Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2015-16, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2015-16 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Puck Drop Preview: 2015-16 Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa battled with the Montreal Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings all season long for playoff positioning. They ultimately finished the regular season with 50 wins and 108 points, 2 shy of Montreal’s 110 points for first in the Atlantic Division.
In the post season, they first squared off against the Red Wings. After a 4-0 Detroit victory in Game Five, it looked like the Wings might take the series, but Tampa came back strong in Games Six and Seven to avoid a first round elimination in consecutive years. They then faced the Canadiens, who struggled to beat Tampa this year, but were also the team that swept the Bolts the season before. Tampa stormed out to a 3-0 series lead, and eventually won it in Game Six.
They then got to play against the defending Eastern Conference champions, and President’s Trophy winning New York Rangers. The series went back and forth, with each team winning games in dominant fashion. Tampa would prevail in Game Seven, with a 2-0 shutout victory in Madison Square Garden. They met the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final, which was their first time reaching the Final since winning it all in 2004. Chicago took the opener, but Tampa responded with two wins to take a 2-1 series lead. With Tyler Johnson playing with a broken wrist, and Ben Bishop having a torn groin, Tampa was simply outmatched by the Hawks, and lost the next three games to end their season.
The Lightning were relatively quiet in the offseason. Most of the team is returning, with the exception of Brenden Morrow, who walked as a free agent. Erik Condra was brought in to replace him on the fourth line, as he was signed to a 3-year $3.75 million contract. Ray Emery was signed to a professional tryout, and should be able to get himself a contract considering Andrei Vasilevskiy will miss 2-3 months after getting blood clots removed.
At the draft, Tampa used their two second round picks to select centre Mitchell Stevens, and defenceman Matthew Spencer. They also had two third round selections, and used those picks on Dennis Yan and Anthony Cirelli.
2015-16 Opening Day Lineup
Valtteri Filppula – Steven Stamkos – Ryan Callahan
Ondrej Palat – Tyler Johnson – Nikita Kucherov
Jonathan Drouin – Cedric Paquette – Alex Killorn
Vladislav Namestnikov – Brian Boyle – Erik Condra
Victor Hedman – Anton Stralman
Jason Garrison – Braydon Coburn
Matt Carle – Andrej Sustr
Players to Watch
Kucherov broke out in the 2014-15 season, posting 29 goals and 65 points. He was also a key contributor in the playoffs, scoring 22 points in 26 games. After developing chemistry with Ondrej Palat and Johnson to create the “triplets line”, it will be interesting to see how he performs this season. The hockey world is well aware how effective this line can be, but many teams will still be forced to save their top defenders for Steven Stamkos. When that happens, that allows Kucherov to face lesser competition, increasing his production. He’s only 22 years old, and still has plenty of upside. Look for him to improve on last season and push for 70+ points.
Hedman took a bit longer than expected to break out, but he finally did in 2013-14, when he reached 55 points. Last season, he was limited to just 59 games, but scored 38 points in the process. He has taken great strides as of late, and should continue to do so. The 24-year-old boasts tremendous potential, and was beginning to be recognized as an all-star defenceman during last year’s playoff run. If he can stay healthy, this could be the year his name is mentioned with the likes of Shea Weber and Drew Doughty as an elite defenceman in the NHL.
On the Rise
There was plenty of hype surrounding Drouin at the start of last season, however he didn’t live up to it. He played in 70 games, while only scoring four goals and 32 points. Don’t let that disregard the talent he has. He’s only going to get better with more experience, but he’s not going to be rushed either. Other young Bolts were allowed to develop properly, and that’s been turning out incredibly for them. It will be the same with Drouin, he’ll have to earn his ice time, rather than just be placed on Stamkos’ wing without earning it. Drouin should take another step forward in his development this year, and become a regular contributor in Tampa’s top nine forward group.
On the Decline
Carle has seen his rate of production decline after each year he’s spent in Tampa Bay. Primed for a spot on the bottom pairing, that will likely happen again this year. With Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Jason Garrison, and now Braydon Coburn ahead of him on the depth chart, Carle is no longer a key cog on defence like he was in Philadelphia a few years ago. He is still a dependable bottom pairing defeceman, and helps make Tampa’s defence one of the best in the Eastern Conference. But it’s unrealistic to expect the same type of production out of him anymore.
Tampa Bay enters the season with almost the exact same lineup as last year. They still have great goaltending, a very strong defence, and their offence is one of the best in the league. There is still some work to do regarding contracts, but General Manager Steve Yzerman will find a way to get Stamkos signed. Their team is very young, and could be better than last year. Head Coach Jon Cooper has done a fantastic job with his team, and knows how to get them to play at their best. The Atlantic Division will surely be won by either them or Montreal, and the Lightning will also be in the running for the President’s Trophy. They are a true Cup contender, and will be looking to get back to the Finals. If they can keep everyone healthy, this will be a very difficult team to beat come playoff time.
NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 17: Nikita Kucherov #86 celebrates a goal with Ondrej Palat #18 and Tyler Johnson #9 of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first period during a game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on November 17, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)