Tampa Bay is hoping to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season but with the new divisional set up, things will not get easier for them. They are in the league’s new Atlantic Division which saw five teams (Boston, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto) participate in last season’s playoffs and the Lightning will need to show vast improvements to join that group.
Up front, as mentioned, St. Louis and Stamkos are two of the top ten forwards in the NHL and will continue to lead the team in scoring this season. However, there will be a drop in production from the forwards after those two. Ryan Malone is a veteran who can put the puck in the net and has scored 20-plus lamplighters in six of his nine NHL seasons. New Lightning Valtteri Filppula was signed during the summer after spending eight seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and is expected to add offense in the wake of losing LeCavalier but he is a more of a play-maker than a goal scorer. Teddy Purcell is another forward who will be asked to increase his goal output but he has potted more than 20 goals once in his seven NHL seasons.
It had appeared management had added superstar in the making Jonathan Drouin (1st round, 3rd overall, 2013 NHL Entry Draft) to the roster, however, he has been returned to his junior team in Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for more development.
The good news for Tampa Bay fans is there will be speed up front. Nate Thompson adds a dimension that few teams can claim with his outside quickness. Alex Killorn is another speedster. The Harvard grad registered 19 points in his rookie season last year and the organization believes he can be a consistent 20 goal scorer.
There will be other young faces among the 12 forwards such as Brett Connolly, JT Brown and Vladislav Namestnikov. All three were offensive threats in the AHL but it remains to be seen if that will translate into NHL success.
St. Louis, Stamkos and Malone will be the go to players but after those three, the Lightning will be hard pressed to produce goals in abundance.
There will be nights when the defense will be under intense pressure and will rely on veterans Victor Hedman, Eric Brewer, Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund. Tampa Bay’s Big Four will log heavy minutes in all situations.
At 22 year of age, Hedman should be developing into an elite defender. He is entering his fifth season but his development appears to have stalled. This needs to be a breakout year for him. Despite Hedman’s lack of development, he will be called upon to take over the leadership role on the blue line. He has the skills to do so and as a former first round draft pick (2nd overall, 2009 NHL Entry Draft), this is the year he needs to establish himself as one of the top defenders in the league.
Brewer, 34, has been asked to do more than a player his age should. The defensive defenseman logged heavy last year but handled the responsibility well.
Ohlund, is entering his 14th NHL season. The Lightning rely heavily on his experience. One of the best stay at home blue liners in the league, the club values his leadership on and off the ice.
The one area which is a huge question mark is in the crease.
Ben Bishop is about to embark on his fifth NHL season but the Lightning are his third team. He was acquired from the Ottawa Senators during the 2012-2013 season and appeared in nine games, winning three for Tampa Bay. He will be tabbed as the starter this season and will need to use all of his 6-foot-8 frame to stop pucks as he will be very busy on most nights.
Swedish product Anders Lindback will be the back up to Bishop. Last season, Lindback saw action in 24 contests for the Lightning and emerged with a 10-10-1 record. During the course of his three year career, he has played in 62 NHL games giving him the necessary experience to be a reliable back up.
The Lightning’s special teams were a true dichotomy.
The power play with some of the most feared offensive weapons in the league was thirteenth last season with a 19.0 percent success rate. The team found the back of the net 31 times; St. Louis, Stamkos and LeCavalier combined for 18 of those goals. LeCavalier netted five power play goals but more important to the unit was the chemistry that existed between the three players. Tampa Bay will be hard pressed to repeat that.
The penalty killing units were not as successful as their power play brethren. The PK ended last year nineteenth in the circuit and fended off just 80.6 percent of their man down situations. The Lightning need an injection of speed and better defensive awareness and if the adage is true that your goaltender needs to be your best penalty killer then Bishop and Lindback should prepare to be quite busy.
Tampa Bay will be able to match any team in the league when it comes to speed but it ends there. The organization is rebuilding and doing it properly. The Lightning will not see the playoffs this season but they will return within the next three seasons.
Shawn Hutcheon is the Boston Correspondent for The Fourth Period.