The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. Today, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Stanley Cup odds: 12-1
Key additions: Mikhail Sergachev, D; Dan Girardi, D; Chris Kunitz, LW
Key departures: Jonathan Drouin, C; Jason Garrison, D; Kristers Gudlevksis, G
How good can Steven Stamkos be again?
He’s coming off another lost season due to injury, but as Stamkos himself has maintained, he is still in the prime years of his career. What’s more, the injuries and maladies he has gone through in the past four seasons have been of the freakish variety, as opposed to the chronic. So despite his recent track record, there is nothing to indicate that Stamkos is susceptible to another fracture or sprain; he could play all 82 games for five more seasons and no one would bat an eye.
Plus, his Lightning mates are also healthy and he has some great depth around him. The elevation of Nikita Kucherov in particular makes the Bolts one of the best contenders in the East, and certainly the top threat in the Atlantic Division. With Tampa Bay’s ability to spread out their skill, we will get an accurate representation of Stamkos’ skills this year – if teams focus on shutting him down, another line will be there to make the enemy pay.
Can Stamkos get back to pushing for Rocket Richard trophies? He’ll have stiff competition from the likes of Patrik Laine and other young guns…but it will be fun to watch Stamkos try, that’s for sure.
The Lightning played most of last season without their captain, all-world sniper Steven Stamkos, and had holes on the blueline as well as goaltending woes. Yet Tampa Bay finished one point out of the playoffs – and you know the Bolts would’ve been a tough out had they made it to the dance. So, healthy, hungry and ready to rebound, there may not be a more fearsome group in the Eastern Conference.
Stamkos’ return alone is enough to lift the Lightning to great heights. The power play, for example, should be absolutely lethal. Stamkos might not even be the Bolts’ biggest threat, though. Nikita Kucherov continues to establish himself as a superstar scorer, and he’s improved his goal and point totals in each of his four NHL seasons. His 40 goals and 85 points came without the aid of Stamkos, so imagine if the two played together. They could easily form the league’s highest-scoring duo. The final piece of the championship puzzle is Andrei Vasilevskiy proving his mettle as a No. 1 goalie. If he’s the real deal, there may be nothing standing between the Lightning and the Stanley Cup.
Tampa Bay’s pursuit of a top-four D-man to strengthen the back end has been no secret. Unfortunately, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman swung and missed at the deadline and struck out on the big names in free agency. The Bolts did manage to land prospect Mikhail Sergachev in the trade that sent Jonathan Drouin to Montreal, but the only other notable addition was Rangers castoff Dan Girardi.
The defense corps has high-end impact with Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, whether they play together or not, but there are questions about the depth. Girardi is best used as a third-pairing penalty kill specialist, Braydon Coburn has seen better days, Andrej Sustr remains unproven as a top-four defender, and Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek haven’t yet seen a full slate of NHL duty. That the Lightning have no ready-made second pairing, plus a lack of depth, will put pressure on players, including the 19-year-old Sergachev, to step into bigger roles than they’re prepared for or capable of filling. If Vasilevskiy provides only average goaltending, a lackluster defense will be the glaring weakness on an otherwise spectacular team.
THN’s PREDICTION: 1st in the Atlantic. With all hands on deck again, the Lightning will be the toast of the Atlantic and a potential Eastern Conference playoff champ. As long as Vasilevskiy can hold his own in net, this team has it all.
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