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THN’s 2015-16 NHL season preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

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Steven Stamkos (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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THN’s 2015-16 NHL season preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

The Hockey News
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The Tampa Bay Lightning came two wins from the Stanley Cup in 2015 and with a roster that hasn’t changed much, they’re a lock to challenge for the Cup again in 2016-17. Few teams have an offense as deep as the Lightning and all the pieces are in place for another deep playoff run.

2014-15 Record: 50-24-8 (108 pts.) THN’s Prediction: 1st, Atlantic Division What To Expect: Steve Yzerman didn't meddle much with his roster this summer. And wisely so, as the GM recognizes his young team, whose Stanley Cup window just opened and should remain open for years, can improve from within. Only two Bolts will be older than 30 when the season opens, while 11 regulars will be 25 or younger. That includes Tampa's top four scorers and No. 1 defenseman Victor Hedman. Thus, we know what to expect out of the Lightning, last season's top scoring team and Eastern Conference champion. This impressive group will be even better. Last season, Tampa finished with four 20-goal scorers and five 50-point getters. The trio known as 'The Triplets' – Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov – combined for 199 points, the highest in the league, and they'll reprise that production. Steven Stamkos anchors the other top line and will be a 50-goal threat no matter who ends up on his wings. If this is the year Jonathan Drouin matures into a star, Tampa's offense will be frighteningly potent. Hedman enjoyed his finest season in 2014-15. Just 24, he has become a dominant defenseman, cementing himself as one of the game's finest. He and Anton Stralman form a dependable top pair. The second duo of Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn fared well in the playoffs. Goals against was a respectable 12th, but the Bolts should be better defensively. Bona fide No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop, 28, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, 21, comprise an enviable tandem in goal, but Vasilevskiy will miss at least two months following a scare with a blood clot. Bishop had a sparkling 40-13-5 record but can't become complacent in front of blue-chip backup Vasilveskiy once he returns. The penalty kill ranked a solid seventh, but the power play was 13th, which is low considering the potency of the offense. One potential distraction is the contract status of Stamkos, whose deal expires after this season. Should he hit the market, he'd be one of the best UFAs of the salary cap era. Yzerman hopes it doesn't come to that and knows the best way to entice Stamkos to stay put is to sustain Tampa's reign as one of the Eastern Conference elites. Tampa Bay Lightning Depth Chart Team Preview Best-Case Scenario: If there was a bad break to catch in the Stanley Cup final in 2015, the Lightning caught it. Stamkos went cold, Johnson was injured, Kucherov collided with a post, Bishop played through injury and even their star defenseman, Hedman, helped create an empty-net goal for Patrick Sharp. The chances of the Lightning suffering as many bad breaks in 2016-17 are almost zero. That’s why the best-case scenario for the Lightning is getting right back to where they were last season, but this time with a different result. There aren’t many rosters that have the talent up and down the lineup that Tampa Bay possesses, so the franchise could be hoisting its second Stanley Cup. Worst-Case Scenario: Would failing to get back to the Stanley Cup final be considered a failure for the Lightning? Tampa Bay isn’t necessarily in win-now mode, but the uncertainty surrounding Stamkos might put some added pressure on the Lightning heading into 2016-17. Bishop has a history of injury trouble and with Vasilevskiy out for two months, the last thing the Lightning want to see is their No. 1 netminder go down early. If that happens, the season could become an uphill battle. Ray Emery is coming to training camp on a tryout and could be the backup to start the year, which means the Lightning likely don’t feel Kristers Gudlevskis is ready to shoulder the load should Tampa Bay’s nightmare come to fruition. Who To Watch: Stamkos, one of the greatest goal scorers in the league, is about to enter his prime and is heading into a contract year. That could mean good things for his numbers and bad news for goaltenders around the league. All players have a knack for turning it up with free agency and a potential monster payday looming. What’s possible for Stamkos? Another season of 60 goals? Could he even notch 65? If Tampa Bay is nearing the post-season and Stamkos still hasn’t signed a contract extension, one has to wonder if GM Steve Yzerman might cut bait and see what kind of haul he can get in return for the 25-year-old superstar. The last thing Tampa Bay wants is to have Stamkos’ contract status hanging over their heads in the playoffs. Stamkos’ contract is a story that’s almost certain to follow the Lightning all season. What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn): Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 3.39.00 PM Click here for more detail on these predictions. This is an elite team, but you didn’t really need numbers to tell you that. They have the third strongest team in the league on paper and the second best in the East, making them an easy pick to win the Atlantic and an almost mortal lock to make the playoffs. Their biggest strength is obviously an elite forward group that is oozing with depth. They didn’t do much during the off-season, but signing Erik Condra was a very savvy move. The Lightning boast 11 forwards capable of providing more than half a win above replacement with five players at one or more. Depth wins championships and the Lightning have it in spades.
Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 3.37.22 PM
Stamkos leads the way, followed by the ‘Triplets,’ which should be no surprise. Johnson had a sensational playoffs, but it’s actually Kucherov who leads the trio here. Putting Kucherov on a line with Stamkos gives the Lightning an elite duo and would create some balance between the Stamkos and Johnson line. The Lightning aren’t without flaw, though. Outside an elite top pairing of Hedman and Stralman, the backend is relatively week. Fortunately, the Lightning should be able to offset that with a strong goalie tandem. Despite what his detractors may say about his appearance in net, Bishop has actually been one of the better goalies over the past few years by the numbers. With Vasilevskiy out, Bishop should get a few more starts and whoever replaces Vasilevskiy shouldn’t hurt the team too much in the few starts he does get. THN is rolling out its 2015-16 Team Previews daily, in reverse alphabetical order, until the start of the season. Check out our ‘Previews’ section to see other team breakdowns.
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THN’s 2015-16 NHL season preview: Tampa Bay Lightning