The Tampa Bay Lightning emerged as an offensive juggernaut in 2014-15, leading the NHL goals with 259 and playing their way to the Stanley Cup final.
The Lightning fell to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, but they will enter the 2015-16 season as the favourite to come out of the Eastern Conference once again. There will be no shortage of intrigue, as face of the franchise Steven Stamkos is entering the final year of his current deal with a massive payday looming.
It’s the 2015-16 Lightning, and they just might be the best team in hockey.
Head coach: Jon Cooper
GM: Steve Yzerman
Team payroll: $72.9 million against $71.4 million salary cap
Last season record: 50-24-8 (108 points, 2nd in Atlantic)
Goals for: 262 (1st in NHL)
Goals against: 211 (11th in NHL)
PP: 18.8 per cent (14th in NHL)
PK: 83.7 per cent (9th in NHL)
Corsi for per 60: 54.4 (18th in NHL)
Key acquisitions: Erik Condra, Kevin Poulin
Key departures: Brenden Morrow
Rookies to Watch:
Kristers Gudlevskis: The 23-year-old netminder made a name for himself with Team Latvia at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He’s a likely bet to begin the season holding the No. 1 goaltender duties with the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse. Gudlevskis is one of two young goaltenders looking to unseat the Lightning’s $5.95-million man, Ben Bishop, in goal.
Slater Koekkoek: The Lightning’s 2012 first-rounder (10th overall) enjoyed a productive season in the AHL, totalling five goals and 26 points in 72 games. The Winchester, Ontario native will compete for a job on the Lightning’s blueline.
Andrei Vasilevskiy: Vasilevskiy was decent in 16 games of work, posting a 2.36 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. The 21-year-old Russian struggled to spell Bishop in very limited post-season duty, but will figure into the club’s plans in goal when he returns from injury later this fall.
Highlight of 2014-15:
Killorn scored nine goals during the Lightning’s run to the Stanley Cup final. This tip-in versus the Blackhawks might not be the most important one he scored, but it’s certainly the coolest.
Pre-season letter grades
Steven Stamkos is one of the best offensive players in the world, but you knew that. It was the arrival of the Lightning’s “Triplets,” Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat that helped the club become the most feared scoring machine in the NHL. The Lightning’s top six group is more like a top nine, thanks to the all-around contributions from players like Ryan Callahan, Valterri Filppula, Alex Killorn, and Vladislav Namestnikov. A step forward from 2013 third overall pick Jonathan Drouin could push an already dangerous offence to another level. GRADE: A+
Victor Hedman would have been a good bet to earn a Norris Trophy nomination if he hadn’t missed 23 games due to injury. He’s only getting better. Anton Stralman is an excellent defenceman who forms one of the league’s most effective pairings along with Hedman. Hedman and Stralman combined for a 59.7 per cent Corsi for mark at even-strength in 2014-15. Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn, Jason Garrison, Andrej Sustr, and Koekkoek round out a defence corp that held opponents to the fifth-fewest shots against per game total (27.9) a season ago. GRADE: A-
Ben Bishop went from Vezina Trophy finalist in 2013-14 to league average in 2014-15 with a 2.32 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. Luckily, the Lightning were able to compensate for this relative step backwards with the league’s most potent offence. The 6-foot-7, 28-year-old goaltender’s numbers were better in the post-season. Bishop enters 2015-16 as the clearcut No. 1, but he could be on a shorter leash with Gudlevskis and Vasilevskiy knocking. GRADE: B-
The Lightning will have a successful season if… They show up to the rink on time. The Lightning are quite possibly the best team in the NHL entering the 2015-16 season.
The Lightning will have a disappointing season if… Stamkos extension talk becomes a distraction, Bishop falters, and Drouin fails to take a step forward in his development. Rumours surfaced over the summer that intimated Yzerman and Co. were willing to listen to offers on Stamkos. It’s hard to envision a scenario where the Lightning elect to move No. 91 rather than risk letting him walk in free agency, but it’s not crazy.