The Tampa Bay Lightning have become one of the NHL’s best teams over the last five seasons. Sure, it helps to have generational players like Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman, but there is more that goes into a deep playoff run than three players. The Bolts dropped their first two preseason games — both to the Carolina Hurricanes — with a lot of their young prospects in the lineup. Here’s what the Lightning need for another successful season in 2018-19.
Yanni Gourde Needs to Repeat
Yanni Gourde played all 82 games last season for the Lightning and was an underrated surprise. His 25 goals were fourth on the Bolts, behind three All-Stars, Stamkos, Kucherov and Brayden Point. He was also fourth in assists (39) and points (64). If those stats aren’t enough, he led the club with a plus-34 rating.
Just four years ago, Gourde was with the Kalamazoo Wings, the Lightning’s ECHL affiliate. Although he played two games in 2015-16 and 20 games in 2016-17, last season was his official rookie season at age 25. A lot of Gourde’s success came in the dirty areas in front of the net, and Tampa Bay will be counting on him to clean up the juicy rebounds.
Sergachev Taking the Next Step
Mikhail Sergachev was another nice surprise last season. After Steve Yzerman traded Jonathan Drouin to the Montreal Canadiens for the Russian defenseman, I figured Sergachev would have a nice trial run and return to Syracuse or juniors, but his fluid skating and ability to activate offensively worked exceptionally well with Jon Cooper’s system.
In 2018-19, Sergachev’s defense needs to take the next step. He had some penalty issues as the season progressed — possibly showing the wear and tear of his first NHL season — and he averaged 15:22 TOI. If he becomes a top-four defenseman this season, his ice time will increase and there will be a few more bumps in the road. However, the Lightning handled it well last season and with a year of experience, Sergachev should make the team’s blue line stronger than last season.
The Bolts ranked 27th in faceoffs last season at 48.2 percent. Only the Arizona Coyotes, Canadiens, New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche were worse. However, many of their faceoff losses came at key moments, most notably in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final after Kucherov had a breakaway goal washed out because of a too-many-men penalty. Alex Ovechkin scored with 2.9 seconds left after Anthony Cirelli lost the ensuing defensive zone draw.
In my opinion, that was the turning point of the series. Had the Lightning won that faceoff, it would have been less likely that the Caps scored. Tampa Bay averaged the 8th-most faceoffs per game last season. You’re not going to win every draw, but winning the ones in the defensive zone is a must and, more often than not, will keep pucks out of your net.
Step up on the Penalty Kill
It’s no secret that the Bolts have one of the most dominant power plays in the league. With Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman and Point on the ice, you’re going to score goals. Where they need to step up is on the penalty kill. Too many times the team relied on Vasilevskiy to bail them out when they were shorthanded and while Vasy was one of the NHL’s best goaltenders last season, he can’t stop every shot.
The Bolts ranked 28th on the penalty kill at 76.1 percent. They were also 19th in goals against and there’s a correlation between the two. What made the team so dominant for much of the season was — you guessed it — scoring. They led the league with 290 goals for, but you can’t assume guys will repeat their 70-, 80-, 90- and 100-point seasons. One of the major reasons the Lightning didn’t get to the Stanley Cup Final was penalties. In 17 games, Cedric Paquette amassed 37 minutes in penalties and 10 players (including Paquette) had 10 or more penalty minutes. To be contenders this season, that will have to change.