Welcome to the latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. Each day, we will take a look at a new team and examine three of their potential breakout or bounce-back players. What are these? These are players that have the chance to make a serious difference with their teams. Whether that’s as someone who finally finds their place in the NHL, or as someone who had previously been good but has struggled as of recently. Each day we will be looking at a different team! However, today we will take a look at the potential 2020-21 Tampa Bay Lightning key players.
2020-21 Tampa Bay Lightning Candidates
Signed as an undrafted free-agent, Yanni Gourde has become an important piece on the Lightning roster. Despite having a down season in 2019-20, Gourde made up for this in the bubble. Coming off an incredible playoff performance, Gourde finished fifth on the team in scoring. With 14 points in 25 games, Gourde had an even split between goals and assists. Looking towards the future, Yanni Gourde is poised for a bounce-back season.
Turning 29 years old, he was a 20-goal scorer in back-to-back seasons. However, he was held to just 30 points in total during his 2019-20 campaign. Despite his dip in production, his possession numbers went up. With a career-average 52.6 percent Corsi for, Gourde finished with a 53.2 percent Corsi For in 2019-20. On top of that, Gourde will continue to be a presence in the defensive zone. Starting in the defensive zone 55.3 percent of the time, he leads the team in the defensive zone starts. Now that the Lightning are strapped for cash, and if Alex Killorn does in fact get dealt, Gourde will be looked upon to fill some gaps by the time next season starts.
Moving on down the list, next we have defensive defenceman Erik Cernak. Finishing off only his second full-time season in the NHL, Cernak established himself as a physical presence in the Lightning defensive zone. At 6′ 3″, weighing over 230lbs, Cernak is a monster in front of the net. While he is not known for his offensive abilities, it what he does on the other side of the puck that counts. Cernak is at his best when he is defending.
Looking to next season, once he is officially re-signed, Cernak will look to build off of last year’s performance. Like Gourde, Cernak is also one of the team leaders in defensive zone starts with 52.8 percent. As Cernak continues to play, the experience will build as well. With Kevin Shattenkirk gone, both Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn are entering the last years of their contracts. These are both older players who are naturally slowing down. Cernak will be looked at to fill those gaps, possibly bumping him up to the first pair with Victor Hedman come to the season’s start.
Last but not least, another breakout candidate for the Lightning is forward Mitchell Stephens. Originally drafted by the Lightning in the second round, 33rd overall, of the 2015 Entry Draft, Stephens is here to gain an official roster spot. Finishing up his first season in the NHL, it was a short sample size but he provided fans with plenty to look forward to. In 38 games played, Stephens scored three goals and three assists. He added ten minutes’ worth of penalties and had a solid Corsi for of 53.4 percent.
Signing Stephens to a contract extension back in early October, Mitchell has continued to use his work ethic to make a name for himself. With all signs pointing toward Tyler Johnson not returning to Tampa Bay, the Bolts will look at Stephens as someone who can fill his spot. It will be a challenge to replace Johnson’s scoring abilities. Yet, Stephens has the offensive upside to replace said production — possibly. If anything else, the Lightning have continued to churn out prospects who make immediate impacts, despite not being first-round picks!
Looking towards next season, the Tampa Bay Lightning will, of course, look to repeat as the defending Stanley Cup Champions. With a pretty similar roster compared to last, these players can take that next step. The Tampa Bay Lightning will be a favourite headlining into the 2020-21 season.
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