Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com 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. Make 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 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Last season the Tampa Bay Lightning were unquestionably one of the best teams to come out of the Atlantic Division, but they still left fans wanting more. Their 97 point finish was good for second in the division, but a far cry from the 108 points that had landed them the same place in the division the year before. Still, the Lightning was a frightening team coming into the post-season, and many had the pegged for a deep run, and with good reason. Though their 46-31-5 record may appear a dip in performance, it’s anything but. Rather, it’s a sign of strength, of the depth of a team that lost some of it’s best players for a majority of the season.
Injuries hurt the Lightning last season, targeting their best players. The triplets line, one that had led the NHL in points, only had one member complete at least 70 games. Nikita Kucherov‘s 77 games topped both the 69 put forward by Tyler Johnson and the 64 accumulated by Ondrej Palat. Even though their offense was taking a hit, their defense remained steady.
Allowing just 198 goals against last season, the Lightning had the stingiest defense in the division and were the fifth best in the league. Their offense meanwhile was relatively unremarkable, 224 goals landing them in 12th, sandwiched between the New York Islanders and Nashville Predators, neither team known for the same high-octane offense that had come to be associated with the Lightning.
Leading the way for that offense last season was Kucherov. His 66 points narrowly edged him above Steven Stamkos‘ 64, but that’s where it begins to dry up for the Lightning. The pair were the only two to crack the 50 point margin, Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay’s third-leading scorer coming just shy at 47 points. It was a disappointing season for Johnson, whose 38 points in 69 games projects to just 44 across the whole season. Had Palat completed a full season he would have finished with 53 points. Overall the numbers are a substantial dip from the 199 points tallied by the trio just a year earlier, but without ample opportunity to play as a complete line, this could be no more than a blip as a result of injuries. More than anything this shows that Kucherov has a very bright future, and should be a piece the Lightning look to lock-up long-term.
One positive to take from last season was that after all the drama surrounding Jonathan Drouin when he finally did arrive, he did so with aplomb. The young star exploded onto the scene and was the team’s fourth-best scorer in the playoffs notching 14 points in 17 games. Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman was right to hang on to him.
The off-season for the Lightning was relatively quiet, or at least, as quiet as it can be when Steven Stamkos is an unrestricted free-agent. While there was media buzz aplenty, the Lightning have, for the most part, taken care of business efficiently. They re-signed face-of-the-franchise, and captain Steven Stamkos to an eight-year, $8.5 million deal, which alone should net Yzerman another year or two on his contract, but he didn’t stop there.
Yzerman inked franchise defender Victor Hedman to a gold-standard contract, retaining him for the next eight years at just $7.875 million. He also locked up goalie-of-the-future Andrei Vasilevskiy to a three-year $3.5 million contract. He also gave out a pair of cheap, one year deals for Nikita Nesterov and Cory Conacher in a masterful effort to maintain squad depth.
The only move made by Yzerman this off-season that has some nervous is the seven-year extension given to Alex Killorn. Though Killorn has proven he can contribute at 40 point clip, giving the 27-year-old $4.5 million until he turns 34 has some worried. It’s a significant amount, and could leave the Lightning with another Callahan-esque contract; especially with Palat, and Johnson RFA’s at the end of next season.
All in all, this is a 10/10 off-season, mired by one little detail. The Lightning have yet to sign Nikita Kucherov. The 23-year-old is the future of the team but finds himself awaiting a deal even as training camp gets underway. This is a situation that must be resolved if Yzerman hopes to keep his perfect off-season intact. Until then, an enormous shadow looms over what could be a textbook off-season.
2016-17 Line Combinations
Alex Killorn – Steven Stamkos – Jonathan Drouin
Ondrej Palat – Tyler Johnson – Nikita Kucherov
Eric Condra, Jonathan Marchessault, Cedric Paquette
A full season on the top line should see Drouin obliterate his rookie-year total of 32 points, and a healthy, intact triplets line will undoubtedly terrorize the NHL once more. The Lightning have the top six to contend, but more than that, they’re now showing the kind of depth that it takes to win a Stanley Cup.
In his second stint with the team expect Conacher to provide the kind of grit you can only get from little men. A Brendan Gallagher-lite, Conacher has proven useful before on the power play, and as a depth forward. Expect him and J.T. Brown to provide some valuable offense, and to boost the assist numbers of everyone’s favourite Irishman, Brian Boyle.
The return of Ryan Callahan from injury leaves the Lightning’s third line as a more typical checking line. Though they can score points, this line can wear you down through the cycle, or through board play, but they’re just as likely to wind up trapped in their own zone. If there were a single line that was cause for concern, it would be this one.
As for the depth players pushing for a roster spot or looking to be on the NHL roster with being a healthy scratch, there are a few names that immediately come to mind.
Eric Condra has always shown he can be a useful player. Although he has repeatedly proven he can’t be trusted on a breakaway, the man is a possession monster, and always ends up on the positive side of the scale. Jonathan Marchessault is someone who seemed to find Head Coach Jon Cooper‘s favour in the post-season. Expect him to compete with Conacher for that final spot.
Cedric Paquette seems the odd man out in the group. He brings a physical style, and plenty of grit, but isn’t as potent offensively as Conacher and lacks the natural size gifted of Biran Boyle. Establishing a spot in the line-up won’t be easy for Paquette, but he’s shown resiliency in the past.
