Five storylines that make the Lightning the off-season’s most interesting team

Jonathan Drouin and Steven Stamkos.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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.

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Five free agents who have spiked their dollar values in the 2016 playoffs

Matt Larkin
Troy Brouwer celebrates his goal (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Busting out with big performances in the playoffs can significantly impact players’ paycheques in seasons to come if they hit free agency directly after their spring heroics, small sample sizes be damned. Look at what Bryan Bickell got after the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2013. The big fella scored nine goals in 23 playoff games. He was 27, and his career regular-season high at the time was 17 goals, but he was a big part of the 2013 championship run and thus earned himself a pretty penny. It cost Chicago four years at a $4-million cap hit to keep Bickell. He’s since become an albatross for GM Stan Bowman.

We’re seeing a similar bust-out effort from another hulking winger this season who happened to win a Stanley Cup of his own with Chicago in the past: Troy Brouwer of the St. Louis Blues. We know he’ll get a big payday as an unrestricted free agent this summer. Which other pending UFAs have earned extra dollars thanks to their playoff performances? Here are five names to consider. I’ve ruled out the restricted free agents, as there are too many soon-to-get-richer youngsters to count, from Nikita Kucherov to Jonathan Drouin to Jaden Schwartz. This also isn’t just a list of the best UFAs, period. Kyle Okposo, for example, played well in the post-season, but he was due a massive July payday anyway, and his strong effort in two rounds for the Isles didn’t change that.

Let’s focus on the UFAs who have increased their projected dollar figures specifically because of their work in these playoffs.

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Patrick Wiercioch gone in Ottawa? Sounds like Pierre Dorion’s not messing around

Ryan Kennedy
Patrick Wiercioch  (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Defenseman Patrick Wiercioch may be headed to unrestricted free agency a little early if a report by the Ottawa Sun‘s Bruce Garrioch comes to fruition. According to Garrioch, there are major rumblings that the Ottawa Senators will not qualify the pending restricted free agent this summer, forcing the defenseman onto the open market.

Wiercioch would cost the Sens at least $2.7 million should Ottawa choose to qualify him and based on his recent returns, that’s a lot of money. At a lower cap hit (which any team could sign the blueliner to this summer) there is certainly some value in the 25-year-old, but new Senators GM Pierre Dorion seems to be taking a decisive stance early in his tenure. And I like it.

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‘I’m never sore. I never get tired.’ Jaromir Jagr, 44, wants to be even better next year for Panthers

Matt Larkin
Jaromir Jagr. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

We listened and waited for Jaromir Jagr to finish laughing.

There should be no sweeter sound to a Florida Panther fan right now. Jagr spoke to reporters, including THN, on a conference call Friday a day after signing a one-year, $4-million extension with the Florida Panthers, and he had a case of the giggles. He couldn’t take seriously the concept of his body breaking down. That’s how good he feels physically, at 44, after completing his 22nd NHL season. Aging is so far off the radar that he perceives the idea almost as a joke if asked about it.

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So where exactly do the New York Rangers go from here?

Henrik Lundqvist  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

When the New York Rangers cleaned out their stalls Tuesday morning, defenseman Dan Boyle cursed out a couple of reporters he felt were unfairly critical of him and refused to start his breakup interview until they left the scrum. We’re going to chalk that up to a proud veteran who is going down swinging and will probably look at that incident after second sober thought with regret.

But in a way, Boyle and his rant – which will almost certainly be his last as an NHL player – provide a microcosm of the situation that is facing his soon-to-be-former team. Boyle could have gone quietly into the night or he could have come out with one last flurry. He chose the latter.

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Semyon Varlamov says Avalanche are ‘waiting for Alexander Radulov.’ Can they sign him?

Matt Larkin
Alexander Radulov (Sergey Mihailicenko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The NHL off-season has already begun for eliminated NHL teams. Among them are the Colorado Avalanche, and their starting goalie, Semyon Varlamov, has begun some personal free agent recruiting.

The man Varlamov wants in an Avs jersey next year: KHL superstar and former NHLer Alexander Radulov, who reportedly wants to try his hand at the NHL again. Radulov doesn’t have much left to accomplish in his native Russia. He’s a league MVP, a scoring champion and a Gagarin Cup winner. He was alternately tantalizing and frustrating in his two seasons with the Nashville Predators plus a brief return in 2012, so he has unfinished business in the NHL. He has good years left at 29 and, unlike in his previous comeback attempt, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent.

Varlamov, Radulov’s countryman, is home in Russia for the World Championship right now. According to translated quotes from Russian writer Slava Malamud, Varlamov told Russian newspaper Sport Express this week the Avalanche are “waiting for Radulov. He’ll be one of the leaders there.” Varlamov added, “All (Radulov) needs to do is dial Patrick (Roy) and his return will happen. I hope we can win the Cup with him.”

Say we accept that a Radulov signing will happen. Does it make sense?

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Canucks sign top prospect Thatcher Demko. When will we see him in the NHL?

Matt Larkin
Thatcher Demko. (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

Take a deep breath, Vancouver Canucks fans. Thatcher Demko did not pull a Jimmy Vesey.

Goaltender Demko, 20, officially signed with the team that drafted him Wednesday, as announced by the Canucks. He’s now a professional hockey player and will forego his senior year at Boston College.

The move makes sense for Demko, who has nothing left to prove at the NCAA level. He went 27-8-4 with a 1.88 goals-against average, .935 save percentage and 10 shutouts this season. That latter stat broke a school record set by Canucks alumnus Cory Schneider in 2005-06 and stands as the second-highest total ever for a college goalie in a single season.

Demko helped Boston College reach the Frozen Four and was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, a.k.a hockey’s Heisman Trophy. Demko even won the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top college netminder. He acquitted himself well starting for Team USA at the 2015 world juniors, posting a .934 SP, and he’s cracked USA’s 2016 World Championship roster, following the recent footsteps of Yankee netminders John Gibson and Connor Hellebuyck. Demko really needs a new challenge, and turning pro is exactly that.

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Life without Steven Stamkos ain’t so bad for the Lightning. HINT, HINT

Matt Larkin
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Lightning looked like a complete hockey team, a.k.a one not missing something or somebody, in Tuesday’s Game 4 victory over the Detroit Red Wings.

Tampa held Detroit to exactly two goals for a fourth straight contest. The Bolts converted three times on the power play, Nikita Kucherov twice and Ondrej Palat once, all assisted by Jonathan Drouin. They head back to Tampa Bay up 3-1 in their Atlantic Division semifinal having scored at least three goals in three of four games.

Would the Lightning be in better shape with captain and top goal scorer Steven Stamkos in the lineup? Of course. Same goes for top-pairing defenseman Anton Stralman. Pencil those two in and we’d probably have a sweep on our hands. But the Lightning have shown something noteworthy with regards to Stamkos, the game’s most famous unrestricted free agent ever: they are a damn good team with or without him.

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