Over the weekend, Illegal Curve was privileged to interview Damian Cristodero who has covered the Tampa Bay Lightning for the St. Petersburg Times since 2000. Cristodero discusses the Lightning’s netminding situation, how the team’s young defense could fare this season and what it was like to cover the fiery John Tortorella on a daily basis.
Here is the interview:
Richard: You have been covering the Lightning for a while, do you think this upcoming season is the most anticipated season in Lightning history?
Damian: I guess from a standpoint of curiosity you could say that. From a fan standpoint, I’m not sure since season ticket sales are behind last year. But you can’t argue that new owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie have re-created the team. They have spent $194-million on one-way contracts. There could be up to 14 new players on the roster. Despite that, there still are tons of questions. Can Mike Smith handle the No. 1 job? Can a defense that averages 23.7 years old handle the pressure? Can Vinny Lecavalier come back after shoulder surgery? So there is plenty to watch, and it certainly will be better than last year.
Richard: Do you think Steven Stamkos is a shoe-in to crack the Bolts’ opening day roster?
Damian: Steven Stamkos absolutely will play for the Lightning and is slated to start as the second-line center, probably between Ryan Malone and Radim Vrbata. The original plan was for Stamkos to play third line and Jeff Halpern second. That, the team figured, would give Stamkos time to get his feet wet, and he could be bumped up here and there with an eye toward giving him the second-line job eventually. But when Halpern blew out his right knee in the world championships, the plans changed. If anyone can do it, it is Stamkos. He’s no Sidney Crosby (his coach in Sarnia, Dave MacQueen, said perhaps 25 goals and 60 points could be expected). But he has great hands, an “NHL shot,” according to Lecavalier, and is so grounded it is scary for an 18-year-old. People should keep some perspective, though. Remember, Lecavalier had only 13 goals and 28 points in his first season.
Richard: Building on that, is there any truth to the reports that the Lighning is interested in Mats Sundin? And if so, do you think that is even a realistic possibilty?
Damian: The Lightning is interested in Sundin, though I don’t believe they have a serious shot at getting him. He doesn’t really work under Tampa Bay’s salary cap which is at $55.86-million. Sundin will cost at least $7-million for a full season. Even if he is a half-year player, that’s still $4-million or so. The Lightning already has a glut at center. Having said that, Barrie has said if Sundin wanted to play in Tampa (and his good buddy Gary Roberts already is there), the Lightning would find room. But that would take a lot of salary cap maneuvers and personnel decisions. And we don’t even know if Sundin is interested in Tampa Bay. So, is it possible? Yeah, I guess so. Is it probable? I’d say no.
Richard: Moving onto the team’s defense. Do you believe the Lightning’s defense is too young to take the team deep into the playoffs?
Damian: It is young, no doubt about it. But I don’t look at it as a defense that has to take Tampa Bay anywhere. The Lightning has built up its forward position and upgraded at goaltender to give its defense a chance to mature and develop. It’s going to be rough at times this season. But look at it this way. All Tampa Bay has to do this season is make the playoffs, and it is a huge step forward. The defense will gain experience and a year or two from now, that group has the potential to be great. So I wouldn’t focus too much on this season for anything but a chance to get into the postseason. The bigger picture is more important.
Richard: What are you expecting from Mike Smith this season?
Damian: I think we will see the real Mike Smith this season, whether that is for good or bad. I don’t believe it is fair to judge him on last season. It was a crazy time. He gets traded to a team that is going nowhere with some players, particularly on defense, who were playing scared because of pressure put on them by then-coach John Tortorella. Add that the offense went south in the last 15 games or so and it was a bad scene. I think Smith, as well as defensemen such as Paul Ranger, Mike Lundin and Shane O’Brien, will be better with a master motivator, Barry Melrose, as coach. Smith is very athletic. The thing he has to work on is controlling his appetite for playing the puck. There is a time and place, and he did not have that figured out completely last season as there were times he negated icings and times he put himself out of position. I also think he will be pushed by Olaf Kolzig, who has said he is fine with a backup role but wants to push at the same time for ice time. It will be interesting to see if Smith is up the the challenges.
Richard: Finally, on a lighter note, are you going to miss the candid post-game interviews with John Tortorella?
Damian: Torts could be tough on reporters but I’ll tell you the one thing he forced you to do: really watch the game. You couldn’t walk into a postgame press conference and ask a question that showed you did not know what had just happened. You had to be specific or he would shut you down. That made me watch things more closely and think about what I had seen. Probably made me a little better as an observer of the sport. Torts also could be wonderfully engaging when he wanted to be. That Tortorella I will miss.
For Illegal Curve, I’m Richard Pollock.