2017-18 Bench Life NHL Previews: 4. Tampa Bay Lightning
Part 28 of 31 in our NHL previews where Ballantyne, Burgess and I rank each NHL team 1 through 31 and give you an outlook on their season. Each of our previews will be given to you in order of where we collectively power ranked that team.
Check out our other previews:
#31. Colorado Avalanche , #30. Vegas Golden Knights, #29. Vancouver Canucks, #28. Detroit Red Wings, #27. New Jersey Devils, #26. Arizona Coyotes, #25. Buffalo Sabres, #24. Winnipeg Jets, #23. New York Islanders, #22. Florida Panthers, #21. Los Angeles Kings, #20. Carolina Hurricanes, #19. Philadelphia Flyers, #18. New York Rangers, #17. Calgary Flames, #16. Boston Bruins, #15. Ottawa Senators, #14. San Jose Sharks, #13. Toronto Maple Leafs, #12. St. Louis Blues, #11. Montreal Canadiens, #10. Edmonton Oilers, #9. Columbus Blue Jackets, #8. Anaheim Ducks, #7. Dallas Stars, #6. Chicago Blackhawks, #5. Minnesota Wild
Record: 42-30-10 (94 points) 5th in Atlantic Division (18th in NHL)
GPG: 2.80 (14th)
GAPG: 2.73 (16th)
PP%: 22.8% (6th)
PK%: 81.4% (13th)
Corsi For %: 51.0% (9th)
Last season was a huge disappointment for the Lightning. Tampa went into the year as Stanley Cup favourites but had their aspirations derailed by long-term injuries to Stamkos and Callahan, while enduring merely average seasons turned in by both of their goalies. A slow start to the season led to GM Steve Yzerman dumping Valteri Filppula, Brian Boyle and Ben Bishop at the trade deadline only to see the team make a surprise last-ditch playoff push. At season’s end, in spite of missing two key players for the majority of the season and selling off key pieces at the trade deadline, the Lightning only missed the playoffs by 1 point. This is a testament to just how talented and resilient they are, but it makes the result all the more disappointing.
List of Key Additions: Dan Girardi, Chris Kunitz, Mikhail Sergachev
List of Key Departures: Jonathan Drouin, Jason Garrison
While there weren’t too many flashy moves in the offseason, a healthy season from Stamkos and Callahan would be key additions from last season. This is the first year where Ben Bishop isn’t Tampa’s starting goalie on opening night since 2013, but management seems to be confident that Andrei Vasilevskiy is ready to be “the guy”.
Of the moves they did make the Drouin for Sergachev swap already appears to be worth it. While Drouin is only 22 years old and supremely skilled, the Lightning were deep enough on the wing to make this deal happen. Sergachev has gotten off to a very hot start to this season with 12 points in 15 games and looks to be a future star on Tampa’s blueline. So far he has more than made up for the loss of veteran defenseman Jason Garrison to Vegas in the Expansion Draft.
Chris Kunitz on a one year, $2 mil contract is relatively cheap forward depth who can play top six minutes when needed. As for the Dan Girardi signing… well Dan Girardi just isn’t very good. He is one of the worst possession players in the NHL and is only getting slower at age 33. With most of their key players locked in to long-term contracts, the Lightning can afford to eat his two year deal with an AAV of $3mil. But for a contending team with $1,701,522 of projected cap space (via Cap Friendly) this is just irresponsible spending on Yzerman’s part. It’ll be tough to manage a midseason upgrade to fine-tune this team for a playoff run.
Team MVP: Nikita Kucherov
I don’t know about you, but Kucherov kind of snuck up on me. I always knew he was a good player, but I was actually surprised to see just how good he has been when I checked his hockeyDB page. The 24 year-old has become one of the NHL’s most prolific goal-scorers and truly proved his place among the NHL’s elite with a 40 goal, 85 point 2016-17 season. He’s got speed to burn, a lightning-quick release and great offensive awareness. He is currently leading the NHL in goal scoring with 14 goals in his first 15 games. While that pace is definitely not sustainable, Kucherov is poised for a huge season. It’s pretty wild to think that Kucherov in just his fifth NHL season that Kucherov has surpassed Stamkos in both scoring prowess and even at the top of the Lightning’s team hierarchy.
