We’re a week removed from the mania of NHL free agency and the draft and the summer can take many twists and turns from here, so take this for what it’s worth – but the rejigged Tampa Bay Lightning are earning an increasing amount of respect from THN staffers. In an informal poll of editorial employees in our palatial North Toronto offices Tuesday, more than a few of us spoke about how impressed we were with what Bolts GM Steve Yzerman has done thus far in the off-season.
Full disclosure: I was one of those more-than-a-few. In fact, barring some unforeseen multi-team blockbuster that sees Patrick Marleau, Duncan Keith and Jonathan Quick traded to the Penguins for Marcel Goc and Craig Adams, I’m ready to say it: I think the Lightning are going to be the Eastern Conference’s most dangerous team next season.
The Bolts were impressive enough in 2013-14 – finishing third in the East despite a catastrophic injury to superstar Steven Stamkos and despite the traumatic exit of franchise fixture and former captain Martin St-Louis. But Yzerman’s deft maneuvering under the salary cap has allowed him not only to retain the services of gritty winger Ryan Callahan, but also acquire a pair of experienced defensemen (Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison), a veteran backup goaltender (Evgeni Nabokov) and a big-bodied center (Brian Boyle) to supplement their talented core.
Yes, Tampa Bay will need their trio of second-year forwards (Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat) to avoid the sophomore jinx to beat out the likes of Boston and Montreal in their division, but remember, they’ll have Stamkos in the lineup for more than the 37 regular-season games he played for them after breaking his leg last year. They’ll also have junior phenom Jonathan Drouin and Nikita Kucherov (who spent part of last season in the American League) battling to establish themselves as full-time NHLers.
That said, it’s the Lightning’s defense corps that most impresses me. With the additions of Garrison and Stralman, I’d argue Tampa Bay has the East’s best set of blueliners 1-through-6. Yes, even better than Boston’s. The Bruins have the best defenseman on either team in Zdeno Chara, but the Bolts have Victor Hedman, Matt Carle, Eric Brewer and Radko Gudas – in other words, an excellent combination of youth, experience, finesse and ferocity – patrolling their back end. That ought to make goalie Ben Bishop’s job notably easier than it was last year.
Of course, because so many things can change a team’s fortunes between now and April, I’m not advising you to liquidate all your assets and wager the funds on the Lightning thrashing their conference rivals and making it to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in franchise history. However, I am saying there are 14 other teams in the East I’d be more willing to bet against at this point.
The Bolts have balance, top-end talent, youthful vigor and veteran knowhow. They’ve stockpiled enough on the prospect end – THN’s most recent Future Watch ranked their farm system as the NHL’s 10th-best – to allow them to pursue mid-season trades to address any deficiencies that arise, and they’ve got an owner in Jeff Vinik who has forked over more than enough money (including massive amnesty buyouts to Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Malone) to demonstrate he wants to win a Cup as badly as any member of the organization.
The Lightning might not be good enough to emerge victorious over the Western Conference champion next spring, but stranger things have happened. And St-Louis may yet come to regret demanding a trade from a team that has a far better shot at a championship than his depleted Rangers do now.