Tonight, hockey fans can stop asking the eternal summer question of whether or not it’s October. The NHL drops the puck on the 2017-18 season, as hockey fans get to scratch their itch. Tampa Bay Lightning fans finally get to see their team take the ice on Friday night at Amalie Arena against the Florida Panthers. Following an unexpected playoff miss, the story lines are plentiful.
During training camp, it became painfully clear this team expected more out of itself following 2016-17’s disappointment. An extended summer break is great when you’re a kid, but in the NHL, that means you fell short of your goals. And there’s no doubt this team’s Stanley Cup aspirations haven’t changed. Following all of this summer’s moves, last month’s training camp, and the preseason, here are the five biggest story lines surrounding the Lightning heading into what many are predicting to be a bounce-back season.
Will Steven Stamkos stay healthy all season?
Two years ago, Stammergeddon was all the talk both in Tampa and in the national media, as Stamkos was an impending unrestricted free agent. He would remain with the Lightning thanks to an eight-year extension worth $8.5 million annually. Free of any contract talk, he got off to a roaring start in 2016-17 registering 9 goals and 20 points in 17 games. He was on pace for 43 goals, which would have placed him second in the NHL behind Sidney Crosby’s 44. Stamkos was also on pace to tie his career-high of 97 points, which also would have put him in second place behind Connor McDavid’s 100.
However, that hot start came to a grinding halt during a game last November in Detroit, when Stamkos tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee, putting him on the shelf for the final 65 games. During training camp and preseason, he showed no ill effects from the injury, flying up and down the ice, refusing to shy away from contact, and rediscovering the incredible chemistry he found with Nikita Kucherov on his wing. Despite that chemistry, the question remains: will he remain healthy? After not missing a game due to injury in his first five seasons, he has missed significant chunks of time in three of the last four seasons due to injury. Despite this team’s depth, they need him to stay in the lineup if they hope to return to the postseason.
The starting goaltending job belongs to Andrei Vasilevskiy. Can he carry over his success down the stretch from last season?
Since being chosen 19th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft, Vasilevskiy has been groomed to be the Lightning’s starting goaltender. Since making his NHL debut during the 2014-15 season, he served as Ben Bishop’s backup, but began seeing more and more action over the previous two seasons. There were plenty of highlight-reel saves and big-time performances during that time, but there were also some struggles as he tried to find a level of consistency needed from an every-night starting NHL goaltender.
Following the trade of Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings last February, the Bolts’ crease finally belonged to Vasilevskiy, and he delivered down the stretch. He compiled a record of 12-4-2 after the Bishop trade, posting a goals-against average of 2.22, and a save percentage of .920 during that stretch. If he can start about 60 games and display the kind of consistency that he’s admitted he needs to work on, then the Lightning are going to be in the running for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Can Nikita Kucherov top 50 goals?
Since struggling through an uneven rookie campaign in 2013-14, Kucherov has blossomed into one of the top goal-scorers in the NHL. His goal total jumped to 29 in his second season, then 30 two years ago, followed by a leap up to 40 goals last season. His goal total placed him in a second-place tie with Toronto’s rookie sensation, Auston Matthews. Along with Vasilevskiy and Victor Hedman, he helped carry the Lightning down the stretch, scoring 19 goals and 36 points in the team’s final 23 games. Thanks largely to his efforts, Tampa Bay won 20 of their final 30 games and narrowly missed out on the playoffs after a miserable two-and-a-half month stretch left them in last place in the Eastern Conference at one point.
Naturally, the big question around the 24-year-old Kucherov is whether or not he can continue to progress and eventually hit the 50-goal mark. In recent years, 50 goals has become something of a unicorn, a mark typically achieved by a guy named Alex Ovechkin, and even he didn’t reach that mark last season. However, he’s likely to start on the Lightning’s top line with Stamkos at center. Last season and in this training camp, those two have been dynamic. Although Lightning coach Jon Cooper doesn’t hesitate to shuffle lines, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Stamkos and Kucherov stuck together for the duration of the season as long as they remain productive. If that’s the case, it wouldn’t be shocking if Kucherov reaches the 50-goal plateau.
Mikhail Sergachev has made the Opening Night roster. Does he stick around for the entire season?
My best guess would be that he stays around with the Lightning for the whole season. The reason? He’s too talented of a player at his age to not play in the NHL. Sergachev has already outgrown junior hockey, having won a Memorial Cup with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires. In addition, he can’t be sent down to the AHL due to the fact he hasn’t turned 20 yet. Although the Lightning’s blue line is crowded at this time (more on that in a moment), his talent is too obvious to ignore. The kid can play, as evidenced by Lightning GM Steve Yzerman pursuing him in the Jonathan Drouin trade. He’s a big, strong player who can skate, shoot, move the puck, and play with a physical edge.
Throughout Cooper’s tenure as head coach, he’s proven that he will not give ice time to players not willing to play two-way hockey. If you don’t earn his trust as a youngster, you’re not going to get ice time. That hasn’t been the case with Sergachev during camp and the preseason, as he played in all situations with a variety of defense partners, regularly seeing 20 minutes of ice time a night. Due to the Lightning carrying eight defensemen, he won’t need to play top-pairing minutes right away. As long as he keeps his mistakes to a minimum, he should be a fixture on the Lightning’s roster for a long time to come.
How long will the Lightning carry eight defensemen on their roster?
Although it’s not completely unheard of to carry eight blue-liners on your roster, it’s not an ideal situation. The top of the defensive depth chart isn’t a concern, as Victor Hedman is coming off a season in which he was a Norris Trophy finalist. Anton Stralman is as steady and reliable as ever. Braydon Coburn remains a steady, if unspectacular second or third-pairing defenseman on the backside of his career. We’ve already gone into detail about Sergachev and the role he’s likely to play.
However, questions remain among the remaining four rearguards. The Lightning recalled Jake Dotchin halfway through 2016-17, and he acquitted himself very well alongside Hedman. Unfortunately, he missed much of the preseason due to a unspecified violation of team rules. The team is hoping that time off doesn’t cost him valuable time in his NHL development. Slater Koekkoek possesses the draft pedigree, but this is a make-or-break season for him. Following positive steps forward in 2015-16, Andrej Sustr’s game took a big step backward last season. Tampa Bay signed Dan Girardi to a two-year, $6 million deal as an unrestricted free agent in July. At this stage of his career, he is a third-pairing guy that provides depth and veteran experience. Despite that experience, Girardi has struggled in recent seasons.
If I had to make a prediction, someone gets traded out of this group sooner rather than later.
A season ago, the Lightning alleviated a crowded blue line by dealing Nikita Nesterov to Montreal for minor-leaguer Jonathan Racine and a seventh round pick. It would be surprising if the Bolts didn’t move a defenseman well before then. Let’s face it, three-and-a-half months would be far too long to carry eight blue-liners. Having that many guys on the back end means one or two defenseman are going to be in the press box every night. That doesn’t bode well for a team with younger defensemen like Sergachev, Dotchin, and Koekkoek that need to see meaningful ice time. If I had to make a prediction, Sustr gets sent out of town in a trade in return for a late-round draft pick and possibly an AHL-caliber player in return.