On June 15, the Tampa Bay Lightning skated in Chicago, watching the Blackhawks lift the Stanley Cup after defeating them in the decisive sixth game of the Stanley Cup Finals. Not even four full months later, the 2015-2016 season begins. With no major roster changes, the Lightning essentially return with the same team that finished 3rd in the regular season, and won the Prince of Wales trophy as Eastern Conference Champions the season before. While that tends to be a negative thing in most sports, the Lightning made the smart move, as their young team can grow together and improve further than what they did before.
Looking at the forwards, the Lightning have one of the best players in the world as their captain is Steven Stamkos. Returning after sustaining a broken leg the year before, Stamkos lead the team last year with 43 goals, the second highest total in all of the NHL. Accompanying him is Ryan Callahan, who finished with 54 points last season, and Jonathan Drouin; who nhl.com listed as one of the eight potential breakout players for the upcoming season. Potentially the most exciting is the further development of the three players known as “the triplets.” Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov combine to be one of the most entertaining and productive lines in the NHL. Johnson, whose 72 points tied Stamkos for the most on the Lightning, should again center a line that will be a powerful weapon this year.
On defense, the outlook is also optimistic. Victor Hedman will line up with Anton Stralman to form a stout defensive top line. Hedman and Stralman, following up a season in which they combined for a +34, should remain a dominant presence against opponents. Hedman in particular is expected to make another leap in progress, akin to the breakout season he had last year.
In goal, Ben Bishop remains an outstanding last line of defense. Following a 40 win season, which was good for 4th in the league, Bishop played ably in the playoffs, even after suffering from a torn groin. If he is as healthy as he claims, Bishop should be able to improve his .916 save percentage which, while above average, was a drop off from his previous two seasons. Andrei Vasilevskiy, once he returns from vascular surgery to remove a blood clot, will back up Bishop. Vasilevskiy is developing into another world class goaltender, so the Lightning will have two highly talented goalies when he gets healthy.
Health, though, remains the biggest question mark for this team. Bishop’s torn groin and Vasilevskiy’s blood clot were recent developments that could potentially be nagging issues. Also, hockey teams always have injuries, so it falls upon the other players to pick up the slack should one of the stars go down. This is what hurt the Lightning two years ago, when Bishop got hurt and the team got swept out of that year’s playoffs.
Another concern is the potential for distractions. Stamkos is on the last year of his contract, and the two sides have yet to come to an agreement in terms of an extension. As Stamkos is one of the premier centers in the world, he will command both a huge contract, and lots of attention throughout the season. If the extension is not taken care of, will a young Lightning team be able to handle the media? If they don’t react well, the team might crumble under the spotlight, which will combine with the pressure of repeating their success from last year.
That said, the Tampa Bay Lightning should have another fantastic season. Expect them to contend for the President’s Trophy for the best regular season record, and also to be major players in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. Don’t be surprised if the city of Tampa schedules a parade down Channelside Drive next June.