2017-18 NHL Team Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov celebrates his goal with teammate Steven Stamkos. (Nathan Denette/CP)

A good bet to be this year’s comeback team, the Tampa Bay Lightning started 2016-17 with Stanley Cup aspirations after back-to-back seasons of reaching at least the conference final, but finished outside of the East’s top eight altogether.

Gone is a split-duty goaltending situation, with 23-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy taking on the No. 1 role. Back is a one-time 60-goal scorer, with Steven Stamkos returning from a knee injury that limited him to just 17 games last season. After that, the team remains largely the same which, in most cases, may not inspire confidence in a non-playoff team. But the Lightning are loaded up and down the lineup and all the reasons they were a favourite championship pick a year ago remain true heading into 2017-18.

Here’s a preview of the Lightning’s season ahead:

UP-AND-COMING PLAYER TO WATCH
With so much forward talent up front in their prime, the Lightning used Jonathan Drouin to land 19-year-old defenceman Mikhail Sergachev from the Montreal Canadiens. The ninth-overall pick of the 2016 draft, Sergachev figures to one day be a top-four blueliner on the Lightning and could get his pro career started this season. He has dominated the junior circuit with 100 points in 117 games over two seasons. He’s big at six foot three and 212 pounds and comes with a well-rounded game that adds more depth to an already-strong unit.

If Sergachev doesn’t stick season-long, 25-year-old Yanni Gourde is an interesting third-liner to keep an eye on. He arrived to the team in March last season and scored six goals and eight points in 18 games down the stretch. He likely won’t crack a top-six that is stacked with scoring punch, but Gourde could be a nice depth player to follow behind those guys for a well-rounded attack.

WHAT A SUCCESSFUL 2017-18 WOULD LOOK LIKE
Make no mistake, this is still a Stanley Cup contender — some might say even the favourite to come out of the conference. Determining whether or not 2017-18 is a success for the Lightning won’t simply be about making the playoffs, but returning as the kind of contender they had been prior to last season.

The Washington Capitals don’t have the same depth as last season. The Montreal Canadiens have some very real concerns on the blue line. The Maple Leafs, on the rise, are bound to have more man-games lost to injury after their healthy season. The Pittsburgh Penguins are looking for a three-peat, which no team has done since the New York Islanders in the 1980s. But the Lightning return a deep lineup at every position and with Stamkos recovered, this team could easily jump from the 14th-ranked offence last season into the top five.

The Lightning are looking for at least another conference final appearance, but really, the lineup is built to win a Stanley Cup now. They have locked in contracts to their biggest stars and aren’t facing too many large expiring deals at the end of this season. They are one of the best-situated teams to make multiple runs over the next few years and those expectations will continue to follow them this season.

BIGGEST REMAINING QUESTION
Is Vasilevskiy up to the task of backstopping a team with such high hopes? The Russian’s path to the No. 1 job was clear for the past two or three years, as Ben Bishop’s contract was running out while the team was paying big salaries to players at other positions. Vasilevskiy was a 19th-overall pick in the 2012 draft — and you don’t use a pick like that on a career backup.

Vasilevskiy had been having an up-and-down season up to the trade deadline. But once Bishop was traded to the Kings, he noticeably improved. In March and April, his save percentages were 922 and .936 and the team earned points in 13 of his last 17 games started. It’s a whole new world now, though, with the weight of season-long expectations on him full time. If the goaltending falters, the Lightning will again be in trouble. It’s on Vasilevskiy to not be the weak link.