There are not many teams that can say they lost their best forward early in the season, sustained injuries to key players, dealt expiring contracts at the trade deadline and still came within one point of making the post-season.
During the summer, the Lightning moved Jonathan Drouin to Montreal for Mikhail Sergachev, added four-time Stanley Cup winner Chris Kunitz via free agency, and locked up winger Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson on long-term deals.
Steven Stamkos returns after playing just 17 games before suffering a season-ending knee meniscus tear. Ryan Callahan also returns after a hip injury limited him to just 18 games.
The main reason for Tampa Bay staying in the playoff race was Nikita Kucherov, who scored a career-high 85 points (40 goals and 45 assists). The dual threat of Kucherov and Stamkos could make John Cooper’s club one of the more potent offenses in the league, with Johnson, Palat, Callahan, Kunitz, Alex Killorn, Brayden Point and Vladislav Namestnikov providing secondary scoring.
Point scored 40 points in his rookie campaign and gives Cooper the option to go three deep up the middle with Stamkos and Johnson or move Stamkos to the wing.
Tampa Bay has one of the league’s top blueliners in Victor Hedman and an effective top pairing with fellow Swede Anton Stralman. They will be heavily reliant on youngsters taking a step forward to improve this season.
With Jason Garrison claimed by Vegas in the expansion draft, GM Steve Yzerman brought in veteran Dan Girardi (fresh off a buyout from the New York Rangers), who along with Brayden Coburn will provide stability and experience.
A key to the blueline will be if Mikhail Sergachev is ready to make the jump. The 19-year-old rookie has looked up to the challenge during the pre-season and is one of the most highly ranked prospects in the NHL.
Andrej Sustr, Slater Koekkoek, and Jake Dotchin will all be in the mix for playing time. The 6’7” Sustr is a massive presence on the blueline, but his lack of speed is at times a liability. Koekkoek and Dotchin split time between Tampa and their AHL affiliate in Syracuse.
Yzerman moved Ben Bishop at last year’s trade deadline to give Andrei Vasilevskiy a head start at being the #1 goaltender. The 23-year-old went 23-17-7 last season in a career-high 50 games. Vasilevskiy had some inconsistencies in his game that he was able to compensate for with superior athletic ability, but he made fewer mistakes last season and appears fully capable of handling the starting job.
Veteran backup Peter Budaj was re-signed after being acquired in the Bishop deal. The 35-year-old did a remarkable job filling in for the injured Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles.
Looking ahead to trade deadline – if sellers who could be on the move. If buyers, what area might they need to improve? Kunitz, Sustr, J.T. Brown and Erik Condra are unrestricted free agents, which means that if Yzerman sells at the deadline, he will not be expecting to get back a big return.
If the Lightning are buyers, they will most likely be targeting defensive help because either their youngsters are not ready or their veterans are not capable of handling a large role.
What rookies could make the team? Sergachev will almost certainly be on the opening night roster. Dotchin has already developed a reputation for questionable hits and could be someone who keeps opposing forwards on their toes.
Adam Erne got a look at the end of last season and may not be too far away from being an NHL regular.
Which player could take a step forward this season? Point took on more responsibility than anyone expected a 20-year-old out of the WHL to be capable of and with Stamkos back, could provide a big matchup problem for the opposition playing on a third line.
Which players could regress? Coburn is 32, and his mobility is already a concern. The same goes for Girardi, who has made his living blocking shots. Cooper will have to manage their minutes to prevent them being liabilities.
How will the team do this season? Success for Tampa will be contingent on them being able to stay healthy, especially Stamkos, who suffered his second major injury in four years, but they did prove that they could whether losses and still be competitive.
Expect the Lightning to finish first or second in the Atlantic Division and depending on their defense, the leading candidate to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.