The Tampa Bay Lightning didn't quite match last year's brilliance but, considering the obstacles they faced this spring, they should be darned proud of what they accomplished.
They won two playoff rounds and reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final without Steven Stamkos, their best player. They went 9-2 without their second-best defenseman, Anton Stralman, before getting him back in for Game 2 against Pittsburgh. They lost their franchise goalie, Ben Bishop, in Game 1 against the Penguins and still pushed them to the brink. With a little more luck on the health front, the Bolts easily could've matched last season's Stanley Cup final appearance and maybe even won it all.
The 2015-16 season should thus be considered a resounding success. The Lightning also have a lot to look forward to going forward. Before we anoint them serious 2016-17 contenders, however, they have many problems to solve this off-season. Few if any GMs have a longer, more significant laundry list than Steve Yzerman. Tampa is the summer's most interesting team. Here are five crucial storylines to watch.
1. Steven Stamkos, obviously
Still sublimely skilled and only 26, Stamkos is arguably the most significant unrestricted free agent in hockey history. It's almost unheard of for an elite scorer still in his prime to hit the open market this young. For perspective, it took eight years and $80 million to keep Anze Kopitar from going to market, and Kopitar is three years older.
Speculation on whether No. 91 remains with the Lightning has run rampant all year, but it's time to kick the chatter into overdrive. First off, it's entirely possible he tops Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and hits the $11-million-per-year stratosphere, as Stamkos making it to the free-agent negotiation window means suitors can start a bidding war and drive up his price. The blood-clot scare, which cost him all but one playoff game, could shave his price tag down ever so slightly, but merely suiting up for Game 7 sent a strong message. It said the clot was under control enough that it didn't "cost him his season." Blood-clot problems can become chronic, as Pascal Dupuis sadly can attest, but the guess here is Stamkos still becomes hockey's highest-paid player.
But will it be Tampa Bay that pays him? It's the off-season's No. 1 question. Considering how many high-impact Lightning players require new contracts over the next two summers, it may not be prudent to invest Kopitar-like sum and term into 'Stammer.' The Lightning were a win away from the Cup final without him. With a healthy Bishop, might they have gone all the way even sans-Stamkos?
2. Is Jonathan Drouin now a franchise pillar?
Talk about a roller-coaster year. Drouin started the season looking like he'd develop into the star he was supposed to be when Tampa drafted him third overall in 2013. He ripped off six points in his first five games playing on Stamkos' line. But coach Jon Cooper eventually demoted Drouin to the bottom six forwards. That, plus a couple years' worth of odd usage and broken promises, led to Drouin's mid-season trade request and subsequent departure from AHL Syracuse after being sent down. He felt like a lock to be dealt by the deadline or at least this off-season. After Drouin wasn't moved by March, he reported back to Syracuse and ripped off nine goals and 10 points in 10 games. Stamkos' blood clot shuffled up the Bolts' depth chart and thrust Drouin back into Tampa's top six. Including the AHL, the end of the NHL regular season and the playoffs, he has 26 points in his past 29 games of pro hockey.
Drouin was a crucial contributor in Tampa's playoff run, using his speed and creativity. On many nights he was the Bolts' best forward. He suddenly looks like an indispensable piece of their future, and he said after Game 7 he expects to be back next season.
Drouin is a restricted free agent next summer. The sample size likely remains too small for a long-term commitment right now, and the paint hasn't yet dried on the mended fences, but Drouin could change that with a breakout 2016-17 campaign, which suddenly seems likely. Tampa needs him, especially if Stamkos leaves.
3. Time to trade goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy…or Ben Bishop?
The Lightning, like the Penguins and Anaheim Ducks, find themselves in a fascinating goalie pickle. The threat of a 2017 expansion draft looms, and teams probably can only protect one goaltender if and when it happens. Like the Pens with Marc-Andre Fleury, the Lightning have a great starter in Bishop. He was arguably the league's best, most consistent goalie this season. But he also makes $5.95 million annually and will command a raise when his contract expires a year from now. The 6-foot-7, 216-pound Bishop also has suffered significant late-season injuries three straight seasons. A torn ligament cost him the entire 2014 playoffs; a torn groin cost him a game and hindered his play in the 2015 Cup final; and a leg injury knocked him out of the 2016 post-season in Round 3.
The Lightning also boast one of the game's most promising young goaltenders in Andrey Vasilevskiy, who has acquitted himself decently in surprise spot duty two straight post-seasons. It might make sense for Yzerman to pursue a trade involving one of his two goalies, but we shouldn't automatically assume the younger, less proven Vasilevskiy is the one to go. There are merits to moving Bishop, too.
4. How much money does Nikita Kucherov get as a restricted free agent?
Kucherov is special, more special than anyone seemed to realize on draft day 2011, when he slipped to the bottom of the second round. He built on a 28-goal season with 30 this year, and he was a monster in the playoffs, with nine goals in his first 10 games and 11 goals and 19 points in 17 games overall. He's still just 22. He's becoming one of the NHL's premier snipers. He's an RFA, and he's more than earned a long-term deal. How much does he get?
Vladimir Tarasenko's eight-year, $60-million pact is a decent starting point. Kucherov hasn't quite reached Tarasenko's regular-season statistical benchmarks, but Kucherov has 21 goals and 41 points in 43 playoff games over the past two seasons and is two years younger. He has enough leverage to ask for Tarasenko money. Kucherov's impending mega-deal is a major reason why committing even more money to Stamkos might not be the wisest ideal for Tampa Bay.
5. When should Tampa lock up its 2017 free agents?
More reasons to calmly walk away from the Stamkos Sweepstakes: Yzerman has to re-up most of the Lightning core over the next two summers. Kucherov, Alex Killorn, J.T. Brown, Vlad Namestnikov, Cedric Paquette and Nikita Nesterov are RFAs this off-season. Next summer, however, things get really hairy. Franchise blueliner Victor Hedman becomes a UFA and will deserve a contract comparable to P.K. Subban's, which pays $9 million annually. Checking center Brian Boyle is also a UFA. Drouin and Vasilevskiy are RFAs.
Kucherov's Triplet Line cronies, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, become RFAs next summer, too. They carry $3.33-million cap hits at the moment and should at the very least vault into $5-million territory. It may be wise for Yzerman to lock them up now, as they're both coming off down years. The price could skyrocket if they bounce back in 2016-17. And signing Johnson and Palat early would allow Stevie Y to focus his energy on the all-important Hedman deal next summer.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin