To begin the 2014-15 season, many believed that the Tampa Bay Lightning would be a team to be reckoned with the the Eastern Conference.
As the season went on, many people’s predictions were answered, and the Lightning were one of the most dangerous teams heading into the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Tampa Bay was one of the most high-powered offenses in the National Hockey League, led by captain Steven Stamkos, and the “Triplets Line” of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov. Tampa Bay scored the most goals in the NHL with 259 goals in the regular season, and finshed with 50 wins for the first time in franchise history. The Lightning had a offensive contribution from all around the ice, including the defensemen with Victor Hedmen, Anton Stralman, and Jason Garrison.
On the defensive side of the puck, Ben Bishop was able to carry the load for the Lightning registering 40 wins, a 2.32 goals-against average, and a .913 save-percentage. The defensive group for Tampa Bay was decent, only giving up an average of 27.9 shots-against per game while giving up an average of 2.51 goals per game.
In the postseason, Tampa Bay got a scare from the Detroit Red Wings as they forced the Lightning to a game seven series in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Down three games to two in the series, Tampa Bay would have an onslaught of goals in Detroit for a 5-2 win, and to force the Red Wings to a game seven. In game seven, Ben Bishop shut the door on Detroit making 31-saves as the Lightning would move on to the next round.
In the next round, the Lightning dominated Vezina Trophy and Hart Trophy winner, Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens in six games. A year after being embarassed by the Canadiens in the playoffs via a four-game sweep, the Lightning got out to a fast three games to none lead against the Canadiens, and would eventually close out the Canadiens in the sixth game at Amalie Arena.
In the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Rangers, it was a high scoring series with Bishop being able to out-duel Rangers goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist in games five and seven. In the end, Tampa Bay and New York would each score 21 goals in the series. Bishop would be the answer for the Lightning as he recorded two shutouts in the series, including game seven which would send the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Finals to play the Chicago Blackhawks.
In the Finals, the Lightning seemed to be no match to a high-flying Blackhawks team. Injuries to key players in Bishop (groin) and Johnson (wrist) in the Stanley Cup Finals were one factor. Another factor was the ability of Chicago’s defense to hold the NHL’s highest scoring team to just 10 goals, and keep Stamkos off the score sheet completely. Chicago would take the final three games of the series after the Lightning were up 2-1 in games going into game four in Chicago.
The 2015 offseason has been a relatively quiet one for the Lightning, simply because they did not need to make many moves.
At the NHL Draft, the team traded its first round pick to the New York Islanders to move down into the second round, where they took center Mitchell Stephens from the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League and also defenseman Matthew Spencer from the Peterborough Petes of the OHL.
The only unrestricted free agent to hit the market on July 1st that played the majority of the season with the Lightning was forward Brenden Morrow.
Tampa Bay did make a couple of free agent signings to help bolster the depth on offense.
First, the Lightning signed former Ottawa Senators forward, Erik Condra to a three-year, $3.75 million contract. Condra had spent his previous five NHL season with the Senators, and just had one of the best years of his career. Condra, 29, had nine goals and 14 assists in just 68 games with Ottawa in 2014-15, and served a significant role on the Senators’ penalty kill. Condra will be a nice fourth line addition to the Lightning, and could use his defensive specialties on offense.
The only other signing of a player who could have an NHL impact this offseason was former San Jose Sharks, Philadelphia Flyers, and Arizona Coyotes forward, Tye McGinn. McGinn spent the 2014-15 season split between the Sharks and the Coyotes, amassing two goals and five assists in 51 total games played. McGinn is 6′ 2″ and 205-pounds, and brings some grit and size to the offense. McGinn may not start the season in the NHL with the Lightning, but may get his shot throughout the season if injuries become an issue at the NHL level.
So a majority of the lineup from the team that made it to the Stanley Cup Finals will return to Tampa Bay next year. However, before the season has even started, some major questions are lurking around the Tampa Bay area. Does Stamkos re-sign with the Lightning before the season? Can the Lightning keep Stamkos and Kucherov while being pinned against the salary cap ceiling? What do the Lightning do about the goaltending situation?
Stamkos, 25, is on the final year of a five-year contract signed before the 2011-12 NHL season. Stamkos’ annual salary is at $7.5 million per year, and his next pay-day is expected to put him about an annual salary of $10 million a year. Tampa Bay’s franchise player has already accumulated 276 goals and 222 assists in 492 career NHL games, all with the Lightning. Tampa Bay is hoping to get its former 1st overall pick in the 2008 NHL Draft locked up before the beginning of the 2015-16 season on October 8th against the Flyers. Stamkos and the Lightning will work out a deal, whether it is this offseason, during the season, or before the free agency period next year. Letting Stamkos walk in free agency would be a colossal mistake by Steve Yzerman, which would probably cost him his job.
With Stamkos in the final year of his deal, there are other forwards in Tampa Bay in the final year of their contracts. The most notable of these players is Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov, 22, is currently on the final year of his rookie deal, and is also hopeful of getting a deal done to stay in the Sunshine State. Kucherov, part of the “Triplets Line,” had a sensational sophomore year in Tampa scoring 29 goals and adding 36 assists in all 82 games played in the regular season. His impact in the playoffs was possibly greater as he scored 10 goals and had 12 assists in all 26 games of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Tampa Bay wants to find a deal for both Stamkos and Kucherov, however may have to pay the price and lose some guys like Alex Killorn, J.T. Brown, Vladislav Namestnikov, or Cedric Paquette.
In net, Bishop has been pretty good for the Lightning, but a salary cap issue could spell the end for Bishop in Tampa Bay after the 2015-16 season. But the Lightning could be prepared for Bishop’s departure as they have Andrei Vasilevskiy and Kristers Gudlevskis waiting in the wings.
Vasilevskiy, 21, appeared in 16 games for the Lightning last season going 7-5-2 with a 2.36 goals-against average and a .918 save-percentage. Not the greatest of numbers, but he is projected to be a star goaltender in the NHL one day. Vasilevskiy was the 19th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft.
A new problem has come up for Vasilevskiy though, as he will be out at least 2-3 months following vascular surgery to remove a blood clot.
This could mean that Gudlevskis gets his chance at the NHL level, or the Lightning may have to explore free agency for a backup. Some of the most notable names still available include Josh Harding, Jonas Gustavsson, Ray Emery, and Peter Budaj.
As for Gudlevskis, he made a name for himself last season when he made appearances at the NHL level, the American Hockey League level, the East Coast Hockey League level, and the 2014 Sochi Olympics with Team Latvia. This season, playing for the AHL affiliate Syracuse Crunch, Gudlevskis finished the season 25-14-4 with a 2.81 goals-against average and a .900 save-percentage. Does not sound like good numbers, but the 23-year old Latvian net-minder is improving his game dramatically. With Vasilevskiy not returning to the Lightning lineup until, at the earliest, November, and if the team cannot sign a backup in free agency, Gudlevskis may get his chance at the NHL level to back-up Bishop.
With mostly the same roster returning for the 2015-16 season, could the Lightning repeat what they did last season and make another run to the Stanley Cup Finals?
Here is what the opening night roster could look like for the Lightning against the Flyers:
Filppula – Stamkos – Callahan
Palat – Johnson – Kucherov
Drouin – Namestnikov – Killorn
Paquette – Boyle – Condra
Hedman – Stralman
Garrison – Coburn
Carle – DeAngelo
Nesterov – Sustr
Bishop – Gudlevskis
IR – Vasilevskiy
One name that is going to surprise many in camp this season, and who could make the opening night roster is defenseman, Anthony DeAngelo. The 19th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft may be small at 5′ 11″ and 176-pounds, but his offensive game is stellar.
Last year, in split time with the Sarnia Sting and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL, DeAngelo had a combined 25 goals and 64 assists in 55 games all season. DeAngelo was acquired by the Greyhounds at the OHL Trade Deadline, and helped the Soo become a powerhouse in the OHL. In the playoffs, DeAngelo registered 16 assists, before Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters eliminated the Greyhounds in the Western Conference Finals.
If DeAngelo makes the opening night roster, he brings to the table some quick feet, smooth skating abilities, and he can make some really nice plays with the puck. His only down-side may be his physical game, but if he comes to camp in shape and ready to go, he could surprise many and be an opening night starter.
Besides DeAngelo, it is almost the same look on offense besides Condra on the fourth line replacing Morrow.
After the Tampa Bay’s home opener against the Flyers, the team plays the next seven of nine games on the road, including a four-game road trip against Western Conference teams. In that trip, the Lightning go the Chicago on October 24th to face the Blackhawks for the first time since their game six loss in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Tampa Bay starts off the month of November with a four-game road trip before coming back home to Amalie Arena to play the next seven of nine games.
The Lightning’s longest home-stand comes at the end of December and into the month of January with sex straight games in the comforts of home. Then the team goes out west for four games before coming back home for seven of the next eight games. In that span, the Blackhawks visit Tampa Bay for the only time on January 21st.
In late March into early April, the Lightning will have its final home-stand of six straight games before closing out the 2015-16 season with another four-game road trip.
In all, the Lightning will have to travel over 40,000 miles throughout the year, however the home-stands the team have will be a nice relief along the way.
As for where the Lightning will finish, the team will be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, and in the NHL once again. After projecting out the 2015-16 season, Tampa Bay will finish with a 49-23-10 record with 44 regulation / overtime wins and 108 points. That total should be good enough to be the best team in the Atlantic Division, and could be right up there near the total to win the President’s Trophy.
As for production, expect the Lightning to leave off right where they were in scoring with the most goals scored in the NHL. Expect the “Triplets Line” to be one of the highest scoring lines in the NHL this season. As for a player like Stamkos, it is his year to prove he is worth the money he will probably be getting paid. We could see a Hart Trophy year from Stamkos if he puts up the numbers like he has in the past.
For the defense, they would probably like to have a better performance throughout the season than they could have had. Expect the defense to still put up offense, but try to be better in their own end.
As for Bishop, could he return to form and play like the goalie he was in the 2013-14 when he was nominated for the Vezina Trophy? It is very possible. The Lightning are hoping his groin is 100-percent from the playoffs, and that he is ready to go come training camp.
The Lightning are going to contend for the Stanley Cup once again in 2016, whether they get there or not is yet to be determined. This may be the last chance the Lightning have to win the Stanley Cup with the crop of talent they have right now on the roster. The Lightning are going to go all in this season, and general manager Steve Yzerman will do anything in his power to get his team back in the winners circle for the second time in franchise history.
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