The Tampa Bay Lightning (42-30-10, 94 points) missed the playoffs last season because of the loss of forwards Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan and their midseason erratic play. Despite going 8-1-1 in their final ten games, they missed the postseason finishing just one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second wild card spot m the Eastern Conference.
If Stamkos and Callahan can stay healthy, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy seizes the number one job and Yanni Gourde, Adam Erne or Matthew Peca make a large contribution, this could be a special season for the Bolts.
Also, the special teams must improve from the last few seasons. According to NHL:.com:
Tampa Bay improved from being among the least effective on special teams in terms of shot-based metrics to being about the NHL average the past three seasons.
In 2014-15, the Lightning averaged 73.24 shot attempts per 60 minutes on the power play (last in the NHL) and allowed 105.07 per 60 minutes while shorthanded (27th), according to Natural Stat Trick.
They improved those numbers slightly to 84.82 on the power play (26th) and 100.1 while shorthanded (24th) in 2015-16 before averaging 96.84 with the man-advantage (16th) and 98.82 on the penalty kill (15th) last season.
There remains room for improvement, but the underlying numbers make it clear that Tampa Bay is trending in the right direction.
The Offense – By Alexis Boucher
With the Lightning poised to open training camp in a few short weeks, it’s only natural to start thinking about how the team will measure up when the season does start. There are a few key things that the forward corps needs in order to put the team in the best position to make the playoffs and continue their quest for the Stanley Cup.
First and foremost they need to stay healthy. The entire Lightning team was ravaged by injury last season. Not a single player skated in all 82 games. One player whose absence was painfully felt was that of captain Steven Stamkos. He played just 17 games before sustaining a meniscus tear in his right knee that would sideline him for the rest of the 2016-17 campaign. The Bolts could definitely have used his leadership, his skill in the faceoff circle, and his scoring ability. Ryan Callahan skated in just 18 games over the course of the season as he recovered from lingering hip issues.
Some key departures at the trade deadline haven’t changed the complexion of the Lightning’s top six forwards all that much. Coming out of camp it’s likely to be some combination of Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point, and Alex Killorn. In order to keep his spot in the top six Killorn needs to capture some of the brilliance he’s shown in the post season. Overall he’s been one of Tampa Bay’s healthiest players since transitioning to the NHL in 2012-13. His 19 goals in 2016-17 were a career high. He scored nine goals in the 2015 playoffs alone so he’s definitely capable of an offensive touch.
Only two players had at least 40 goals and 40 assists last season: Nikita Kucherov (40 goals, 45 assists in 74 games) and Sidney Crosby (44 goals, 45 assists in 75 games). The 24-year-old Kucherov finished third in points per game (1.15; minimum 65 games) behind Connor McDavid (1.22) and Crosby (1.19) and third in power-play points (32) behind Nicklas Backstrom (35) and Lightning teammate Victor Hedman (33). Kucherov is a superstar. His rising star coupled with Stamkos’ return will be electric.
During the latter part of his career with the Penguins, Chris Kunitz played the role of a third line grinder. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising if he found his way into the top grouping if he clicked with Stamkos. Kunitz was known to skate with some very elite company in Pittsburgh from time to time.
Though Ryan Callahan had been slotted into the top two lines in the past it’s hard to make a case for him there heading into the new season. His grit, hard-nosed play, and willingness to block shots were sorely missed but it’s hard to argue that his style is one of the things that contributed to his lengthy absence. His age, history of injuries, and long recovery mean there are too many unknowns to accurately predict where he may land in the lineup.
While there are still plenty of familiar faces, there are quite a few kids who look to stake their claim on a permanent spot in the show. Last year’s steady stream of injuries showcased the organization’s depth and those young players almost got the team into the playoffs despite their inexperience. It wouldn’t be surprising to see guys like Adam Erne and Matthew Peca challenging for roster spots out of camp either. Both of them looked more than up to the task during call ups last season. Erne, a tough yet skilled forward scored three goals in 26 games played.
Yanni Gourde was a revelation in his time with the parent club, scoring six goals and dishing two assists in 20 games. He’s a smart playmaker who isn’t afraid to go into tough areas. He also isn’t afraid to capitalize on opportunities. Look no further than his second career NHL goal, the overtime winner against Chicago on March 27th 2017:
In recent years the Lightning have been at their most dangerous when rolling four lines that can be consistent scoring threats. While there’s been a change in personnel they don’t seem to be in a definitively worse position than they were before trades earlier in the year. If key players can stay healthy, new faces can contribute, and kids from the system continue to live up to their promise the rest of the league should be on notice that the Bolts are back in a big way.
The Defense – By Benjamin Woodward
Entering the campaign with five of last year’s seven defensive regulars returning for another season, the Lightning will hope that continuity, and a potential injection of youth will help pave the way for a strong and stable blueline in 2017.
Anchoring the back-end once again will be perennial Norris Trophy contender Victor Hedman. Arguably the most dynamic defender to don a Lightning sweater since the turn of the century, Hedman will once again be relied upon heavily in 2017-18. If Tampa Bay is to make a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final, Hedman will have to be one of the most significant contributors to the effort.
