The Lightning were one of the surprise teams in the 2013-14 season. After finishing with 40 points and third last in 2012-13; the Bolts rebounded in a big way in 2013-14. Tampa finished with 101 points and finished second in the Atlantic division. The Lightning won’t be sneaking up on anyone this upcoming season. Teams around the league will be ready for the speed and youth they rode last year to a surprising playoff birth.
When all is said and done the Lightning still have the bitter taste in their mouths of that four game sweep handed out by the Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs. Sure not having top goalie Ben Bishop hurt the Bolts, but that series was flooded with a lot of mental errors from a young team. The Lightning never seemed to recover from the late Dale Weise OT goal in game one.
The good news Tampa can take away from that series is it gave a young team a taste of the playoffs that should motivate them. The question is now after is Tampa Bay ready to make that next step and show the league that last season wasn’t just a flash in the pan.
Stamkos Back To Full Health
When Stamkos went down in Boston on Veterans Day last season with a scary leg injury, most people thought the Lightning surprise season would begin to fall back to earth. However great coaching by Jon Cooper and next man up ideology kept the Bolts going. When Stamkos returned on March 5th and into the playoffs, you could tell he was missing that extra explosiveness in his step.
After a full offseason of building the strength back up in his leg Stamkos looks to return to depositing pucks into the net. This will also be Stamkos first full season as captain of the Lightning. He is one of the hardest working players in the NHL and will be a great role model for players like Palat, Drouin and Johnson. I think the high scoring center will rise to the challenge and be more determined to push this team on the rise to the next level. When you roster contains one of the best players in the world, it’s hard to not expect a big season.
Addition of Experience
Steve Yzerman was a busy man this offseason. He started the summer off by reaching a surprising 6 year contract extension with pending UFA Ryan Callahan before he tested the open market. The rugged winger will provide the Lightning with playoff experience and leadership of a young team. Cally won’t wow you with highlight reel plays, but he does the little things that go mostly unnoticed. Sure the contract may be a little high for Callahan, but at the end of the day he won’t disappoint.
On July 1st Stevie Y kept hard at work by first signing big Rangers center Brian Boyle. The 6’7 pivot man I think can be one of the most underrated signings this offseason. Boyle will allow the Bolts to roll four strong lines. Come playoff time that is essential in order to make a big run. Boyle can also provide a big presence in front of the net on the PP with 91 on the side wall ready to unload the rocket.
The last two signings will help a strong blue line with former Rangers blue liner Anton Stralman and most recently former Canucks d-man Jason Garrison. Stralman was standout for the Rangers on their run to the Stanley Cup Final. Stralman won’t provide a lot of offense, but is a solid defender in his own zone. Garrison isn’t going to be your stay at home solid defender. However as your 6th defenseman and the scoring he can bring on the PP with his booming shot, he is worth taking a chance on. The thing to watch with Garrison is to see if he can play well enough in his own zone to warrant a spot in the top 6 for the entire season.
The Future is Now
Recently the Lightning were rated to have the #2 prospect pool in the NHL by ESPN. This depth lead to 2013 3rd overall pick Jonathan Drouin not making the roster last year. Drouin, who is perhaps the best prospect in the NHL right now, went back to Halifax and scored 108 points in 46 games. Depth again is working against Drouin, but it’ll be very hard for Yzerman to send Drouin back again. The spot for Drouin may be on the wing instead of down the middle with Stamkos, Filppula, Johnson, and Boyle filling those spots. When you team Drouin with 2014 Calder finalists Johnson and Palat; the Lightning can show an exciting dynamic of speed and scoring outside of the top six forwards.
Stability Between The Pipes
A healthy Ben Bishop enters this season as the undisputed starter for the first time in his career. The 6’7 netminder had a breakout season in 2013-14 with a 2.24 GAA and a .924 save %. The Lightning sorely missed Bishop at the end of last season when he went down with an ill timed injury. Jon Cooper enters this season without having to worry about his net for the first time in
years. Outside of of Bishop the Bolts have good depth with newly acquired Evgeni Nabokov and Olympic stand out Kristers Gudlevskis. The two will battle it out in camp for the back up role behind Bishop. Even further down the pipe line may be the most talented keeper of the group. 2012 first round pick Andrei Vasilevski will make the transition to North America this season. The 20 year old Russian will likely begin the season in Syracuse. Yzerman won’t rush Vasilevski and he doesn’t need to with Bishop towing the anchor with the big club.
Tampa Bay has the tools to be a team that will make some noise this upcoming season. If Cooper can get the new additions to mesh well in the first half of the season then I see the Lightning competing with the Bruins for the top spot in the Atlantic.