After coming within one victory of a Stanley Cup finals berth in 2011, the Lightning underachieved under head coach Guy Boucher and whiffed on the postseason for two consecutive years. With AHL grad Jon Cooper behind the bench for his first full NHL season, the Bolts have been the most pleasant surprise of the Eastern Conference. Despite franchise player Steven Stamkos breaking his tibia on Remembrance Day and missing the bulk of the season, role players and youngsters have stepped up admirably.
With goaltender Ben Bishop enjoying a Vezina-calibre season and rookie forwards Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson evolving quickly, Tampa Bay should finish behind Boston in the Atlantic Division and secure home ice for the playoffs’ opening round. Off-season acquisition Valtteri Filppula is on pace for a career year, as is defenceman Victor Hedman. When Stamkos returns, an emotional and offensive boost could make Tampa the darkhorse to squeak in the East.
Click player positions to see depth chart
Areas to address
We imagine GM Steve Yzerman will remain relatively quiet on Mar. 5, as the return of Stamkos will end up being the biggest deadline acquisition in the NHL. Ageless Martin St. Louis aside, this is one of the younger rosters in the league, so we could see Yzerman poke around for a couple of more veteran role players, especially to round out blue-line depth.
Once a clutch scorer, Ryan Malone is on the decline and might be expendable. No way Tampa mortgages its future on a playoff run; Yzerman’s talented prospects will be guarded. Remember, Stamkos is just 24-years old. Johnson is 23, and Palat is 22. There is a core of forwards that can be shrewdly and gradually built around here. Don’t expect a drastic move in order to win right now.
Calls will be made to upgrade the blue line and give Bishop help on those nights the big man doesn’t stand on his head, but Yzerman will likely let other GMs (Shero, McPhee, Chiarelli, Bergevin) battle in the renters’ market.
Possible trade targets
Andrew MacDonald (Traded to PHI)
Milan Michalek, Ottawa Senators
Jaromir Jagr, New Jersey Devils