Since getting off to a flying start in 2011-12, the Steve Yzerman era in Tampa Bay has stalled considerably.
Heading into his fourth season as the club's general manager, the former Detroit Red Wings great is aiming to reverse the trend that has seen the Lightning miss out on the playoffs in each of the past two springs after making it to the Eastern Conference finals in 2010.
Yzerman and the front office also head into 2013-14 without Vincent Lecavalier, the man who was the face of this franchise for well over a decade. Lecavalier, the first overall pick in the 1998 draft, had spent his entire career in Tampa before having his contract bought out during the offseason. Lecavalier's departure leaves Martin St. Louis as the only player left from the franchise's one and only Stanley Cup championship victory in 2004.
Although the move was probably a necessary one from a salary cap standpoint, the loss of Lecavalier, the club's captain over the last five seasons, could hurt the team's playoff chances in 2013-14.
Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper, who is heading into his first full season as bench boss, has a terrific offense led by St. Louis and Steven Stamkos -- the two main candidates to inherit the "C" from Lecavalier -- but the club's defense and goaltending situations expect to be problem areas once again.
Like the rest of the NHL, the Lightning will have some new divisional opponents this season, as the league installs its realignment plan. Although realignment was designed to cut down travel for teams, it didn't really work out for either Tampa Bay or the Florida Panthers, who will play in the Atlantic Division with the likes of Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. The top three teams from each of the NHL's four new divisions will receive automatic bids to the postseason, while both the East and West conferences will give out two wild card playoff spots as well.
FORWARDS - The Lightning finished third in the NHL in offense with an average of 3.06 goals per game, but that explosive scoring attack didn't stop the club, which surrendered 3.05 goals per contest, from finishing 14th in the Eastern Conference standings.
Even without Lecavalier, who registered a solid 32 points in 39 games last season, Tampa Bay will be tough to stop on offense this season.
Last year, the club had the league's leading scorer in St. Louis, who paced the NHL with an amazing 60 points (17G, 43A) in 48 games. Stamkos, meanwhile, scored 29 times in 48 games during the shortened season, leaving him behind only Washington's Alex Ovechkin for the NHL's goal-scoring crown.
Despite entering this season at the ripe age of 23, Stamkos already has 208 career goals and is considered to be one of the best sniping centermen in the world.
While St. Louis' size (5-foot-8, 176 pounds) was the reason to underestimate him in the past, people are now asking questions about his age instead. Although he turned 38 years old in June, St. Louis has always proven to be remarkably durable during his career and there's no good reason to believe he'll hit the wall suddenly in 2013-14.
Although Jonathan Drouin, who was snatched up with the third overall pick of the 2013 draft, is a natural left wing it's probably too early to expect the 18-year-old to take third spot on the top line with Stamkos and right winger St. Louis. Instead, expect veteran Ryan Malone to line up to the left of Stamkos at the start of the season. Although Malone is a magnet for injuries he could offer some grit to go with the skill and speed of Stamkos and St. Louis. Malone was a 20-goal scorer in 68 games for Tampa Bay in 2011-12 and had six goals in just 24 games last season.
Taking over for Lecavalier at the No. 2 center spot will be offseason acquisition Valtteri Filppula, who will be expected to produce after signing a five-year, $25 million deal this summer.
Filppula had spent his entire career with the Red Wings -- a team Yzerman knows well, of course -- before joining the Lightning as a free agent. The 29- year-old native of Finland had a career year with 23 goals and 66 points for Detroit in 2011-12, but had just nine goals and eight assists in 41 games last season.
If he plays like he did two years ago, Filppula will be a fine replacement for Lecavalier, but if he has a repeat of 2013 it could seriously deplete Tampa Bay's secondary scoring.
Drouin could fit on either the second or third lines and Tampa hopes his offensive skill set can at least help improve the Lightning's power play. Tampa Bay was 13th in the league in 2013 with a respectable 19 percent success rate on the man advantage, but with the club's defensive liabilities it needs to be better than that.
In addition to losing Lecavalier, the club heads into this season without forwards Cory Conacher and Benoit Pouliot, who had 24 and 20 points, respectively, for the Bolts in 2013. The Lightning traded Conacher to Ottawa for goaltender Ben Bishop during last season's trade deadline, while Pouliot left over the summer to sign with the New York Rangers.
In light of the losses on offense, the Lightning will need guys like Teddy Purcell, Alex Killorn and Nate Thompson to provide scoring depth. Purcell had the best season of that trio in 2013, finishing third on the team behind St. Louis and Stamkos with 36 points on 11 goals and 25 assists.
DEFENSE - All told, the Lightning used 13 different defenseman during the 2013 season, but the club finally settled on a consistent six-man rotation towards the end of the season.
Tampa Bay expects to go with Eric Brewer, Matt Carle, Victor Hedman and Sami Salo as it's top-four guys with Radko Gudas and Keith Aulie providing depth on the third pairing.
Hedman and Carle form a solid top pairing, although the Lightning are hoping the former player is ready to take a big step forward in 2013-14. The second overall pick of the 2009 draft, Hedman has improved steadily since his rookie campaign of 2009-10 and the 6-foot-6 Swede had four goals and 16 assists in 44 games last season.
While Hedman is certainly capable of scoring, Carle provides even more in the offensive department. He led all Tampa Bay blueliners in both goals (5) and assists (17) last season after signing a six-year, $33 million deal with the Lightning in the summer of 2012.
Brewer and Salo are steady veterans who are both entering their 15th seasons in the NHL. Brewer had four goals and eight assists while playing in all 48 games for the Bolts in 2013, while Salo had 17 points (2G, 15A) in 46 outings.
Gudas earned a spot for himself late last season by throwing his weight around. The heavy hitter also added two goals and three assists in a 22-game run as a rookie. Aulie had two goals and five assists in 45 games for Tampa Bay in 2013.
Cooper knows the club's struggles in its own zone last season can't be placed entirely on his D-men and that's why he's placed an emphasis on team defense at training camp this fall. A better back-checking effort from his forwards could do the trick, although the deeper issue with keeping the puck out of the net may be tied to the club's shoddy goaltending situation.
GOALTENDING - Yzerman sold high on Conacher during his surprising rookie season, but Bishop hardly seemed to be the answer between the pipes in his brief run with Tampa Bay in 2013, when he was 3-4-1 with a 2.99 goals against average in three outings.
It wasn't the first time Yzerman tried to improve the goaltending situation via a trade, as he also acquired Anders Lindback, Pekka Rinne's former backup in Nashville, in the summer of 2012.
Lindback struggled to a 10-10-1 record and a 2.90 GAA in 24 games last season, prompting Yzerman to try his luck with the trade for Bishop.
This year the plan is for Bishop and Lindback to split the starting duties early on with the hope one of the guys sets himself apart as the clear No. 1. If neither netminder is up to the task, Cedrick Desjardins, who was 0-3-0 with a 3.00 GAA in three outings for the Bolts last year, could work his way into the rotation.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Lightning are an exciting team to watch, but the club's high-powered offensive attack may need to dial it back a little in 2013-14 in order to comply with Cooper's new system. That doesn't mean he'll put a leash on Stamkos or St. Louis, but the rest of the forwards will be asked to chip in more at the back end. The slightest improvement on defense and in goal could be the difference in making the playoffs this season. Then again, treading water will likely mean a third straight season out of the postseason.