As for names that have been making noise in pushing for a roster spot, look no further than Tanner Richard, who was dominant with the Syracuse Crunch last season, and at just 23 Richard could go on to surprise. Brayden Point is another name getting attention. Point’s been collecting 80 point seasons with the Moose Jaw Warriors in the WHL but has yet to crack the Crunch roster.
Victor Hedman – Anton Stralman
Braydon Coburn – Nikita Nesterov
The blueline is unequivocally the weakest link on this Lightning team. Lead by Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, the team’s top pair dominates ice-time and the opposition; but as you go down the depth chart, it gets a little ugly.Andrej Sustr has shown that he is capable of breaking even in the possession battle, though he plays slightly more sheltered minutes than his partner Garrison, who falls just under evens when it comes to shot-attempts. The same goes for the rest of the d-corps, the third pairing, won’t get shelled, but they aren’t driving offence either. This team relies on the strength of its top pairing to get them out of their own end, and into a place where their forwards can do the heavy lifting.
Looking forward to next season, we should expect more of the same, though the addition of Cory Conacher provides another speedy outlet winger as an option for zone exits.
When it comes to Tampa Bay’s defensive depth, the Lightning really does not have anyone to step in on the blueline should someone go down with an injury. Slater Koekkoek played nine games last season and showed positive results, albeit in very sheltered minutes. He’s the Lightnings best option for a seventh defenseman.
Ben Bishop is going to be the starter for the Lightning. End of discussion. Although Vasilevskiy has shown he is a more than competent goaltender, he’s unlikely to take the reigns from the 6’7″ giant for another season or two. Bishop played in 61 games last year earning a 35-21-1 record while posting a .926 save percentage, and 2.06 goals against average, both superior to Vasilevskiy’s .910 and 2.76 from only 21 appearances.
That said those are not the numbers fans have come to expect from Andrei Vasilevskiy, and as he has shown numerous times throughout his young career, he has the ability to be a top-notch goaltender. Overall this is a position of strength for the Lightning. They should expect a better season from their backup, and have no fear going to him should they need to.
Players To Watch
You don’t need to be told how electrifying Drouin can be. His playoff performance was spectacular and his 10 points in 21 games to finish off the regular season with the Lightning were a throwback to his rookie season. With the drama behind him, look for Drouin to remind the Lightning why he is such a valuable asset this season.
In his last stint with the Lightning Conacher tallied 24 points in 25 games playing alongside Steven Stamkos. That production ended up netting the Lightning Ben Bishop in a 2013 trade from the Ottawa Senators. The little man is back in blue, and ready for more of the same. He was a point-per-game player in the Swiss-A league last season, and it’s not unreasonable to expect 20-30 points from the winger over the course of a full season. The 26-year-old has shown he can do it in the lower levels; it’s time for a permanent position in the NHL.
Brown is one of the few NHL players who has openly supported Colin Kaepernick‘s protest during the national anthems. Already one American coach has said he would bench players if they protested, let’s see what another American coach will do if Brown joins Kaepernick and takes the protest to the ice.
Players On The Rise
What more needs to be said? His second full season alongside Steven Stamkos should be the addition to the top six the Lightning have needed, and will allow Ryan Callahan to play a more suitable depth role.
At 23-years-old Namestnikov has 127 NHL games under his belt. He has posted 51 points, 35 of which came in the 80 games he played last season. Regarding raw possession Namestnikov was the most dominant forward for the Lightning last season, and if he continues to see increases in his production, he will be a valuable depth forward for the Lightning who could force his way into the top six, and provide valuable competition for Alex Killorn.
Player On The Decline
At one point in his career, Ryan Callahan was a valuable top-six forward worthy of a $5.8 million cap hit. At 31-years-old that time has passed. Callahan can still contribute, but injuries are an ever increasing worry for the rough-and-tumble forward. Worse still, his contributions took a massive nosedive last season. Callahan managed just 28 points, half of his total from the year before. He may have a few years left on his contract, but another season like last year will surely make him a buyout candidate.
Paired alongside Ryan Callahan, Valtteri Filppula is another aging concern for the Lightning. The 32-year-old fared slightly better than Callahan, notching 31 points last season, but like Callahan, his $5 million contract looms large over the Lightning. Thankfully for them, his contract expires after the 2017-2018 season, two years less than Callahan’s.
The slowing production of Filpulla combined with Callahan’s could quickly see the Lightning’s third line transform into its fourth.
2016-17 Tampa Bay Lightning Season Prediction
Key injuries, and contract signings behind them, the Lightning, will power their way to the top of the Atlantic division standings, on the backs of Steven Stamkos and the triplets. Ben Bishop will continue to provide steady goaltending, although his results will fall slightly closer to a .920 save percentage.
Defensive depth will continue to pester the Lightning, but Jon Cooper’s systems will ensure that the forwards continue to provide ample defensive assistance.
Cory Conacher and Nikita Nesterov will provide surprising help and earn themselves another contract with the team. Jonathan Drouin will show he can be a dominant star in the NHL.
Final Prediction: The Lighting will finish first in the Atlantic Division. Their slight improvements offensively and continued defensive output will result in them making the playoffs as the division leader, and likely losing in the conference finals when injuries or lack of defensive depth catch up to them.