Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2023-24 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team over the course of the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2023-24 Tampa Bay Lightning.
2023-24 Tampa Bay Lightning
Labelling the Tampa Bay Lightning as the NHL’s modern dynasty is more than fair. They’ve appeared in six Eastern Conference Finals over the past nine seasons. In addition, they reached the Stanley Cup Final in four of those six runs. To cap it off, they won the Stanley Cup twice in 2020 and 2021. However, the salary cap prevented the Lightning from keeping all their core pieces. The organization was due for regression eventually.
The Lightning entered the 2023 season low on gas in the tank. The players were exhausted from three straight Stanley Cup Final runs. They played 71 playoff games from 2020 to 2022, practically an entire extra season. Moreover, Tampa Bay lost key pieces Ondrej Palat and Ryan McDonagh due to salary cap restrictions. Despite their losses, the Lightning found themselves back in the playoffs with a record of 46-30-6.
Brayden Point experienced his long overdue breakout season, recording 51 goals and 95 points. Nikita Kucherov continued his dominant offensive play with 83 assists and 113 points. Furthermore, Brandon Hagel and Mikhail Sergachev made massive leaps in development. Both players notched 64 points on the year. Andrei Vasilevsky backstopped another solid season with 17.22 GSAx at 5v5. A rematch with the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t end in favour of Tampa Bay this time. John Tavares‘ overtime winner in game six sent Toronto to the second round.
Julien BriseBois didn’t have an abundance of work to do this summer. Tampa Bay is a team constantly strapped against the salary cap every off-season. In summary, the front office shuffled the depth of the roster. The Lightning made no massive moves whatsoever. BriseBois found players who fit the system of Head Coach Jon Cooper on cost-effective deals.
The only considerable loss for Tampa Bay this off-season was Alex Killorn. The veteran winger spent his entire 806-game career with the organization. Killorn will take his talent to the Sunshine State with the Anaheim Ducks. Moreover, Pierre Eduard-Bellemare joined the Seattle Kraken via free agency. Then, veteran goaltender Brian Elliott is currently an unrestricted free agent at 38 years old. Additionally, Ian Cole decided to join the Vancouver Canucks on a 3-year contract.
For additions, BriseBois signed a replacement for every player he lost this off-season. Conor Sheary signed a 3-year contract to replace Killorn. The speedy forward offers a high ceiling due to his unique chance generation style. Moreover, Luke Glendening signed to grab the vacant fourth-line center role.
Then, Calvin de Haan signed a league-minimum contract to play on the bottom defense pairing. Recently, Tyler Motte joined the club in September to assist the penalty kill. Other roster additions include backup netminder Jonas Johansson and power forward Logan Brown. Finally, the Lightning were involved in two trades. First, Ross Colton got traded to the Colorado Avalanche for draft capital. Then, Pat Maroon joined the Minnesota Wild in a cap dump.
Logan Brown – Luke Glendening – Tyler Motte
Outside of swapping Sheary for Killorn, the top six remain intact for the Lightning heading into next season. The unique feature of the group is the flexibility to mix and match the combinations. Hagel can slide on the top line for Stamkos on the wing. In addition, Sheary is capable of playing the left side on line one. Moreover, the Lightning can spread the talent of the stacked top line by moving Stamkos around.
The Lightning boasts one of the elite top lines in the NHL. All three players are more than capable of reaching 90-plus points. As for line two, Hagel will score no less than 60 after establishing himself as a legitimate top-six forward. Moreover, Cirelli has a floor of at least 40 points in him. The offensive side of his game needs to take a big step this year. The biggest wildcard in the group is Sheary. He has a large gap between his floor and ceiling. He can be a 50-point secondary scorer. On the other hand, he can be a 35-point role player.
BriseBois and the front office had a vision with the bottom six heading into the 2024 season. Recreate the line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow from the two Stanley Cup Championship runs. BriseBois and Cooper want to build a bottom six that can throw their weight around while still being impactful on both sides of the puck. He envisions his players being like Swiss army knives by being useful in multiple departments.
The fourth line has a different look. Brown, Glendening, and Motte are all first-year additions looking to make an impact. They will be heavy on the forecheck and responsible defensively. In addition, Motte and Glendening are monumental pieces for the 2023-24 Tampa Bay Lighting penalty kill. Brown will look to capitalize on another opportunity in the NHL.
