Over the span of six weeks, we’ll be taking a quick look at each of the 30 NHL clubs — examining their major storylines, pivotal players and the most important questions they need to answer heading into the 2016-17 season.
By the time we’ve hit every team, it will be mid-September. And that, of course, means it will be time for training camps to open. Perfect timing, really.
Today, it’s the Tampa Bay Lightning…
A year after pushing the Chicago Blackhawks to Game 6 in the Stanley Cup Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning were at it again last season. Despite various distractions that hung over the franchise for most of the season — from the possible departure of Steven Stamkos to Jonathan Drouin just deciding not to play hockey for awhile — Jon Cooper was able to navigate his squad all the way back to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.
They ultimately came up one goal short against the Penguins in that Game 7, but clearly were able to push the eventual champs harder than anyone else in the playoffs. And they did so without Stamkos for essentially all of the postseason, as he battled back from injury.
Now the former 60-goal scorer is healthy again — and he opted to stay in Tampa, rather than test the free agent waters. Couple his return with the emergence of Nikita Kucherov (58 goals and 130 points over the last two seasons), on top of a roster already brimming with talent, and it’s not hard to see why these guys are a trendy pick to win it all in 2017.
Is Ben Bishop really on the trade block?
The Lightning just showed they can accomplish quite a bit even while dealing with distractions. And they may have to do it again, to a lesser extent. Because they now have two goalies they’re very comfortable with going forward.
On paper, that sounds like one of those ever popular “good” problems to have. And it is… except Ben Bishop is the more established No. 1, yet he’s the one they may have to move. His contract is up at the end of the year, there’s an expansion draft looming and the organization just inked No. 2 option Andrei Vasilevskiy to a three-year extension that’s going to pay him $3.5 million per season, beginning in 2017-18. That’s not backup money, so something’s going to have to give.
NOTABLE SUMMER ACQUISITION
They kept Stamkos. That’s good enough.
Brayden Point (Drafted: No. 79 overall in 2014)
How does this organization still have more quality prospects on the way? Who knows? But they do.
In terms of guys who figure to do some damage at the NHL level this season, Slater Koekkoek may fit the bill better — simply because this team is already so loaded up front. But Point is the guy with the most upside.
He’s starting to look like yet another steal that Tampa found later in the draft, and is coming off a 35-goal, 88-point season at Moose Jaw. He also just happened to be the captain of the Warriors, not to mention the fact that he was wore the “C” for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships as well.
BIGGEST CAP HIT
Steven Stamkos ($8.5 million)
There are actually some skeptics that wonder whether or not Stamkos is a true No. 1 center that you try to build a franchise around, as he’s not necessarily an elite, two-way weapon. But here’s the thing: he has scored 312 goals in 569 career NHL games.
Those numbers aren’t inflated… even though they sound like they’re inflated. Stamkos has essentially been the second-most prolific goal scorer of his generation, behind Alex Ovechkin. And it’s not like the Lightning are “building” around him anyway — they have more talent than they know what to do with. Meaning his decision to stay in town likely put him in the best possible position for both himself and the club he’s suiting up for.
2017 FREE AGENTS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson
And Drouin too. And Bishop, while we’re at it. Look, this lineup is set to do damage for awhile, but they are going to lose some pieces here soon too. So while they’ll almost certainly be a strong contender again in 12 months, now is the time to really make some noise.
Can he really be more of an x-factor than he was last season? After all, he literally just sat out for awhile in the middle of the year, then jumped back in as one of Tampa Bay’s most dangerous weapons in the playoffs.
When the dust settled, Drouin had five goals and nine assists in 17 postseason contests. He was a threat to make something happen pretty much every time he touched the puck, and he had all but made everyone forget about his midseason temper tantrum by the time the 2015-16 campaign was over.
Now the Lightning get to see what life is like with Drouin and Stamkos in the lineup at the same time. And that’s a scary proposition for about 29 other teams.