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Atlantic Division Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning ended the Red Wings’ season last year. How with they affect Detroit’s playoff chances in 2016-17?

NHL: New York Islanders at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The wounds from last season are still fresh, as fans have not yet healed from Tampa Bay sending the Red Wings packing in the first round of the playoffs. The short version is that there is no reason to believe Tampa won’t be competing for the Cup this coming season. The longer version is below.

What the Lightning did last year

  • Record: 46-31-5 (2-2 vs Detroit), 97 points
  • Atlantic Division Finish: 2nd Place
  • Goals For: 224 (12th in the NHL)
  • Goals Against: 198 (5th in the NHL)
  • PP%/PK%: 15.7% (28th) / 84.05% (7th)
  • Playoffs Result: Lost to Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals

The Lightning’s Offseason

Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman had an offseason to remember, re-signing both Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to long-term deals at a great price to stay in Florida for most of the next decade. Additionally, he’s re-signed his RFAs this summer, with the very notable exception of Nikita Kucherov, the team’s leading point scorer last season.

If the Lightning can retain Kucherov, they will return with all their important players from last year’s run, which is a frightening prospect to think about.

I asked John Fontana, the managing editor from Raw Charge, the Lightning SB Nation site, for information we might have missed over the summer.

What do you predict happens with Kucherov? I can't imagine he's not re-signed, but does Yzerman make a move to free up more cap space?

I think it gets resolved, but how it gets resolved I’m not so sure about. If Nikita Kucherov signs a new deal with Tampa Bay, there is a likelihood that player movement will have to happen because retention costs are ballooning – and I don’t just mean with any contract signed by Kucherov. Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson and others will be RFAs next summer and are all due for their own salary increase.

That being said, I certainly could see (due to costs and due to negotiated returns) a trade happening that moves Kucherov elsewhere. It’d be sort of outlandish (and attention grabbing) if a deal was struck with the likes of the Calgary Flames for Johnny Gaudreau (who is also an unsigned RFA scoring wing). That deal isn’t a lingering rumor or something, that’s just me mulling one over here. The fact is Steve Yzerman will keep all avenues open and likely make a move (be it retention or trade) that benefits the Bolts.

What can we expect them to do this year?

Barring injuries, it’s hard to not see the Lightning as a Stanley Cup contender, and a major obstacle to the Red Wing’s playoff streak.

Here is some more information from John Fontana about what to expect from the Lightning this season.

Has Hedman hit his ceiling, or does he still have another level?

It’s going to be Victor Hedman’s 8th NHL season for him, playing in the top pairing with fellow Swede (and Team Sweden partner) Anton Stralman. With that said, has he hit his ceiling? I wouldn’t term it as such, I would say he’s at the top of his game and he’s at the age that he still can add to his game or be seen as an asset while remaining the level of play he’s had the past three seasons with the Bolts. At the same time, I’m not sure at all what else to expect from Hedman – more offense? More vital moments to prevent opponents from scoring?

What is notable is that Hedman will only reach 26 years old in December, which is just below the perceived veteran prime in age (27 – 32, give or take a year). I’d say that Hedman still has the potential to have more potency in his game… But he’s also playing as an important cog in the Tampa Bay defense and that won’t be changing any time soon.

Which person in the entire TB organization has the best chance to earn an individual award at the end of the upcoming season?

This is tougher to answer just because the whole extent of the season and what everyone could do (or not do) factors into post-season awards and such. While there are capable men for a wide extent of different awards (I’m not just talking the players but Jon Cooper for coach of the year, Yzerman for GM/executive of the year), there’s no telling who is going to be recognized the most. It was arguable last season that goalie Ben Bishop could have won the Vezina over Braden Holtby (he had greater general stats than Holtby did); the reason I bring that up is that it’s a habit of the league to award players randomly at times.

I can’t make any guesses. If we’ll see players get recognized for what they achieve during the 2016-17 season (and we’re not just talking NHL talent but players in the minors and prospects too), that remains to be seen if it’ll happen.

Other than having Stamkos back, what one thing does TB need to do to win the Stanley Cup this season?

Well, I’m just stating the obvious here but they’ve got to win games in the regular season and during the 2017 NHL playoffs. Imperative!

