“We’ve accomplished a lot and we’ve done a lot but at the same time that doesn’t really matter.This time of year, every team starts 0-0 and it doesn’t matter that we won a conference title two years ago. Whether we’re picked first or last we’re thinking we’re a team that’s going to win.” – Forward Tyler Johnson
Last season: 46-31-5 (97 points), PP%/PK%: 15.7% (28th) / 84.05% (7th). Goals For: 224 (12th in the NHL), Goals Against: 198 (5th in the NHL). Second place in the Atlantic Division and sixth in the Eastern Conference. One year after losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup final, Tampa Bay came within one game of returning to the Final.
Kristers Gudlevskis (Syracuse)
Breakout player: W.B. Philp – Jonathan Drouin – Drouin was fantastic in the playoffs after his recall, registering five goals and nine assists in 17 games, helping to propel the Lightning to the Eastern Conference finals. Drouin will start this season on the wing of sniper Steven Stamkos, a dream position for the young phenom whose production should reach the highest levels.
Jason Haas – Less of a breakout and more of a rebirth – Tyler Johnson will be back this year. With his wrist injury from the 2015 SCF now healed and with a full summer of training, expect Johnson to have 24 goals and 40 assists for 64 points. He won’t be a 70+ point player consistently as he was in 2014-15, but 60-65 points per year as a quintessential second line center certainly seems attainable.
Christine Gunn – Andrei Vasilevskiy — For too long, the Lightning had a conundrum of bad-luck between the pipes. Now with Bishop still likely to start the season with the Lightning, but not necessarily finish, this will be Andrei Vasilevskiy’s time to shine. He did incredibly well given the circumstances in the Eastern Conference Final against Pittsburgh. This will be his net in the not-too-distant future and he will shine under the spotlight and prove to everyone that he isn’t just a “reliable back-up” anymore… as long as the team puts pucks in the net on the other end of the ice.
Why they will win: The Lightning came within one win of making their second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance last season. Tampa Bay has an ebarassment of riches elite young talent. Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman are signed long term and Nikita Kucherov’s holdout will end soon. The Jonathan Drouin soap opera has ended and has worked out well for both sides. Tyler Johnson is rejuvenated after battling through injuries and the two-headed monster of Big Ben and Vasy in net is as good or better than any other goalie tandem in the NHL. That’s why 2017 will be the Bolts’ year. – W.B. Philp
Why they won’t win: This group of forwards has remained largely unchanged over the past two seasons. Hard to complain, right? Uber-talented with a Stanley Cup Final and Eastern Conference Finals appearance. But depth scoring has been a problem in the playoffs for this team. Vladislav Namestnikov – the exact kind of talent you need to bolster your scoring outside of the top six – totally fizzled with three points in 17 playoff games last year. The Lightning will absolutely lose if their bottom six fails to put some pucks in the net. Look for skill guys like Cory Conacher and Brayden Point to make a play for ice time over grinders like Erik Condra and Cedric Paquette. – Jason Haas
Prediction: W.B. Philp – First in the Atlantic, first in the Eastern Conference and Stanley Cup champion.
Jason Haas – Division – The battle of Florida will go down to the last week of the season with Montreal always nearby…but the Lightning will capture their third division title and first since 2003-04. Conference – While not quite at the top, the Lightning will finish second in the Eastern conference behind perpetual regular-season-juggernaut Washington. The point spread will be less than 7, though. Playoffs – This team is a perpetual Cup contender and the urgency to win now will finally come to fruition. While not at 2010 Blackhawks levels, the Lightning are going to lose 2-3 players next offseason due to the cap crunch and expansion draft. Why not fulfill your destiny in the meantime?
Christine Gunn – Division: First. Conference: Second in Points. Playoffs: Stanley Cup Final.
(Feature Photo/Christine Gunn)