With Hedman skating alongside fellow Swedish countryman Anton Stralman, the Lightning possesses one of the most dangerous two-way defense tandems in the entire hockey world. There really isn’t much else that needs to be said about these two; when healthy they are two of Tampa Bay’s most indispensable players.
Behind the top-pair things begin to get a little messy. From an offensive skill and upside standpoint, the most important defender on the roster behind Hedman and Stralman is newly-acquired prospect Mikhail Sergachev. A 19-year-old left-handed shooting rearguard from Western Russia, Sergachev was the key piece returned to Tampa Bay in the summer blockbuster trade of Jonathan Drouin. While he is certain to undergo the growing pains typical of a teenager adjusting to life in the NHL, Sergachev’s offensive ability is enormous and his ceiling appears to be that of a future number-one defender. It is imperative that the Lightning provide Sergachev with a steady and reliable partner to help make up for any potential deficiencies in the early-going. While he does shoot left-handed and would have to play on his off side, veteran stalwart Braydon Coburn is still far and away the most trustworthy option for this role.
The clear focus of Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman‘s to-do list right now should be to improve upon his team’s depth on the back-end. Beyond the top-four aforementioned defensemen, the Lightning roster is bereft of established NHL regulars. 24-year-old Jake Dotchin‘s continued development would certainly help alleviate this need, as he proved stable and effective in 35 appearances down the stretch last year. Even if all goes to plan there, however, they still need to find him a consistently effective partner.
Slater Koeokkoek is a potential running mate for Dotchin on the third pair, but at this point, he’s going to have to prove himself as an NHL player before we go ahead and pencil him in for any type of meaningful role. Free agent signee Dan Girardi is another option but has seen his skill set deteriorate significantly over the past couple of seasons and should not stand in the way of playing time that could aid in the development of Sergachev or Dotchin. If head coach Jon Cooper is not opposed to combining another pair of defenders who shot from the same side, the most ideal third unit the Lightning could assemble would be a pairing of Dotchin and four-year veteran Andrej Sustr.
The Goalies – By Christine Gunn
In the all too recent past, goaltenders who have suited up for the Tampa Bay Lightning have not fully lived up to the hype. Mike Smith crumbled, Dwayne Roloson’s age caught up to him in the end, and Anders Lindback wasn’t ready for a starting job.
In the summer of 2012, after finishing third in the Southeast Division and not qualifying for the playoffs, the Lightning used the draft pick they received in return from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Kyle Quincey instead of trading it away again. Bolts GM Steve Yzerman walked to the podium and selected highly-touted goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy 19th overall.
Immediate analysis from TSN called it a “smart pick,” but also noted that “this guy has played so well internationally but there have been some certain key games where he has gotten pulled.” What would this 18-year old goaltender from Tyumen, Russia actually bring to a team that was lacking any sort of stability in goal at the time? How much depth could he really provide?
Vasilevskiy had just come off of a rocky World Juniors, in which he began as the starting goaltender for Russia. He was pulled late in the game against Canada, after making 100+ straight saves in the tournament. He was pulled after allowing four goals in 4 minutes and 57 seconds in the third period. Andrei Makarov would finish the game, win it for the Russians and then played in the gold medal game versus Sweden, where Russia would lose and take home the silver medal.
The NHL would have the following season shortened due to a work stoppage, and Vasilevskiy remained with Tolpar Ufa, the minor league KHL team of Salavat Yulaev Ufa, earning a 17-6-4 record, have a GAA of 1.93 and a SV% of .930.
Steve Yzerman made a bold decision to trade forward Cory Conacher and a fourth round pick to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for goaltender Ben Bishop. Bishop made his debut with the Lightning on April 4, 2013, shutting out the Carolina Hurricanes 5-0 in Raleigh. Just 11 days later, Bishop would sign a two-year extension with the Lightning, momentarily solidifying their problem between the pipes.
The Lightning began the 2013-2014 season riding high, which was soon to be halted by an injury to star center Steven Stamkos. On November 11, 2013, going into the day tied for most goals during the regular season, Stamkos suffered a broken right tibia after crashing into one of the goalposts during play against the Boston Bruins. He would miss 45 games and was not cleared to play again until March 5, 2014.
While Bishop put up great numbers at home, earning himself a Vezina Trophy nomination, Vasilevskiy was still in Russia, this time playing in the KHL Club. He appeared in 28 games for Salavat, posting a 14-8-5 record, 2.21 GAA and .923 SV%. Salavat went on to the KHL playoffs where he would suit up for 18 games, go 9-9 and see his GAA go to 1.99, and his SV% pop up to .934.
On May 6, 2014, the first off-season transaction involved the Lightning signing their highly touted goaltender Vasilevskiy to a three-year, entry level contract. Coming into that season, Vasilevskiy was rated as the team’s top goaltending prospect, surpassing Latvian Kristers Gudlevskis and Minnesota Gopher Adam Wilcox. Andrei would spend a majority of his season in Syracuse playing in 25 games with the club and going 14-6-5 with a 2.45 GAA and a .917 SV%.
