For the Tampa Bay Lightning, last season was the best of times and the worst of times. Despite blasting through the regular season with 62 wins and leaving all other NHL teams in their dust, the Lightning ran into the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs and were hastily swept right out of the picture.
“People are going to say whatever they want,” Steven Stamkos said. “Everyone loves to see people fail. Some people like to see people do well, but it’s a bigger story when it’s a failure. We still believe in this organization, this group.”
Tampa scored 325 goals last season, putting them 36 ahead of the second-ranked San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames. General manager Julien BriseBois made a few minor adjustments over the summer, trading J.T. Miller to the Vancouver Canucks for a pile of picks and signing defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk and forward Pat Maroon.
BriseBois also took care of Brayden Point, signing him to a three-year bridge deal worth $20.75 million. It’s not necessarily the contract the 23-year-old was after, but he’s now the holder of the highest three-year extension for an RFA ever. At least until the Jets and Patrik Laine close the gap. Point is expected to miss the start of the regular season after hip surgery. He should be in the lineup by late October.
Offence is not an issue. Tampa had five players with over 22 goals last season and three with over 41 goals. Point, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos led the charge. Stamkos was atop the leaderboard with 45 goals, his best since a 60-goal campaign in 2011-2012. His 98 points was a career-high, however, and exemplifies the fact that he’s yet to eclipse 100 points in a single season.
Kucherov led the team in points with 128, a career-high for the 26-year-old. The Maykop native won the Hart Trophy and marked his second straight season with at least 100 points. He leads the league in power play points over the last two seasons and is a sure bet for more this season, especially when Point gets back in the lineup.
Point’s chemistry with Kucherov is the stuff dreams are made of, with the Calgary native picking up a career-high 92 points in 79 games last season. The forward has plenty to prove and will want to earn whatever dollar amount comes after his bridge deal. That’s good news for the Lightning, as Point was second to Leon Draisaitl in shooting percentage last season.
Yanni Gourde took a step back last season, putting up just 48 points in 80 games. He exploded for 64 points in his first full season with Tampa in 2017-2018 and the Lightning are hoping to pull him back to form. He has it in him to be a sleeper pick for fantasy owners, particularly if others are looking hard at Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat to carry more of the load.
The Lightning allowed 222 goals against last season, sticking them third in the Eastern Conference behind the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders. They boast a mobile defence and that’s part of the plan, as the puck stays out of the defensive zone and away from Tampa’s net. With the likes of Victor Hedman and Shattenkirk tasked with pushing the action up ice, shots should be constrained.
Hedman and Shattenkirk are expected to be paired up to start the season, which could give a boost to the latter. The 30-year-old enters the picture with designs on rebounding after a tough run in New York. The former Ranger had his contract bought out and will be ready to prove himself in his new digs.
Mikhail Sergachev is also worth a look. The 21-year-old saw a slight production decline last season but should be set for a breakout year. He is an efficient stats-covering D-man, with loads of hits, blocks and shots in an average season. Sergachev is working out the kinks of his game and could return to the top power play unit, in which case his point totals will ascend once more.
Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Vezina Trophy last season thanks to a 39-10-4 record, a 2.40 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. He posted six shutouts. The 25-year-old is scary-good and probably not even in his prime yet. Look for him to pull more starts this season. Injuries limited him to a mere 53 last season.
Veteran Curtis McElhinney will be the backup. The Lightning inked him to a two-year deal after he spent 2018-2019 with the Hurricanes. The 36-year-old pulled off 33 starts with Carolina, a career-high, and he’ll pick up the slack in case Vasilevskiy gets injured. That could mean a curious spot for Louis Domingue, who headed back to the AHL just a few days ago after clearing waivers.
The Lightning have the tools to put points on the board and win hockey games. Of that there is no doubt. But pushing past misfortune in the playoffs is another matter. Tampa will have to find a way to put together a stronger front, especially when the chips are down. Still, I wouldn’t bet against them this season.
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