Marc Denis: Out Of The Wilderness
By Jeff Berlinicke

The Tampa Bay Lightning learned one important lesson last season, failing miserably in their quest to retain the Stanley Cup.

A team can have all the offensive firepower in the world, but unless there’s that last line of defense to back it up, making the playoffs is a tough proposition. Advancing beyond the first round is an impossibility.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way when the Lightning prepared for the 2005-06 season. With goal scorers like Vinnie Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Fredrik Modin, scoring was never going to be a problem. The problem was that, with the advent of a new NHL salary cap, General Manager Jay Feaster had to make a decision. Someone had to go, either one of the scorers or goalie Nikolai Khabibulin who led the Bolts to their only Cup.

Feaster chose to keep the scorers and let Khabibulin leave as a free agent for the Chicago Blackhawks. The thinking was that backup John Grahame and veteran free agent Sean Burke could be serviceable enough that the Lightning could just outscore teams on the way to another run at the Cup.

It didn’t turn out as planned. The Bolts got bumped by Ottawa in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, and neither Grahame nor Burke played up to expectations. Grahame left for Carolina as a free agent and Burke isn’t expected to be back, but the Lightning decided to sacrifice some offense after all and sent forward Modin to Columbus in exchange for Marc Denis who will be expected to play about 65 games in the net for the Lightning next season.

Denis was one of the best bargains on the list of available goalies this off-season. Feather and the Lightning had their sights set on Denis as the trading deadline neared last year, but the team hesitated on pulling the trigger. Entering the off-season, Denis, along with Jean-Sebastian Giguere, Evengni Nabokov, and possibly Roberto Luongo were all on the Lightning’s wish list, but Denis made the perfect fit. He’s been the No. 1 goalie in Columbus for the past five seasons and showed his durability, playing in 77 games during the 2002-03 season. He’s always posted good numbers but has played for the Blue Jackets who are notorious for poor defense.

Denis didn’t come without a high price: Modin has been one of the Lightning’s most productive scorers and a key on the team’s No. 1 line. Still, the Lightning knew they had to make some kind of move and Denis should be entrenched in the Lightning’s nets for the rest of the decade.

After the initial shock wore off, Denis said he is looking forward to playing for the Lightning who have also been looking to shore up the defense, especially after Pavel Kubina left as a free agent for Toronto.

”I am thrilled that the Lightning pursues me and about being instrumental to a team that believes it can get back to another Stanley Cup,’’ Denis said. “Obviously as an athlete you don’t get a say as to which team you go to if you are traded, but if I had my choice, I probably would have ended up in Tampa.’’

Denis made his NHL debut as Patrick Roy’s understudy in Colorado. He played sparingly for two years before joining the Blue Jackets during the 2000 entry draft. He grew up worshiping Roy, but fit in quickly with Columbus as the Blue Jackets struggled through their expansion season. Without adequate defense, Denis was overwhelmed, but still put up good numbers. He fit in well with the Blue Jackets, but the team put Denis on the market as youngster Pascal Leclaire rose rapidly through the organization. At the age of 28, Denis was scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after next season so it was inevitable that he would move on.

After making the trade, the Lightning immediately signed Denis to a three-year contract.

Tampa Bay started scouting Denis last season, but put on the full-court press during the World Championships in the spring. Denis, a native of Montreal who grew up playing against Lecavalier and Richards, went 4-0-1 with a 2.51 goals against average and a .911 save percentage during the World Championships, and Feaster put the bull’s eye on Denis’ back. Feaster was already well acquainted with Denis. He was president of the AHL Hershey Bears in 1997 when Denis led them to the Calder Cup.

”There is a comfort level with him,’’ Feaster said. “It doesn’t mean we traded for him over someone else just because we got to know him. We like everything about him. We like him on the ice, and he’s one of the best guys you could find.’’

Denis knows he’s got a lot of pressure on him. Despite last season’s woes, the Lightning have the talent to make another run at the Stanley Cup, and Denis knows all eyes will be on him.

“I am not taking anything for granted,’’ Denis said. “I have to earn the No. 1 job, but the chance to be a No. 1 goalie on a team like Tampa Bay is exciting. “They said they want a goalie who can carry the team far into the spring and that sounds exciting and challenging to me.’’

Denis knows that Lightning coach John Tortorella can be intense on his goalies, sometimes too intense according to his critics, but Denis said he is ready for the likely confrontations.

”I know he is intense, but he’s a very good coach,’’ Denis said. “I have no problem. I stand up for what I believe. I know what my job is. And that is to keep that little black thing away from our net.’’

Losing Modin was a tough blow to the Lightning. Modin scored 31 goals last season and worked well with Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis on the top line. Ryan Craig is expected to take Modin’s place on that line, but Feaster said trading Modin was the toughest thing he’s had to do as a General Manager.

”It was one of the toughest telephone calls I have had to make,’’ Feaster said. “It was painful. I like (Modin) as a person and we won a championship with him. He was our most consistent forward last season. We weren’t looking to trade him.’’

Now that the deal is done, it’s Denis’ job to lose. For all the struggles the Lightning experienced last season, a lot of it could have been remedied by consistent goaltending. For all the glamour that Richards and Lecavalier bring to the ice, all eyes will be focused on Denis this season. When the Stanley Cup resided in Tampa last season, the bull’s eye was on the entire team. Now that it has been relocated to Carolina, the bull’s eye has gotten a lot smaller.

It’s all on the back of Marc Denis.

Your No. 1 Source for Southern Hockey