COACH: Jon Cooper
2014-15 RECORD: 50-24-8, 108 points (second in Atlantic, lost to Blackhawks, 4-2, in Stanley Cup Final)
VITAL SIGNS: 3.2 goals per game (1st); 2.5 goals-against (12th), 18.8 power play pct (14th); 83.7 penalty kill pct (7th); PDO: 101.7 (2nd); Corsi For pct.: 51.3 (13th); Fenwick For pct.: 51.3 (13th); face-off pct.: 49.7 (16th)
NOTABLE ARRIVALS: F Erik Condra
NOTABLE DEPARTURES: F Brendan Morrow
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
Jonathan Drouin – Steven Stamkos – Ryan Callahan
Ondrej Palat – Tyler Johnson – Nikita Kucherov
Alex Killorn – Valtteri Filppula – Erik Condra
Vladislav Namestnikov – Brian Boyle — J.T. Brown
Victor Hedman – Anton Stralman
Jason Garrison – Matt Carle
Braydon Coburn — Andrej Sustr
Nikita Nesterov/Slater Koekoek
Andrei Vasilevskiy (injured)
OUTLOOK: It’s been seven years since a Stanley Cup runner-up returned to the Final the following season, and for good reason. The four-round trek is mentally and physically exhausting, and teams often lose key contributors to free agency or the salary cap before they can mount their second challenge.
The Lightning though are well situated to break that slump. They return virtually unchanged from last season—GM Steve Yzerman’s only major change was signing free-agent forward Erik Condra to replace Brenden Morrow in the bottom-six. The Bolts are also young and almost flawlessly deep. This is a team that was built to contend this season and for many more to come.
One year after leading the league in scoring, Tampa’ Bays top six might be even better in 2015-16. The 1A line features Steven Stamkos, the perennial Hart candidate, and the explosive Jonathan Drouin. The third pick in the 2013 draft was a healthy scratch in 20 of Tampa’s 26 playoff games, and a miserable –6 when he was on the ice, but he’s looked dynamic during the preseason and could be on the verge of a breakthrough season. If that line’s clicking, it could take some pressure off the Triplets, who accounted for 31 of Tampa Bay’s 65 goals in the playoffs and were the league’s top-scoring unit with 200 points in the regular season. The scary thing? At 25, 24 and 22, Johnson, Palat and Kucherov will only get better.
The back end is anchored by Norris candidate Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, whose play last spring will ensure that he’s never referred to as “underrated” again. They rank among the very best in the game. Ben Bishop gives the Bolts solid goaltending that can approach spectacular. The backup situation though will be fluid while Andrei Vasilevskiy recovers from blood clot issues. Latvian Olympic hero Kristers Gudlevskis will battle waiver pickup Kevin Poulin for relief minutes early on.
There are a few obstacles in the road. Stamkos and his contract situation—he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season—will loom over this team until it is addressed, one way or another. The Lightning also needs to address a power play that floundered under George Gwozdecky, the former assistant coach who was let go over the summer. But on paper anyway, the Bolts appear primed to dominate the East once again.
Brenden Morrow brought experience and energy to the fourth line, but he went pointless in the playoffs and produced only eight points during the regular season. Winger Condra, 29, scored nine goals and 23 points last season with Ottawa. Set for a bottom-six role, he could see his goal output increase while playing in the talented Tampa Bay offense.
PREDICTION: 110 points, first in Atlantic