake off the rust of what was, basically, a two-year contract holdout, Tampa Bay's last line of defense will be as solid as it was during the 1995-96 playoff season.
2. How will Kevin Weekes fit in?
General manager Rick Dudley has said the master plan is for Weekes to play about 30 games as Khabibulin's backup. Will this be acceptable to a player who last season played 61? Weekes has declined all interview requests. If he stays focused and even pushes Khabibulin for playing time, the Lighting's goaltending could be among the best in the league.
3. Will Vinny Lecavalier be in camp?
Don't hold your breath. Neither side has budged much off its opening bids. Both Lecavalier and the Lightning have much to lose if this doesn't get resolved soon. It can't be good for the 21-year-old captain to miss camp, and Tampa Bay doesn't need the distraction or the hole his absence will create.
4. Can Brad Richards beat the sophomore jinx?
The 21-year-old, who should have been rookie of the year last season, weighs 194 after putting on about 15 pounds of muscle during the summer. He will need it. Richards will be much more of a target for opposing players who remember his smooth moves and pinpoint passing. The pressure will mount if Lecavalier does not sign and Richards takes the No. 1 line.
5. Did the defense learn from its mistakes?
Though it played better as the season progressed, things got pretty ugly at times on the back line. The blossoming of Jassen Cullimore and the addition of Stan Neckar helped. Offseason moves that brought in 39-year-old Grant Ledyard and 6-foot-2, 200-pound Nolan Pratt should provide stability and muscle. But the group is still young; without Ledyard the average age is 23.8. Then again, it also is a year older.
6. Will special teams be revamped?
Count on it. Atrocious is too kind a word for the power play and penalty kill last season. The Lightning was second-worst in the NHL with the man advantage, and 17th-best when a man short. Much of the problem stemmed from losing the battles along the boards. The team has added grit, Richards will get a try on the right point and defenseman Pavel Kubina likely will go to the left.
7. Is Nikita Alexeev really that good?
The 19-year-old, the No. 8 pick of the 2000 draft, is 6 feet 5, 215 pounds and had 31 goals and 71 points in 64 games last season for Erie of the OHL. The jump from juniors to the NHL is severe, but Alexeev is a great skater and showed confidence and a feisty streak during last year's camp. He is expected to make the team.
8. Will more than youth be served?
Dudley waited too long last season before realizing his team needed a veteran presence. It has it now with the additions of Ledyard, 39; Dave Andreychuk, 37; Tim Taylor, 32; and Juha Ylonen, 29. They are expected set an example on the ice and set a tone in the locker room.
9. Is Andrei Zyuzin ready to step up?
The defenseman's heralded offensive skills have been sporadic, and he has been inconsistent on the back line. Injuries kept him from playing a full season since Tampa Bay acquired him in August 1999 from the Sharks. The 23-year-old said he is in the best shape of his career after a summer of training in the Colorado mountains.
10. Can this team make the playoffs?
Hey, anything is possible. More reasonable goals are 35 victories, 80 points and a reason to go to the Ice Palace after January. Despite the veteran additions and a grittiness upgrade, the Lightning is still young, unproven on defense and in need of more firepower, a shortage that will become acute if Lecavalier is not signed.