In February, then backup Evgeni Nabokov would be traded to the San Jose Sharks, making way for Vasilevskiy to assume the back-up role with the club. Together, Bishop and Vasilevskiy would backstop the team to a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with Vasilevskiy going 7-5-1 with a 2.36 GAA and .918 SV% heading into the playoffs.
It was there that Vasilevskiy would get his first chance at grabbing the starter role he was destined to have. After rolling though three Original Six teams in the preliminary rounds of the playoffs, the Lighting made it to the Stanley Cup Final taking on the heavily favored Chicago Blackhawks. In the second period of Game 2, Bishop would tear his right groin muscle saving a shot from Brad Richards. In the third period, Bishop would leave the game at 7:17, and Vasilevskiy would enter. Just a minute and a half later at 8:49 he would return to action and finish the game, securing a 4-3 win for the Bolts. Vasilevskiy would appear in a total of 4 games in that playoff run, going 1-1 with a 3.19 GAA and .895 SV%. The Lightning would lose the Stanley Cup to the Blackhawks
A year later, another injury to Bishop would thrust Vasilevskiy into the spotlight. In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final against Pittsburgh Bishop would go behind the net to play the puck, but the Penguins swarmed forcing Big Ben to rush back and secure his position in front of the net, stretching out his leg to stop a Patric Hornqvist rebound attempt. Immediately, Bishop fell to the ice and grasped at his leg, soon being stretchered off the ice and would be out the remainder of the series.
Vasilevskiy made 25 saves in relief during Game 1 and helped the Lightning win 3-1. After that, it was the Andrei Vasilevskiy show. After appearing in 24 games for the Lightning in the regular season, going 11-10-0 with a 2.76 GAA and .910 SV%, he would backstop the Lightning in the playoffs a total of 8 times, going 3-4 with a 2.76 GAA and a .925 Sv%. Pittsburgh would go on to win the series, and eventually the Stanley Cup, but that series set Vasilevskiy up for the future.
The 2016-2017 season for the Tampa Bay Lightning saw Vasilevskiy play in a personal high 50 games going 23-17-7 with a 2.61 GAA and a .917 SV%. After failing to trade Bishop in the summer, the Lightning started the season with the Bishop/Vasilevskiy tandem, but would again lose Bishop to a lower body injury in December forcing Vasilevskiy to take the starter role.
Backups were swapped between Gudlevskis and Wilcox, but were rarely used as the coaching staff chose to ride Vasilevskiy as much as they could. Vasilevskiy, struggled through the middle of last season and lost six consecutive starts from Jan 3-19.
When the February trade deadline approached, the Lightning traded Bishop and a fifth round pick to the Los Angeles Kings for goaltender Peter Budaj, and defenseman Erik Cernak.
Budaj, who had been a mainstay in the NHL since the 2005-2006 season, had recently come off a solid year in Los Angeles, appearing in a total of 53 games since full-time starter Jonathan Quick had gone down with a lower body injury in the first game of the season. Quick was out subsequently for the next four and a half months, returning to action on February 25.
In gaining an NHL starting role for the first time since 2011 with the Avalanche (15-21-4, 3.20 GAA, .895 SV%), Budaj responded in recording his best statistical year in the league (27-2-3, 2.21 GAA, .917 SV%). Having posted 27 wins and a career best seven shutouts in 53 games, Budaj was returned to the backup role upon Quick’s return and traded the next day.
Budaj would go on to play in seven games for the Lightning, serving as a backup to Vasilevskiy recording a 3-1-0 record, with a 2.80 GAA and .898 SV%. He was signed to a two-year contract extension on June 22.
Vasilevskiy, on the other hand, would use the rest of the regular season going 12-4-2, being tied for most wins over that stretch, with a .930 SV% and a 2.27 GAA, but the Lightning would fall just short of a playoff spot. He became more comfortable between the pipes, his confidence grew, and he solidified his spot as the number one goalie.
After spending three seasons as the backup to Ben Bishop, Andrei Vasilevskiy is set to start the 2017-2018 season as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s full-time starter. He has big shoes to fill; Bishop holds almost every major goaltending record in Tampa Bay Lightning history.
Bringing in and securing Peter Budaj for the young starter can only serve Vasilevskiy well. A true veteran leader, who has seen action with a total of five teams over the last 12 years, the 34-year-old Czech can take the 23 years old Russian under his wing.
With no glaring available options in Syracuse waiting, it is up to Vasilevskiy and Budaj to hold down the fort for the big club. “I already know this season it’s going to be more on me. It’s going to be more responsibilities for me,” Vasilevskiy said in a statement. “I’m ready.”
It’s worth noting that, this will be his first season as a full-time starter, but if Vasilevskiy can pick up where he left off last season during the playoff push, he could very well be on track to becoming one of the top goaltenders in the National Hockey League and could find himself breaking and making records all his own.
Despite missing the playoffs last season, expectations for Tampa Bay are high and should be. The Stanley Cup window is still open and the work done by GM Steve Yzerman and hockey operations has put the Lightning on the verge of greatness.