Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. Image by: Getty Images
A lethal offense will allow the Lightning to remain a Stanley Cup contender, but the difference between winning a championship and coming up short will be on the blueline.
Welcome to 2020 Vision, our new feature taking a look at how the roster of each NHL team may look three seasons from now when the 2019-2020 season begins.
Over the next month we’ll profile one team, in alphabetical order, each day and project what their roster (12 forwards, six defensemen, two goalies) will look like.
There were some ground rules for this exercise. We didn’t allow any blockbuster trades or free agent signings, but we did make assumptions about teams re-signing their own UFAs and RFAs.
Therefore, this isn’t intended to be a fantasy-like look at the league in 2019-20. Instead, since this is part of the THN Future Watch family, it’s meant to be a realistic, best-case-scenario projection for each team based on players already under contract, and prospects in their system.
bump in the road. That’s what the Lightning are hoping last season’s playoff miss was because this Tampa Bay team has what appears to be a fairly promising future. And, honestly, there’s no reason to believe the early summer in 2016-17 was anything more than a hiccup.
Reason No. 1 is the offense. The Lightning have established one of the most effective attacking cores in the league and there are no signs of the Tampa Bay offense slowing down.
Nikita Kucherov established himself as a super sniper in his rookie and sophomore campaigns, but he went out and blew the doors off of all projections when he put up 40 goals and 85 points this past season to lead the Tampa Bay offense. With that, it seems all prognostications of Kucherov’s ceiling need some recalibration, and we could be looking at a consistent 40-goal, 90-point threat over the next several seasons. Add to him Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, Kucherov’s twins that make up Tampa Bay’s Triplets, and the trio’s offensive acumen gives the Lightning a line that can go shot-for-shot with any in the league.
And we've yet to mention (a hopefully healthy) Steven Stamkos. When the Lightning captain is on top of his game, there’s no more lethal puck-firing, one-timing goal scorer in the league. Stamkos will be getting on in years by the 2019-20 campaign and closing in on his 30th birthday, but he should be no less an effective scorer. And if Tampa Bay can surround him with bright young talent — players such as Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph — Stamkos could end up the perfect triggerman for the Lightning’s next generation of playmakers.
Unfortunately, the defensive talent pool is much shallower, though the top-end talents should be enough to thwart the blueline blues. Victor Hedman seems a lock to stay in the Norris Trophy conversation for the foreseeable future and earning the top-rearguard nod could be a matter of when, not if, while Mikhail Sergachev, acquired this summer in a big trade that sent Jonathan Drouin to the Montreal Canadiens, projects to earn a spot in the lineup in the near future and fight for a top-pairing role. The key might be keeping some of the current pieces around, though, as the talent on the back end gets thin beyond Hedman and Sergachev. Anton Stralman will need a new contract before 2019-20 and it’d be worth bringing him back at the right price as he can be a stabilizing force on what may be an otherwise inexperienced defense.
The Lightning don’t know yet what they have in Andrei Vasilevskiy, either. His first season splitting time as the starter was only average, but Tampa Bay has faith that handing him the reins is the right move. He’s still young and has plenty of time to grow into the role, and if he can reward the Lightning’s confidence with play befitting a No. 1 netminder, Tampa Bay will have their sights set squarely on the Stanley Cup.
GOT IT: Even three seasons down the line, the firepower on the Lightning roster is remarkable. Stamkos is a 40-goal scorer with 50-goal potential when healthy. Kucherov looks like he can consistently put 40 on the board himself. Throw in Palat and Johnson and Tampa Bay has another 20 goals, and we haven’t even accounted for Point’s growth, what any of the young guns the Lightning have coming along can contribute or what Hedman and Sergachev can bring to the table offensively. The offense can be video game good and finish in the league’s top 10 in their sleep.
NEED IT: Retaining Stralman, which should be possible so long as he’s not seeking an exorbitant raise, will give the Lightning two veteran defensemen capable of bringing some stability to the blueline. Beyond the top pairing, though, Tampa Bay is awfully thin on veteran depth without spending money in free agency. No matter how well Sergachev develops, will he be ready to run his own pairing by the 2019-20 season? Without some additional help on the back end, the Lightning’s one weakness could continue to be their blueline.
CAP WATCH: Signing Johnson and Palat for a combined $10.3 million was a steal for the Lightning, and it’s a good thing, too. Given the way Kucherov performed in the first year of his three-year, $14.3-million contract, he’s going to be up for a big-money deal ahead of the 2019-20 campaign. We’re talking Stamkos money, if not more. Kucherov almost singlehandedly powered the Lightning in 2016-17 and if he continues that development path, earning $8 million-plus per season on his next contract seems a given.
Kucherov’s deal puts a bind on Tampa Bay’s books, though, as he’ll be earning a quarter of the $32 million in cap space the Lightning are presently projected to have come July 2019. Another portion of that money is going to have to be dedicated to signing Stralman with additional money set aside to lock up Point, Dotchin and Koekkoek. Luckily, of the projected bottom six, Ryan Callahan is the only member not on an entry-level contract in 2019-20. On the blueline, Sergachev and Hajek will still be on their first contracts, too. That helps the Lightning save a boatload of cash.
BOTTOM LINE: Should Vasilevskiy pan out as a true No. 1 netminder and the development go well on the blueline, the Lightning’s Stanley Cup window should still be wide open in three seasons’ time. Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman is going to have to make some careful calculations with the salary cap to make that a certainty, but there are few missteps in his management history that would lead anyone to believe he’ll set this team up for anything short of success.
Previously: Anaheim Ducks | Arizona Coyotes | Boston Bruins | Buffalo Sabres | Calgary Flames | Carolina Hurricanes | Chicago Blackhawks | Colorado Avalanche | Columbus Blue Jackets | Dallas Stars | Detroit Red Wings | Edmonton Oilers | Florida Panthers | Los Angeles Kings | Minnesota Wild | Montreal Canadiens | Nashville Predators | New Jersey Devils | New York Islanders | New York Rangers | Ottawa Senators | Philadelphia Flyers | Pittsburgh Penguins | St. Louis Blues | San Jose Sharks
Up next: Toronto Maple Leafs