After deep playoff runs in each of the past two seasons, the Tampa Bay Lightning seek to take the next step toward winning the Stanley Cup in 2016-17.
As the Lightning were eliminated in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final by the Pittsburgh Penguins, the end of the team’s postseason marked the beginning of arguably its most important summer off of the ice. Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman and his staff were faced with the challenges and uncertainty that came with the pending free agency of captain Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn and a handful of other important players. Yzerman’s decisions and those of the team’s pending free agents would shape the franchise’s future— one that looked promising after a 2015 Stanley Cup Final berth and trip to the 2016 Eastern Conference Final.
Between June 24 and July 26, many of the team’s free agency questions were answered.
It began on June 24 when the team re-signed role players J.T. Brown and Cedric Paquette each to two-year deals. On June 29, Stamkos was signed to a team-friendly eight-year, $68 million contract extension, sending a clear message to his teammates about his commitment to the club.
Just two days later, the team announced it had signed defenseman Victor Hedman to an eight-year contract extension and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to a three-year deal that keeps him in a Lightning uniform through the end the 2019-20 season. By signing Vasilevskiy and Hedman to extensions, the team was able to keep these players from reaching RFA and UFA status at the end of 2016-17.
On July 2, the team re-signed goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis to a one-year deal before locking in Killorn to a seven-year contract on July 17. Nine days later, the team inked forward Vladislav Namestnikov to a two-year extension.
Since then, the team has re-signed defenseman Nikita Nesterov to a one-year contract which leaves Kucherov as the only remaining restricted free agent. With an estimated $5.5 million in remaining cap space to re-sign Kucherov, Yzerman will need to get creative in order to secure one of the franchise’s most important players.
If Yzerman is able to re-sign Kucherov, the Lightning will enter the 2016-17 season with virtually the same team it has had for the past two seasons— something that bodes well for the club and was once thought to be nearly impossible as the team began the summer.
2015-16 Record: 46-31-5 (2nd in the Atlantic Division)
Key Roster Additions:
- Cory Conacher, C
Key Roster Losses:
- Matt Carle, D
- Jonathan Marchessault, RW
- Anthony DeAngelo, D
- Mike Blunden, RW
Key Organization Changes:
Head coach Jon Cooper enters his fourth full season with the Lightning and made a change to his coaching staff for the second straight summer when the team hired Todd Richards as an assistant coach in June. Richards, 49, replaces Steve Thomas behind the Lightning bench and has previously held the head coach position with the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets. Richards helped lead the Blue Jackets to the franchise’s first back-to-back 40-win seasons and a playoff appearance in 2014. Cooper has primarily handled the team’s power play, but Richards may become involved as the team looks to improve the unit which finished in a three-way tie for 26th in the NHL in 2015-16.
Extras: Cory Conacher, C; Erik Condra, RW
Callahan underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip on June 21 but is expected to return by mid-November. It is anticipated that he will begin the season on the long-term injured reserve, which gives the team some time to sort out salary cap issues that may exist when the regular season begins against the Detroit Red Wings on Oct. 13.
Callahan’s absence may create an opportunity for forwards Erik Condra or Cory Conacher to see time on the third or fourth line to open the season. Conacher signed a one-year contract with the Lightning this summer after a standout season with Bern SC of the Swiss League-A in 2015-16. Conacher is a speedy forward who fits well into the Lightning’s style. He was previously a member of the organization before being the key piece of a trade for goaltender Ben Bishop during the 2012-13 season.
These are three forwards that need big seasons to help take the Lightning to the next level:
Steven Stamkos looks to return to form in 2016-17 after registering just 64 points in 77 games this past season and missing all but one of the Lightning’s playoff games in route to the 2016 Eastern Conference Final due to a blood clot injury. Stamkos enters the season healthy and with the uncertainty of his NHL future behind him after signing an eight-year deal earlier this summer. In order for the team to take the next step, Stamkos will need to take his game to another level.
Jonathan Drouin enters 2016-17 seeking to build upon the success he had during the team’s 2016 playoff run. After requesting a trade in the early portion of 2015-16, Drouin had a change of heart and returned to the team playing like the sort of player the Lightning expected him to be when it made him the third overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Drouin tied for third on the team in playoff scoring with 14 points in 17 games and was a noticeably different player. In an increased role with the Lightning, Drouin should set career highs across the board offensively if he is able to stay healthy during the final season of his three-year entry-level contract.
In 2014-15, Tyler Johnson set career highs with 72 points in 77 games and lead the team in playoff scoring with 23 points on the way to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, breaking his wrist during the postseason. The injury lingered into the 2015-16 season and Johnson tallied just 38 points in 69 games and recently acknowledged that he was not fully recovered until January. Johnson was more productive during the second half of 2015-16 and carried that over into the playoffs by registering a point per game in 17 contests. As Johnson enters 2016-17, the final year of his contract, he will need to bounce back to being the healthy, productive player he was in back-to-back full seasons to start his NHL career.
Extras: Slater Koekkoek, Luke Witkowski
Jason Garrison has been a name floated around as a potential trade candidate for the Lightning in order to address salary cap concerns entering 2016-17, but he has been a valuable member of the team’s defensive core in recent years and would be missed if moved. After an impressive postseason in 2015-16, Slater Koekkoek could enter the regular season as one of the team’s top-six defensemen and is a cheaper alternative to Garrison, albeit playing a much smaller role. Garrison brings a physical presence to the Lightning blue line and is a steady defenseman with a powerful shot, but economics could lead to a trade.