Calvin de Haan – Zach Bogosian
All eyes will be on Mikhail Sergachev this season after his emergence during the 2023 season. Sergachev stepped into the role of Victor Hedman as the top powerplay unit quarterback. Moreover, Erik Cernak is the perfect partner to stay back when Sergahcev joins the offensive attack. The pairing logged 207 minutes together at even strength last season (per MoneyPuck), controlling 51.3% of the expected goal share. Sergachev averaged 24 minutes of ice time per game, the highest average of his career. Additionally, he was Tampa Bay’s top-minute eater in most games.
While Father Time is catching up to Hedman, he’s still a catalyst on the back end. Tampa Bay needs to rely on him to stabilize the top four. Hedman averaged 24 minutes of ice time a night. He proved his offensive chance generation is still intact through his expected goal numbers. However, production and defence took a massive turn for the worse. Luckily, Hedman and Perbix have experience alongside one another, playing 358 minutes together last season (per MoneyPuck). During that span, the pairing controlled 53.6% of the goal share. Perbix will look to build off his solid rookie season and establish himself as a true top-four defenceman.
The Lightning built their bottom pair with flexibility with four options heading into next season. Free agent acquisition Calvin de Haan and veteran Zach Bogosian will be the two to start the season. de Haan is a steady third-pairing defenceman looking to establish a permanent home to finish his career. He offers a two-way upside with puck-moving skills on the breakout. As for Bogosian, he brings physicality and an option for the penalty kill. However, Darren Raddysh is a name that shocked many at the end of last season.
Raddysh earned a call-up to the NHL after tearing apart the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch. He is a confident skater and puck handler hungry for more opportunities with the Lightning. Furthermore, health is a concern for Bogosian in 82 games. Expect Raddysh to earn a decent amount of time in the big league. Lastly, Haydn Fleury is listed on the roster in case injuries start adding up.
Goaltending has been the strong suit of the Lightning ever since Andrei Vasilevskiy kicked off his career during the 2014-15 season. The netminder holds a resume of two Stanley Cup Championships, a Conn Smythe Trophy, and a Vezina Trophy. The biggest issue for Vasilevskiy against the Maple Leafs was fatigue. The prime starter is 100% healed heading into the 2024 season. Vasilevskiy has a new backup in Jonas Johnasson. He is a massive stature at 6’5″ with limited NHL experience. Johnasson can get the job done when rested and give Vasilevskiy nights to rest against the worst teams. Additionally, he is significantly younger than former backup Brian Elliott.
Players to Watch
The organization is banking on an ultra-productive season from Sheary. He is the clear X-Factor for Tampa Bay because he will make or break the top six forward group. The loss of Killorn is a big hole to fill, but Sheary proved he can get the job done with the right linemates. Flashback to the 2017 season alongside Sidney Crosby, Sheary helped the Pittsburgh Penguins capture the Stanley Cup with a dominant 53-point performance in the regular season.
Sheary prefers quality over quantity in his offensive chance generation. He fires passes across to slot to open teammates, ranking 63rd percentile of “high-danger assists per 60” in 2023 (per All Three Zones). Furthermore, the 2023-24 Tampa Bay Lighting deploys one-timers in their offensive zone structure. Sheary ranked in the 82nd percentile of “one-timer assists per 60.” His chance generation style is the toughest to replicate in the league.
Hagel is a player to watch due to his explosive performance last season. In 81 games last season, Hagel scored 30 goals and 64 points. He transitioned from a third-line role player during the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs into a star just a season later. Moreover, Hagel inked an 8-year, $52 million extension with Tampa Bay that kicks in to start the 2024-25 season. Hagel is a workhorse with unbelievable stamina throughout the game. In period three, Hagel never takes his foot off the gas. Hagel offers more upside with full-time powerplay opportunities and the right linemates.
Prediction for 2022-23 Tampa Bay Lightning
Without making significant changes this offseason, the Tampa Bay Lighting should comfortably make a playoff appearance this season. While other teams in the Atlantic Division took steps forward, the Lightning have their core group rested. The focus will be another deep playoff run to continue the legacy the current core built. Tampa Bay is a playoff lock, but they will not be a powerhouse. Anywhere between first and third in the Atlantic is a reasonable projection heading into the 2023-24 season.