Team’s Strength: One of the most talented teams on paper
This team has it all. While injuries have almost left him a forgetten man, Stamkos is still a bona fide star that a team can build around. After a thrilling 72 point 2016-17 campaign Victor Hedman has become the Norris trophy candidate people expected when he was drafted second overall to John Tavares in the 2009 draft. Those Nik Lidstrom comparisons casually thrown around when he was drafted aren’t as crazy now as they were at the time. Kucherov, Palat and Tyler Johnson, AKA “The Triplets”, are dynamic, young and exciting. At this point they are no longer sidekicks to Stamkos and pretty much fuel this juggernaut of an offense.
The rest of their roster is the perfect blend of youth and veterans. Brayden Point, Cedric Paquette and Vladislav Namestnikov are all still super young and offer Tampa cheap secondary scoring. Killorn, Callahan, Kunitz and JT Brown are a bit older but are perfect role players for this young team. Beyond Hedman, the blueline is pretty solid. Anton Stralman has been an awesome value pickup and continues to play steady and reliable on a AAV of $4.5 million. Sergachev and Dotchin play well above their age and, while underwhemling, Coburn and Girardi do offer veteran presence for these younger guys to lean on. Top to bottom this roster is extremely deep and talented.
Team’s Weakness: Trusting a young, unproven goalie
Vasilevskiy has long been touted as the Tampa Bay’s goalie of the future. The hulking Russian netminder has shown flashes of excellence in his young career, but has been blocked by the steady play of Ben Bishop. Since Bishop was shipped out at least year’s deadline, Vasilevskiy has finally been given the keys to the Lightning bus. His .917 SV% in 50 games last year will more than do the trick and Vasilevsky has already got off to a scorching hot start to this season to the tune of a .927 SV% in 11 games.
The Lightning look like legitimate contenders. Even if Vasilevskiy looks the part of a confident goalie in a small sample size, it is just so tough to fully entrust a 23 year-old to carry you come playoff time. Matt Murray and 2006 Cam Ward are the exception, not the rule. Below is a list of every Cup winning goalie since the lockout with their age when they won it.
|2009||Marc Andre Fleury||24|
While they were both incredibly young when they won the Cup, Ward and Murray both had proven starting goalies backing them up at the time. With Fleury and Martin Gerber sitting on the bench, both Pittsburgh and Carolina had veteran safety nets if anything went awry. The Lightning will have to see what the have in both Vasilevskiy and backup Peter Budaj this season to see if they can deliver during Tampa’s Cup-contending window.
This year the big rookie addition to this roster is hulking blueliner Mikhail Sergachev. While he may have come at the steep cost of Jonathan Drouin, Sergachev is already showing that he is a big-time playmaker. He has a hard shot, plays phsyical, is a strong skater, and plays with a maturity that just isn’t found in most 19 year olds. Last year he scored 43 points in 50 games for the OHL’s Windsor Spitfire and was the backbone of a team that ended up winning the 2017 Memorial Cup. This guy has Norris trophy level upside and is further along than most defensemen are at age 19. While it’s far too early to tell, this guy may make Montreal extremely regretful.
Key Player: Steven Stamkos
Once considered one of the NHL’s elite, injuries have robbed Stamkos of some of the superstar lustre that he once had. By the age of 22 Stammer had already won two Maurice Richard goal scoring titles and was the Hart Trophy runner-up in 2011-12. Between his sophomore season in 2009-10 and his second Richard trophy season in 2011-12, Stamkos averaged 0.63 goals per game and 1.15 points per game in 246 games. Since that 2011-12 age 21 season and last season Stamkos had suffered two serious injuries over that span and saw his scoring dip to 0.54 goals per game and 0.97 points per game in 261 games.
After a knee injury limited him to just 17 games last season, Stamkos has looked pretty healthy this year. Paired on a line with the offensive dynamo that is Nikita Kucherov, Stamkos has racked up an incredible 24 points in 13 games so far this season. It’ll be difficult to sustain this high level of production, but if this is a sign that Stamkos is all the way back then the Lightning should be ecstatic.
T. Waind: 1st
C. Burgess: 10th
B. Ballantyne: 6th
Injuries have robbed this young and talented Lightning team of getting over the hump. But I think it’s only a matter of time before this team gets the right breaks and makes a real push for the Cup. They are probably the NHL’s most talented roster on paper and you don’t need to squint too hard to see at least one Stanley Cup in their future. At the very least this will continue to be a very fun and exciting team to watch.