Lightning: 2019-20 Season Preview

If you were to describe the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2018-19 regular season in one word, that word would be fun. There was something special about that team, as they could be down by two or three goals, then just flip a switch and score five straight to win. Simply put, almost every game was competitive, entertaining and, at the very least, fun to watch.

Bill Daly, Steven Stamkos
At the very least, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2018-19 regular season was incredibly entertaining to watch as they racked up win after win. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

In stark contrast, the 2019-20 season won’t be fun. After experiencing one of the worst playoff collapses in sports history, every aspect of the Lightning will be scrutinized in a way that will make even the most devoted fan exhausted. A win will be handwaved with the sentence, ‘it doesn’t count until the playoffs’ and every loss will be seen as the start to the end of this franchise.

This doesn’t mean that Lightning fans shouldn’t be excited for the 2019-20 season, though. In fact, the team that general manager Julien BriseBois assembled this offseason could be even better than the one that won 62 games last year.

How Has the Lightning’s Defense Improved?

As the Lightning got swept out of the 2019 Playoffs, one thing became clear: their defensive corps just wasn’t good enough. While it featured some incredible top-end talent, once injury struck, it exposed a lack of depth that caused the unit to implode. With aging veterans and rookies in over their heads, the team bled high-value scoring chances which Vezina-winning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy couldn’t keep out of the net.

The way that BriseBois addressed this situation was by a mixture of addition through subtraction and a smart signing. It started by not re-signing veteran defensemen Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman, two players who struggled with consistency throughout the 2018-19 season. While the frequently injured Stralman would get a pay raise from the Florida Panthers, Girardi would retire after he was unable to land a new contract.

Dan Girardi Tampa Bay Lightning
After playing two seasons with the Lightning, Dan Girardi retired from the NHL during the 2019 offseason. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Next, BriseBois signed the newly bought-out Kevin Shattenkirk to a one-year, $1.75 million deal that gave the team a perfect veteran option to play on the third-line or potentially pair with Victor Hedman. Along with Shattenkirk, the Lightning have Mikhail Sergachev ready to take on big minutes and Cal Foote waiting for an opportunity to earn a starting role with the franchise.

Barring injury, these changes should help the Lightning’s defense find more consistency throughout the entire season, allowing stars like Hedman and Ryan McDonagh to focus on their gameplan.

Lightning’s Forward Corps Still the Top of the NHL

The Lightning’s offensive output throughout the 2018-19 season was historic. They averaged 3.89 goals per game, which was not only the top in the league but the most goals scored per game since the mid-1990s.

Heading into the 2019-20 season, there’s no reason to believe that this scoring trend will slow down, as the Lightning are rolling out a nearly identical forward corps. With players like Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point on their roster, it would be foolish to expect a steep decline in scoring.

Tampa Bay Lightning Nikita Kucherov Brayden Point
After scoring 128 points in the 2018-19 season, there are questions about whether Nikita Kucherov can repeat his record-setting performance. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Now, will the Lightning continue to score at a historic pace this season? No, likely not. But they should be at the top of the scoring race once again, led by a bevy of star forward talent.

Goaltending a True Question for the Lightning

For a team with the reigning Vezina winner in Vasilevskiy, and a back-up who had an absolutely stellar season in Louis Domingue, the Lightning sure have a lot of real questions regarding goaltending.

It starts with Vasilevskiy, who signed a massive eight-year, $76 million extension this offseason. While he earned every bit of that contract, he now has to handle the pressure of living up to that extension. Everything he does this season will be talked about in the context of a $9.5 million cap hit, which can wear on even the strongest of players.

Andrei Vasilevskiy
After winning the Vezina in only his third season as a full-time starter, Andrei Vasilevskiy was rewarded with a massive eight-year, $76 million extension.

Behind Vasilevskiy, the Lightning have a bit of a mess. BriseBois reached deep into the goaltender free agency market this offseason, signing a mixture of ECHL, AHL and NHL caliber backups. Most notably was Curtis McElhinney, who Tampa Bay signed to a two-year deal.

The good news is that the Lightning have some incredible goaltending depth, with Vasilevskiy as the starter, McElhinney as the backup and Domingue as the NHL-caliber call up. The bad news is that Domingue got the short end of the stick on this deal. After having a fantastic season with the Lightning, he was sent back the AHL in favor of a career backup coming off a career year.

If McElhinney continues the play that earned him this contract, then everything will be fine. If he struggles, however, then BriseBois may have set his goaltending situation back by trying to fix something that wasn’t necessarily broken.

Setting Expectation for Lightning’s 2019-20 Season

The 2019-20 season is going to be a weird one for Tampa Bay. By all expectations, this team will be a Stanley Cup contender, capable of winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the second straight year.

Related: Lightning Motivated to Complete Unfinished Business

On the other hand, the Lightning won’t be able to win 62 games again.
Opponents will be ready to fight back after having a full offseason to prepare, looking towards the Columbus Blue Jackets’ gameplan to learn how to frustrate star players and shut down scoring opportunities.

What this means is that the 2019-20 season won’t be easy. The Lightning are going to experience losing streaks, scoring struggles and goaltending questions, something that simply didn’t happen last year.

Tampa Bay Lightning Steven Stamkos

The 2018-19 regular season was too simple for the Lightning, as they started relying on raw talent to win games while developing bad habits. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

However, once they come out the other side, the Lightning will be a stronger team because of it. If they reach the playoffs, they will be ready to take a punch this time, instead of crumbling under the pressure.

Does this mean that the Lightning will win the Stanley Cup? No. The NHL is far too unpredictable to think that. What it means is that this should be the year that the Bolts get over their playoff hump. If they fail to do so again, then this team could look a bit different heading into the 2020-21 season.