In all seriousness, the Bolts came up just shy of advancing to the Stanley Cup finals last season; they were up 3 games to 2 over Pittsburgh in spite of being short Stamkos and other issues at play. Losing Ben Bishop in net was one factor to enable the Penguins, but it’s not like Andrei Vasilevskiy played as a complete sieve in Bishop’s place… Still, Vasilevskiy’s numbers could be stronger, and goaltending is an aspect of the game that overcomes a taxed roster. Bishop, in his 11 games played in the playoffs, had astronomical stats (a .939 save-percentage and a 1.86 GAA (and Tampa Bay went 8-2 in 10 games Bish completed). Vasy’s numbers weren’t bad (a .925 save percentage and a 2.75 GAA) but they did come up short in the end. In the end, the crease needs to remain sound (…and without injuries) to help Tampa Bay go further.

Who do you think will be TB's biggest positive surprise this year?

It may be a surprise for the rest of the league, it may be a surprise for casual Lightning fans, but I would not be shocked or surprised if free agent signee Cory Conacher was a positive influence for the Lightning this season.

Conacher is a former Lightning prospect; he played with the team’s AHL affiliate in 2011-12 (which won the Calder Cup). His coach that season was Jon Cooper while the likes of Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson were teammates. Conacher made the NHL first (during the lockout-shortened 2013 season) before his minor-league teammates & coach… He also got traded late in the season for goalie Ben Bishop. The 24 points he scored in 35 games with Tampa Bay (9 goals, 15 assists) was never repeated or exceeded in his time with other NHL teams.

What I’m expecting is chemistry and success by way of it. He may not be slotted for top-6 minutes, but Conacher does have success under Jon Cooper’s leadership.

Does Ben Bishop end the season as a member of the Lightning?

That’s the big question going forward. It’s the last season of his current contract, he’ll undoubtedly be sought after as acquisition by some clubs, and he’s likely an NHL expansion draft choice next summer if he doesn’t have a new contract (and a no-move clause) by next June.

It’s not like fans want Bishop gone; he’s proven his value to the team since his acquisition in April 2013… Yet the salary cap and discussed salary desire by Bish may thwart retention; Bishop was sought during the 2016 NHL draft and told the seeking Calgary flames that he wanted a 7 year, $7 million AAV contract. Those numbers give you an idea of what is potentially thwarting his long-term retention in Tampa Bay (there’s only so much cap space).

In the end, Bishop’s status with Tampa Bay is going to depend on Steve Yzerman and the GM thinks of offers made toward him. All options are open going forward, at least up until the trade deadline in 2017. I think we could see Yzerman justifying retention of Bishop through the remainder of the season if potential trades don’t impress him. Retaining Bishop past 2016-17 though? That’s a reach unless there are broader roster changes to help coordinate Bish’s retention.

Overall outlook

Tampa Bay is clearly a team to beat in the Atlantic Division. It’s hard to see them not finishing the regular season as the division winners, and I would not look forward to facing them in the first round again.

Since we spend so much time here discussing the Detroit playoff streak and if this is the year it ends, I couldn’t resist the chance to ask John about it.

Is this the year that the Red Wings playoff streak ends, and why?

There’s a chance that happens, but that chance has been alive and well in the background for Detroit throughout the consecutive-season streak of making the playoffs. An NHL season, as Wings fans should know, is a complicated process with a lot of factors playing in (directly and indirectly) with how the league in general plays this season.

I would not count out the Red Wings to make the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to accomplish it either. There’s a phrase I like to use sometimes in writing to describe the season, how it’s a “process of becoming”. There are so many things that are part of the process: individual game play, health, stats, drama factors, the process and how it’s playing out for opposition too. In this case, while the Red Wings have that general challenge of keeping the streak alive, the Buffalo Sabres are trying to reach the playoffs again, the Ottawa Senators have new head coach Guy Boucher (former Lightning head coach) who wants to prove he is an NHL coach. Montreal has its own legacy that it is trying to re-employ after missing the playoffs last season, and Wings fans already know Mike Babcock has drive and desire to accomplish things – though he’s got to do that deed in Toronto. Factor those in (and Boston, of course) and the potency of the Florida Panthers and the Bolts own effectiveness… That’s one hell of a challenge for Detroit to make the playoffs.

But it’s a process of becoming… Everything is open to be accomplished and I don’t doubt they can achieve a playoff berth in the end of 2016-17… How the story of the season plays out for the Wings is yet to be written though. We’ll all find out shortly.

Yes we will, and thankfully every day we are inching our way to puck drop on opening night.

Thanks again to John from Raw Charge for answering my questions with so much information.