At the start of each season, there is a belief that every team has a chance to win the Stanley Cup. It is impossible to predict what can happen over the course of a year, so a team projected to win it all can struggle, where a team filled with upstart rookies and journeymen veterans can make a deep playoff run. For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the 2016-17 season was a letdown. The team that seemed so perfectly built for success struggled due to injuries, a weak defense, and uncertain goaltending.
Steve Yzerman took note of these issues and made big changes to the roster, starting with trading Ben Bishop at the deadline, shipping aging defenseman Jason Garrison to Vegas, swapping mega-talents with Montreal while signing veterans Dan Girardi and Chris Kunitz in free agency. With this newly retooled roster, the Lightning are looking to regain their form and do more than simply compete for the Atlantic Divison title.
Looking Into the Future
What are realistic expectations for Tampa Bay entering the new season?
It may be easy for fans to feel skeptical about the near future. After all, there’s no way to know how effective Steven Stamkos will be after missing the majority of last season with an injury, or if the team will be able to replace the offensive prowess of Jonathan Drouin. There are also questions about Andrei Vasilevskiy taking over as the Lightning’s starting goaltender and the effectiveness of a defensive unit that was underwhelming all last season.
With that in mind, the Lightning are still a Stanley Cup contender this season. If reports of a healthy Stamkos are true, then the team will not only have their captain back but regain their core leadership and goalscoring. Victor Hedman, a Norris candidate last year, will look to continue his success as he pushes to win the trophy this season. Veterans Kunitz and Girardi add some needed locker room experience and leadership, while rookies like Anthony Cirelli, Adam Erne, and Mikhail Sergachev will be fighting for the remaining roster spots.
All this signals a healthy organization for the Lightning heading into 2017. From top to bottom the team is built to win now. They have the right combination of players fighting to break into the league and veterans signed to solid contracts, hopefully keeping the off-ice drama to a minimum.
Working on Defense
Even the defense, which is arguably the weakest link for the team, could grow into a solid core unit if players like Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek are able to continue their development towards becoming complete defensemen.
Both players are likely to see increased playing time this season, especially if the newly signed Girardi fails to live up to expectations. This, along with the highly anticipated debut of Sergachev means the Lightning have assembled a defensive unit that could resemble the ones that backstopped the Bolts to the playoffs from 2014 through 2016.
Even the loss of Drouin could feel like less of a blow with the return of Stamkos. By the end of last season, the Lightning were largely able to fill in the scoring void left by their captain and almost snuck into the playoffs without his prowess on the power play. If the All-Star play of Nikita Kucherov continues, Stamkos should be able to slot right back into the top-line, power play role he is known for.
It’s Fun Until Someone Gets Hurt
A promising season could quickly fall apart if or when the injury bug strikes. Besides major injuries to Stamkos, the Lightning lost 10 players who missed nine games or more in 2016-17. These injuries occurred up and down the line-up, from star players like Tyler Johnson, Ryan Callahan and Ondrej Palat to grinders like Cedric Paquette and JT Brown.
For the Lighting, a healthy team is a successful team. If the majority of players suffer from day-to-day injuries as plagued them last season, there’s only so much success that can be expected.
Hold out for the Title
If they stay healthy, however, the Lightning are capable of competing for the Atlantic Division title. Sometimes it is foolish to set expectations high, but expecting anything less than a division title would be underselling what the team is on paper. Yzerman has spent years crafting this roster, and this should be the time to reap the rewards of that work.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.