NHL 2014-15 preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning forward Steve Stamkos on Tim and Sid says it’s not confirmed, but he’s hoping to make his preseason debut on Friday, talks about how much fun he had breaking stuff for the new Bauer commercials, and much more.

Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.

A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.

Tampa Bay is our seventh-ranked team.

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Tampa Bay Lightning
Division: Atlantic
2013-14 finish: 46-27-9, 101 points, 8th overall; swept by Montreal in first round of playoffs
Leading scorer: Martin St. Louis (61 points)
General manager: Steve Yzerman
Head coach: Jon Cooper
Captain: Steven Stamkos
Opening night starter: Ben Bishop
Key acquisitions: Brian Boyle, Brenden Morrow, Jason Garrison, Anton Stralman, Evgeni Nabokov
Key departures: Ryan Malone, Sami Salo, Teddy Purcell, B.J. Crombeen

Off-season grade: B+. Ownership’s decision to re-sign GM Steve Yzerman to a four-year extension in April began to pay off almost immediately. Not only did Yzerman upgrade the Lightning’s greatest deficiencies — its blue line and backup goaltending — by landing free agents Garrison, Stralman and Nabokov, he quickly re-signed important pieces in Calder finalists Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, Vezina finalist Ben Bishop, and pending UFA Ryan Callahan. “Steve was in a tough position there,” Stamkos said of the Callahan signing. “If he doesn’t sign him, the Marty St. Louis trade doesn’t look so good anymore. But he was able to re-sign [Callahan], and we know what we’re going to get from him every night. He’s one of the hardest-working guys in the league, but he’s an even better person and teammate.”

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Greatest strengths: Where do you start? Youth, speed, scoring, goaltending, coaching, management, and a rapidly improving defence. After snapping a two-year post-season drought last spring, Tampa Bay is the Eastern Conference team pundits figure to take that next step. Although the Lightning were outmatched against an inspired Habs squad and swiftly eliminated from the Stanley Cup tournament, coach Jon Cooper’s young bunch excelled under tremendous adversity—the months-long absence of Stamkos due to a broken leg, the Martin St. Louis trade demand, a poorly timed injury to Bishop—and are expected to build on that experience. Eighth overall in goals scored, look for Tampa to be an offensive juggernaut with its 60-goal man healthy again.

Greatest weaknesses: Besides experience—the Bolts dress 14 players under age 25—special teams is an area of concern here, two soft spots that were addressed with the club’s off-season additions of a couple two-way, playoff-tested forwards and more dynamic D-men. The Lightning ranked just 13th with the man-advantage in 2013-14 (18.5%) and an ugly 23rd in penalty killing (80.7%). While Tampa will count on another standout year from 23-year-old stallion Victor Hedman, much of the back end’s success or failure will depend on how quickly Stralman and Garrison adapt to their new surroundings.

Biggest story line to watch: While it will be interesting to see if so many of the core Lightning players coming off career seasons—Palat, Johnson, Bishop, Hedman, Valtteri Filppula—can continue their upward trajectory, the greater topic of conversation will surround the one guy coming off a nightmare campaign. Despite coming back toward season’s end and producing, Stamkos admitted his displaced right leg was still not quite at 100 per cent power in April. Can hockey’s most dangerous sniper return to his 60-goal form and give Sidney Crosby a run for the NHL scoring title?

2014-15 prediction: A surprising runner-up to Boston for the Atlantic crown last season, don’t be shocked when Cooper’s crew learns from its playoff humbling, plays a more balanced game and goes as far as the Eastern Conference final.