USATSI_8671964_154158418_lowresThe Tampa Bay Lightning were just two victories shy of winning the Stanley Cup last season and you can bet that’s not sitting well. The club finished with a 50-24-8 record on the regular season, putting away a league-leading 32 home victories. They only lost eight games at the Amalie Arena, in fact, and will hope for more of the same success in 2015-2016.

2014-2015 confirmed a fact that many people already knew: this is a good hockey team. General manager Steve Yzerman has a lot of faith in his squad and for good reason. Tampa scored a league-leading 259 goals and allowed just 206. Steven Stamkos is the real deal and Yzerman’s immediate concern is to sign him to a long-term deal. He becomes a free agent in July of 2016 and, with training camp already underway, things are heating up in the rumour mills.

Ben Bishop is another big factor for the Lightning. The goalie proved himself and then some in the playoffs and he’s signed through the 2016-2017 season, but some are considering him a treasured trade carrot. Many are pointing to 21-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy as the future of goaltending in Tampa, which could make 2015-2016 a make-or-break season for Bishop.

Offence

Stamkos is the man in Tampa Bay and nobody in their right mind would argue otherwise. The 25-year-old from Markham had 72 points last season, including 43 goals. He scored 13 goals on the power play and had six game-winners. Stamkos likes to fire the puck high in the slot and can get a lot of chances, firing off 268 shots on goal in 2014-2015. In the playoffs, he had 18 points in 26 games.

Ondrej Palat is a terrific playmaker on the wing. He managed 63 points in 75 games last season and had five game-winners. The 24-year-old from Frydek-Mistek continues to be a valuable addition to the forward core, but Tampa would like him to shoot the wafer more. Moscow’s Nikita Kucherov had 65 points last season, including 29 goals. He added 22 points in 26 games in the post-season and was one of the Lightning’s most consistent scorers. Throw Tyler Johnson in the mix and you’ve got dynamite.

Jonathan Drouin has to have a decent year. He managed just 32 points in 70 games. He missed the preseason thanks to a fractured thumb and only played in six of Tampa’s 26 playoff games. And when Ryan Callahan was out in the post-season, head coach Jon Cooper went with Jonathan Marchessault instead of Drouin. Not to knock Cap-Rouge’s own Marchessault, but more is obviously expected from Drouin.

Defence

Starting with Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, it’s no secret that Tampa boasts one of the finest defensive units in the NHL. Hedman had 38 points in 59 games last season and managed 14 points in 26 playoff games. He averaged nearly 24 minutes a game in the post-season and is a fabulous skater for a man his size. He can play both a shutdown game and lead the offensive charge from his own zone.

Tibro’s Stralman had 39 points in 82 games and is one of the Lightning’s most reliable defenders when it comes to moving the puck and getting the offence going. He owns a searing point shot and can play point on the power play, which opens up a lot of opportunities. He averaged 22:30 in the post-season and potted nine points in 26 games.

Speaking of cracking point shots, Jason Garrison helps fill out this group. He had 30 points in 70 games, averaging 20 minutes of ice time. He took 111 shots in the regular season and added 31 in the post-season. Braydon Coburn continues to log big minutes, plus he plays that shutdown role Tampa is looking for. Throw in 30-year-old Matthew Carle for and you’re looking at a harmonious assembly of blueliners.

Goaltending

Bishop played in a whopping 62 games for the Lightning last season, posting a 2.32 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. He logged four shutouts and put together 40 wins. In the playoffs, he was even better with a 2.18 goals against average and a .921 save percentage. Plus he had three shutouts in 25 games. While it’s fun to talk shop, Bishop is a top-tier goaltender and Tampa would be ill-advised to consider parting with him. There, I said it.

Make no mistake about it, Vasilevskiy is an exciting prospect. The Tyumen-born netminder has just a year of NHL experience under his belt and played well, winning seven games last season and putting up a goals against average of 2.36 in the process. In the post-season, he saw time in four games and allowed a 3.19 goals against average with a .895 save percentage.

Prospects

Speaking of goaltenders, Tampa is going to be taking a long hard look at Kristers Gudlevskis this season. The 23-year-old backed up Vasilevskiy in Game Four of the Stanley Cup Final and saw ice time in relief of Anders Lindback in the 2014 post-season. Gudlevskis will be the top draw for Syracuse and will wait out the Bishop/ Vasilevskiy situation. Also, he played for Latvia in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

Slater Koekkoek could have a chance to make the team this year and not just because he has a rad name. The 21-year-old defenceman saw action in three games last season and can skate like the wind. He’s also a quality puck-mover, which makes him a threat from the defensive zone. The knock on Koekkoek has to do with defensive coverage, but that will come with experience.

The Path Ahead

Tampa has kept things copacetic going into 2015-2016 and that’s a good thing. This is an expectant team and they’re really firing on all cylinders. From Stamkos to the Triplets line to the deep defence to the quality netminding, the Lightning have covered all the bases and should be in it to win it. They have the grit and unbridled enthusiasm to win it all.

There’s also a lot to like about the future. The goaltending situation is in noble hands and there’s an exciting pool of prospects to work with. Yzerman has amassed quite a hockey team and it’s time to start seeing some dividends. Stamkos should hit the 40-or-more goal mark again this season and Bishop will prove his mettle once again. The rest is gravy. Sweet, sweet gravy.

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