5 Ways the Lightning Make the Stanley Cup Finals

The last time hockey fans saw the Tampa Bay Lightning they were in the handshake line following a sweep by the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs.  Despite not winning a single post-season game, the hockey world sees a lot of promise in the Bolts in the season ahead.

In both the newly released The Hockey News Yearbook and this article written by fellow Hockey Writers staff member Mark Scheig, the Lightning are predicted to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2014-2015 Stanley Cup Finals.

Fortunately for fans in Tampa Bay, these expectations are not that far out of reach.  Here is how the Lightning can reach the top of the east in the upcoming season.

Drouin replaces St. Louis

This biggest reason for fans to anticipate the new season is the chance to see Jonathan Drouin finally take the ice in the blue and white sweater of the Bolts.  Drouin was given an extra year to develop – some say dominate – in the QMJHL, where he raked up a ridiculous 108 points in only 46 games.  But that was not much of a development from his previous outing in the Q, as he was nearly as productive in the 2012-2013 season.

Seasons like those are the reason why throughout his QMJHL career Drouin picked up hardware (2012-2013) or was a finalist (2013-2014) as Most Valuable Player, with additional accolades as top professional prospect and First Team All-Star.  Just recently he was ranked by ESPN as the number one prospect in the entire NHL. He’s the real deal and if he is as successful as another former Halifax Moosehead, Nathan MacKinnon, the Bolts are a lock to make the Stanley Cup playoffs or even win the division like MacKinnon’s NHL team the Colorado Avalanche did last season.  The expectation is that Drouin will replace the departed Marty St. Louis and will be paired as a winger for two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner Steven Stamkos.  If he can dish the puck to Stamkos as well as he did with MacKinnon in the Q, Jonathan Drouin may be lifting a different Cup over his head this spring.

Restart for Stamkos

The 2013-2014 was an emotional rollercoaster for Steven Stamkos, to put it bluntly.  The sniper may have been on his way to earning his third Rocket Richard Trophy before a broken leg in November limited his campaign to 25 goals in 37 games played.  He was named to Team Canada’s men’s ice hockey team, except he was not medically cleared in enough time to join the gold-medal-winning team.  He watched Lightning’s captain and best friend Marty St. Louis request a trade to New York before picking up the ‘C’ himself.  Then, the Bolts secured a spot in the playoffs for the first time in two seasons, yet were swept by the Canadiens. That is enough highs and lows to mentally exhaust anyone.  With a new season comes a blank page and Steven Stamkos is not wasting any time to ensure that he is prepared for the 2014-2015 season.  Having admitted that the leg did not feel right when he returned to game action in March, he has spent the off-season focused on strengthening his right leg to cope with the rigors of NHL games. That recovery regime seems to be paying off.  He was an active player during Coca-Cola’s Share a Coke street hockey game in Toronto and at Bauer Hockey’s Athlete Event 2014 in late July, when they needed to use an airborne drone to cover him.

The sniper is always guaranteed to light the lamp, but a recharged and healthy Stamkos will be set to lead his team in his first full year as captain.

Former Rangers making themselves at Home

Like Stamkos, Ryan Callahan will also benefit from a restart after the season he went through.  First, Callahan had his contract negotiations with the New York Rangers hang over the first half of the 2013-2014 season.  Then he was part of a rare captain-for-captain trade to Tampa Bay in March, where he had to learn a new city – he has played for the Rangers since 2006 – and learn another new system in Tampa with his third coach in two years.  As the heart-and-soul of a gritty team like the Rangers, Callahan’s style of play will greatly benefit the more finesse-driven Lightning during the post-season (recall the Blackhawk’s two “17 seconds” goals for the value of a crash-and-banger in front of the net during the playoffs).  Callahan resigned to a six-year contract over the summer, so there will be some stability for the former captain.

Two other ex-Rangers joined the Lightning over the summer:  Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle.  As a seventh-round pick who slowly built a reputation as an excellent defenseman, Stralman finally got the nationwide attention he deserves with a breakout year with the Blueshirts.  He shone especially in the playoffs with excellent defensive play and this highlight classic:

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Putting the defenseman on a top pairing with another breakout d-man – Victor Hedman – will give Tampa the sort of strength on the blueline they have been missing for years.  Add in Brian Boyle, who was a valuable part of the Rangers’ bottom six, along with the veteran experience the newcomers bring to a primarily youthful lineup, and the Lightning have become a much stronger opponent.

Confidence in the Crease

The biggest ‘what if’ of the Lightning’s playoff run of last season is this: what if Ben Bishop was healthy?  Big Ben admitted to tears after suffering a dislocated elbow, knowing that his absence from the crease would hurt the Lightning’s chances against Montreal.

This season the questions will focus on whether Bishop can maintain the career numbers he put up (.924 SV% and 2.23 GGA) after playing a career-high 63 games.  Even so, it is difficult to determine how he would have fared in the added pressure of the playoffs.  The only championship he was a part of was as a netminder for the 2004-2005 Texas Tornados of the NAHL.  He had not played any significant time in the post-season since, save for one AHL game in 2011.  The goaltender was not named to Team USA’s men’s ice hockey roster either, so he had not experience the pressures of playing for his country.  Regardless, he is the best goalie the Lightning has seen in a few years.

The goaltending depth has also improved this off-season.  When Anders Lindback could not win a playoff game, he was replaced with the Islanders former starter Evgeni Nabokov.  While his numbers were not great last season (his .905 SV% and 2.74 GAA versus Lindback’s .891 SV% and 2.90 GGA), Nabokov may benefit from playing less games and experiencing less pressure by serving as a backup to Bishop.  Fighting for that back-up spot will be Kristers Gudlevskis, who had a busy season playing in three leagues, the Olympics and the IIHF World Championships.

Sophomore Surges

A team’s future looks bright when one of their rookies is named a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy but last season, Tampa Bay had two:  Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson.   They scored 59 and 50 points respectively and were second and fifth on the team in points.  While successful sophomore campaigns are tough to come by – with only one Calder winner, Patrick Kane, posting similar numbers in his next season since the 2008-2009 season – Johnson for one is unfazed by the pressure.

As he shared with The Hockey News, Johnson has focused on working out over the summer and improving his game…not thinking about his near miss at the Calder Trophy.  That kind of calm assessment of past performances will help him play with the heightened expectations the 2014-2015 season will bring.  Projected to play on a line with Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Drouin will not hurt his chances of putting up big number again either.

Once St. Louis left, Palat became the de facto leading scorer on the Lightning, and even then he was only two points shy from catching the 2012-2013 Art Ross Trophy winner.  That sort of confidence and production will serve Johnson and Palat well once they hit their sophomore campaign.  Then there are the other first- and second-year players who are expected to build on their successful 2013-2014 season: among them, wingers Nikita Kucherov and  J.T. Brown, center Alex Killorn and defenseman Radko Gudas.  If any of these sophomores on the Bolts have the same success, Tampa Bay will once again rank in the top ten in offense in the NHL.