As training camp opens, the Lightning will get a closer look at defenseman James Wisniewski who will be attending camp on a professional tryout (PTO). At 32, Wisniewski would give the Lightning another veteran option at defense if he is able to impress Yzerman and the coaching staff.
These are three defensemen that need a productive season in order to keep the Lightning at its best:
Victor Hedman enters 2016-17 after impressive performances in deep playoff runs in each of the past two seasons. He will turn just 26 in December and has already completed seven seasons in the NHL after being selected by the Lightning second overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. In the past three seasons, Hedman has contributed more offensively as he has utilized his skating ability and puck-moving skills to his advantage, while also pairing with Stralman to shut down opposing team’s best offensive weapons. If Hedman stays healthy, he will be a key contributor to the Lightning’s defense and a potential Norris Trophy candidate at season’s end.
Since signing as a free agent with the Lightning before the start of the 2014-15 season, Anton Stralman has been a meaningful member of the team and the further development of fellow Swede, Hedman. Stralman also possesses strong skating skills and is consistently able to contribute offensively. Late in the 2015-16 regular season, he suffered a broken left fibula and returned during the Eastern Conference Final but did not look like himself. Stralman recently admitted that his leg was still broken at the time but is healed now. Stralman was paired with Hedman on Team Sweden at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and looked to be back in form. As he enters the 2016-17 season, his health will be another important part of the team’s blueline.
Andrej Sustr took a step forward in his development as an NHL defenseman in 2015-16 and will need to build upon that as he enters the final year of his contract with the Lightning. The 6’7″, 220-pound native of the Czech Republic looked more comfortable with his large frame and played a better position game than he had in past seasons. In the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs, he was playing some of his best hockey as he finished with three points and a plus-seven rating in 17 games.
After a summer rife with trade speculation about Ben Bishop, the Lightning enter 2016-17 with both he and Vasilevskiy handling goaltending duties. Bishop will earn $5.95 million in the final year of his contract and is set to become an unrestricted free agent in July. The two-time Vezina Trophy finalist has been one of the league’s best goaltenders for the past three seasons, but his salary and injuries in three straight playoff runs are a concern for the team.
When he is healthy, Bishop is often the team’s best player, but after going down with an injury in Game 1 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, Vasilevskiy stepped in and proved he is able to be a starting goaltender. With NHL expansion looming in 2017-18, a tightening salary cap and Vasilevskiy’s three-year contract extension in place, this season may be Bishop’s last with the team.
While Yzerman has undoubtedly considered all of this, he may see the 2016-17 regular season as an opportunity to give both goaltenders reps to allow Bishop some rest and Vasilevskiy more experience, and see through to the end of a potential playoff run with both players if things progress as expected during the regular season.
After his return to the Lightning to end the 2015-16 regular season and productivity in the playoffs, Jonathan Drouin is set to have a breakout NHL campaign if he can remain healthy. While his attitude may have been a question mark for him before, Drouin’s maturity off the ice and his effort on it during the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs translated into the best hockey of his professional career. After competing for Team North America at the World Cup and with another summer of strength and conditioning exercises, look for Drouin to have his best season with the Lightning in 2016-17.
Player With the Most to Prove:
While a wrist injury slowed his production in 2015-16 and he recovered with a strong performance in the playoffs, Tyler Johnson enters what will be his most important season at the NHL level this year. Given next summer’s free agent crop for the Lightning— a group that includes forwards Boyle, Johnson, Drouin, and Palat—the Lightning will be forced to make tough decisions about the team’s future (again). A healthy season that shows Johnson’s durability and continued productivity will help ensure he is in a Lightning uniform for the foreseeable future.
First Players in the ‘Call-Up’ Line:
If he does not make the team out of training camp, Conacher could be one of the first forwards receiving a call-up from Yzerman if the need arises. Conacher has been a productive professional player and has NHL experience.
On the blue line, Luke Witkowski could be one of the first defensemen to be called up to the Lightning if the team needs a big body who brings a physical presence. At 6’2″, 200-pounds, Witkowski has 20 games of NHL experience and played in two games with the Lightning during the 2016 playoffs.
If Bishop or Vasilevskiy goes down with an injury, Kristers Gudlevskis would be the next in line for Coach Cooper. Despite minimal experience at the NHL level, Gudlevskis has shown his skill level with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch and when he represented Latvia at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
With three appearances in the Eastern Conference Final in the past six seasons, including coming just two wins from winning a Stanley Cup in 2015 and five wins in 2016, the Lightning enter 2016-17 with a focus on unfinished business. After being swept in one round by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Lightning have grown as virtually the same roster the past two seasons. During that time, the team has experienced its share of challenges and struggles, including overcoming the adversity it faced in 2015-16 as it battled through injuries to some of the team’s most important players in the regular season and into the playoffs.
When Stamkos signed an eight-year contract with the Lightning in June, it was a significant moment in the team’s history and one that seemingly should set the tone for he and his teammates as they start the regular season. In the coming weeks, Yzerman will also attempt to re-sign Kucherov— another very important piece to the puzzle. Kucherov’s contract status aside, the Lightning will need to improve upon last season’s power play production in order to earn a playoff berth and make another deep run. It was an aspect of the team’s game that cost it games during last season’s playoffs and can keep them from getting over the hump again this year.
While there is no shortage of strong teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences, if the Lightning is able to stay healthy through the regular season, a deep playoff run and taking that next step is not outside the realm of becoming a reality in 2016-17.