After what has felt like one of the shortest summers ever, the Tampa Bay Lightning are back in action when the puck dropped on Thursday, October 13. And after falling just one game short of the Stanley Cup Finals last spring, that game didn’t come soon enough.
The team that fell just short of beating the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins will be bringing back almost the exact same lineup this season, with a few notable upgrades. As long as they can stay healthy, there is championship upside in Tampa Bay next spring.
Key Players to Watch This Year
Steven Stamkos - After skating through trade rumors for more than a season now, Stamkos chose to stay with the Lightning and signed a massive free agent deal during the offseason. Look for the captain to be back in action anchoring the top line.
Jonathan Drouin - Set to become a restricted free agent following this upcoming season, there is a lot of money to be made if Drouin can put together an entire season of scoring like he did in the playoffs last year.
Nikita Kucherov - As a restricted free agent that didn’t agree to a deal all summer, we have to worry that the status of Kucherov’s contract is creating a distraction in the locker room. It’s also possible that general manager Steve Yzerman could ship him out of town because of it.
Tyler Johnson - TJ scored nearly 30 goals just two seasons ago, but something wasn’t quite right for pretty much the duration of the 2015-2016 season. He says that it was a lingering wrist injury and that all systems are go to get back to scoring goals for the second line this season.
Ben Bishop - Expect Bishop to get the Stamkos treatment as this year’s “player in the last year of his contract.” Rumors are going to fly all season long, but as long as Ben is healthy and productive in the net, expect him to be the goaltender the Bolts look to in the playoffs.
Andrei Vasilevskiy - The Lightning’s uber-talented backup goaltender showed impressive form after taking over for an injured Bishop in the conference finals last spring. He then signed a 3-year extension this offseason. If anything happens to Bishop, this young goalie is more than capable of stepping up.
Storylines to Watch
In addition to the storylines that are related to individual players, there are three key things that are going to make or break the upcoming season for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
First and foremost, the team needs to be more explosive with scoring, particularly on the power play. Tyler Johnson returning to form could be a big factor there, but look to see if the rest of the team can chip in as well.
The second major story to watch this season will be whether or not the Bolts are able to get any impact from their youngest players. Slater Koekkoek is the guy most people expect to contribute in his first full season, but watch for other young players to come up from their farm team, the Syracuse Crunch, over the year.
Finally, the Lightning are going to have to do something about the fact that they have two outstanding goalies and the expansion draft is looming following the season. If the team is playing well, they likely will keep Bishop for another playoff run and risk losing Vasilevskiy in the draft. But if injuries slow this team down, there is a good chance Bishop gets traded for more young talent.
Barring any major injuries, this Tampa Bay Lightning team is going to be a slight improvement on the outstanding team that took the Penguins to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. They should be thrilling to watch and make a run deep into the playoffs…so get ready for plenty of hockey nights in Tampa!