The Tampa Bay Lightning begin their 25th season in franchise history Friday against the Florida Panthers, less than six months removed from falling one point short of a playoff berth.
Expectations were sky high heading into last season, with many in the hockey world picking the Lightning as a favorite to win the Stanley Cup. They’d made back-to-back Eastern Conference Final appearances the previous two seasons, including a trip to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. General manager Steve Yzerman had kept the team together the previous summer against seemingly insurmountable odds. Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy were franchise cornerstones among those that inked new deals or contract extensions.
Falling Short of Expectations
Shortly after the puck dropped on the 2016-17 season though, things just didn’t feel quite right with the Lightning.
There was the uncertainty of Ben Bishop’s future with the club and the emergence of the defense as a weakness in its then-current state. There was also a seemingly endless string of injuries to key players, including Stamkos just 17 games into the season. Further compounding issues was the fact that the team looked out of sync a lot of nights — playing from behind often and a sloppy team game defensively — a far cry from how they’d played in recent seasons.
Despite the disappointing finish to the season, there were some bright spots for the Lightning. Vasilevskiy took over the No. 1 goaltending role after Bishop was traded to the Los Angeles Kings ahead of the NHL Trade Deadline. Yzerman was able to unload some big salaries before the offseason to free up cap space for the summer. The Lightning also got a look at many prospects in the NHL for the first time.
But perhaps most importantly heading into this season, the Lightning got the longest summer of rest they have had since missing the playoffs in the 2013-14 season.
As the Lightning prepare to play the Panthers to start the 2017-18 season, let’s look at three big questions they face moving forward.
Can Steven Stamkos Stay Healthy?
Since April 1, 2016, Stamkos has played in 18 games — the lone playoff contest came in Game 7 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Final and another 17 games last season.
It’s fair to say that when it comes to injuries, Stamkos has simply been unlucky the past four seasons. But if there’s anyone that can bounce back strong from a torn lateral meniscus in their right knee, it’s Stamkos.
In 2013-14, he broke his right tibia after crashing into a goal post just 17 games into the season. He would go on to play in just 37 contests that year. After playing an 82-game season in 2014-15 — one in which he tallied 43 goals and 72 points — he helped the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final.
Late in the 2015-16 regular season, he suffered a blood clot injury and had his uppermost right rib removed as part of the treatment. He returned for Game 7 of the ECF but the Lightning were eliminated from playoff contention. Further adding to things was the speculation running rampant in the league about whether or not the Lightning could re-sign their captain to a long-term extension as he approached free agency.
But on June 29, 2016, Stamkos inked an eight-year, $68 million deal to stay with the Lightning. One by one, other pieces fell into place for the Lightning, with Hedman and Vasilevskiy signing contract extensions just days later and Kucherov taking a three-year bridge deal to return to the club.
Stamkos returned in 2016-17 on a mission, playing arguably the best hockey of his career and tallying 20 points in 17 games. After tearing the lateral meniscus in his right knee in what was an otherwise innocent looking play, he was lost for the season. When Stamkos went down before the 2016 playoffs, the team’s depth picked up the slack. But things were a little different last season. The Lightning suffered a string of injuries to other key players and never seemed to get into a groove — despite a solid stable of prospects who stepped up in increased roles during the playoff push.
If the preseason is any indication, Stamkos is ready to roll. He was held goalless but tallied five assists in four games. But most important of all, was the instant chemistry he had after being reunited with Kucherov and the fact that Stamkos had his legs so early in his return.
For the Lightning to be at their best, they need Stamkos in the lineup night in and night out. It keeps other players slotted in their respective places in the lineup and adds another scoring threat for opposing teams to defend against. He’s also a player whose presence is priceless in the locker room.
Will Mikhail Sergachev Play Out the Season in the NHL?
Ever since Sergachev was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for rising star Jonathan Drouin, the question was whether or not he would start the season in a Lightning uniform.
The 19-year-old blueliner immediately bolstered the franchise’s depth on defense but it was unknown whether it would be at the NHL level or not, at least in the present. From the start of training camp, Sergachev made a strong case to begin the season at the game’s highest level.
He showed poise and confidence in six games of action in the preseason. But besides playing beyond his years, he also chipped in a goal and two assists — leading all defensemen in scoring — impressive in itself, despite the fact that it was only preseason.
The important consideration with Sergachev is that Yzerman and head coach Jon Cooper will want to bring him along carefully. He’s a top flight prospect playing a tough position and the Lightning gave up an offensive force in Drouin to land him.
Because of his age, Sergachev is ineligible to be assigned to the Syracuse Crunch in the American Hockey League. This means that if he isn’t playing in the NHL, he will be back in the Ontario Hockey League with the Windsor Spitfires. Yzerman and Cooper will have to weigh the pros and cons of keeping him in Tampa Bay long-term this season.
Playing in the NHL means he will have valuable professional experience, but it will depend on where he slots into the lineup. Right now, he has the opportunity to be a top-4 defenseman and learn from the likes of Hedman and Anton Stralman. If he heads back to juniors, he will be playing against kids again and it may not be what he needs to continue to push his progression as a player.
But if he stays in the NHL, how long will he be there this season? Only time will tell — particularly his performance in his first nine games — but the Lightning will keep entry-level contract and future free agency rules in mind as they make their decision.
CBA reminder for junior-aged NHL rookies: 10 games burns a year of ELC; 41 games counts as an accrued season so reaches UFA one year sooner
— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) October 5, 2017
Will Tyler Johnson Return to Form?
Johnson has been an important part of the Lightning over the past four seasons. But as he begins the first season of his new seven-year, $35 million contract, you have to wonder if this is the year he returns to form.
In his first two full regular seasons in the NHL, Johnson averaged nearly 80 games and added almost 27 goals and 35 assists. In 30 postseason contests, he totaled 14 goals and 11 assists, and was arguably the team’s best player en route to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.
But the deep playoff run took its toll on Johnson. He battled a lingering wrist injury during the 2015-16 season and despite a strong performance in the playoffs (17 points in 17 games), this past season was a challenge.
Johnson played well at times during the 2016-17 season — and always gave his world-class effort — but it seemed like he was a player who couldn’t find his long-term groove, for one reason or another.
In the past two seasons, Johnson has been limited to an average of nearly 68 games and tallied almost 17 goals and 25 assists per year.
With a brand new contract and a long summer to get healthy, it will be crucial for Johnson to return to form and do it out of the gate.
The Lightning start with a fresh slate Friday and will look to build upon the learning experience that came last season. It brings the same high expectations, as many are picking the Lightning as a favorite out of the Eastern Conference.
There are a lot of positive things working in the team’s favor to open the 2017-18 season.
Over the summer, Yzerman was able to re-sign Johnson and Ondrej Palat, while also adding veteran depth in free agency with the additions of Chris Kunitz and Dan Girardi. Penalty-killing specialist Ryan Callahan returns from a hip injury and feels healthy. Yanni Gourde, who was one of the team’s most effective players at the end of last season, has earned himself a spot on the roster. Brayden Point will begin his sophomore campaign after being an important piece of the team as a rookie. Vasilevskiy also starts his first full season as the clear-cut No. 1 goaltender.
But will the team’s improved defense be enough and can a long summer be the missing ingredient for battling injuries and playing consistently throughout the season?
The answer to these questions and more will become clearer starting Friday.