The Tampa Bay Lightning not only returned to the playoffs, for the fourth time in five years, but they also recorded a franchise-record 113 points in the process.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Lightning squad that was a Stanley Cup contender, but ultimately came up short.
It’s not as though the Lightning need to do anything materially different to be in contention next year. They lost in seven games in the Eastern Conference Final to the ultimate Cup champions, and have the ingredients needed to win in this league.
They have strength down the middle, superstar talent, a stud defenceman and a quality starting goaltender. Add in superior depth, and a prospect pipeline that should continue to feed the NHL club, and the Lightning are poised to challenge for the Stanley Cup for the next few seasons, at least.
Steve Yzerman/Jon Cooper
Victor Hedman – It’s certainly possible that the 27-year-old could win the Norris Trophy this season, after finishing third the year before. He tied for the lead among defencemen with 17 goals and the Lightning outscored the opposition 76-50 at 5-on-5 with Hedman on the ice.
Nikita Kucherov – An emerging superstar, the 24-year-old had a career-high 100 points and scored 31 of his 39 goals at even strength.
Andrei Vasilevskiy – The 23-year-old took on a heavy workload really for the first time in his career and, even with a late-season slump, finished with a .920 save percentage.
Ryan Callahan – While the veteran winger was healthy enough to play in 67 games, he managed to scored just five goals and was one of the few Lightning players to get outscored at even strength.
Andrej Sustr – The 27-year-old blueliner lost his spot, and ended up plaing just 44 games, with fewer than 13 minutes of ice time per game.
FREE AGENT FORWARDS
Nikita Kucherov is a 24-year-old playmaker who has seen his point totals increase each year that he’s been in the league. He has 79 goals and 185 points over the past two seasons, ranking third and second in the league, respectively. He’s on a ridiculously team-friendly contract, but will be a restricted free agent after next season, so a contract extension – with a massive raise – is in his future.
Back from an injury-shortened 2016-17 season, Steven Stamkos delivered better than a point per game, but did it with a shockingly low goal total, finishing with just 27 in 78 games. The last time he had a lower goals-per-game rate was his rookie season of 2008-09. His shot rate was down, but he turned into more of a playmaker, feeding Kucherov at even strength and then setting up shop for one-timers on the power play, where he scored 15 of his 27 goals.
After a fine rookie season, 22-year-old Brayden Point took his game up a notch in his second season. He’s not the biggest, but has improved his skating and has quickly emerged as a front-line player.
It was a long-time coming, but 26-year-old Yanni Gourde had a terrific rookie season. He’s on the small side, and that probably contributed to his not getting drafted, but he climbed up through the ECHL and AHL before breaking through. His production, at a bargain price, was a real difference-maker.
He got moved to the wing more frequently, but 27-year-old Tyler Johnson finished with 50 points, tying for the second most productive season of his career. He’s a solid complementary player, but if the Lightning feel a need to trim the budget, it’s possible that Johnson would be one to move, particularly because his no-trade clause kicks in on July 1.
He can get lost amidst the flashy stars among the Lightning forwards, but veteran winger Alex Killorn is a solid contributor who has missed two games in the past three seasons and finished with a career-high 47 points in 2017-18.
A lower-body injury cost Ondrej Palat a chunk of the season, but he’s a reliable and steady performer, capable of moving up and down the lineup and his consistency helps whichever line he ends up with.
Thirty-three-year-old winger Ryan Callahan still plays a physical game, but he is well past his prime, and has 22 points in 85 games over the past two seasons. It would be easier to deal with that kind of production from a fourth-line winger if he wasn’t also making $5.8-million against the cap for two more seasons.
Cory Conacher is a 28-year-old winger who hasn’t been able to stick in a regular NHL role, yet he remains a factor, and last season’s 36 games counted as his most in the league since 2013-2014. He’s still a part-timer for the Lightning, but he has some skill that isn’t always available from others on the roster bubble.
Acquired from the Rangers at the trade deadline, J.T. Miller scored 10 goals and 18 points in 19 games down the stretch, but managed just two goals in 17 playoff games. Nevertheless, the 25-year-old is a physically strong forward who can play both wing and centre and has established that he can play at the top of the lineup.
A fourth-line agitator, Cedric Paquette had just nine points in 56 games, but he’s a scrappy, in-your-face competitor. At the same time, he’s probably fighting for a job every day, especially on a team with such good forward prospects.
Andy Andreoff has been scrapping for his NHL life every step of the way, and was picked up in a trade from Los Angeles in exchange for Peter Budaj. The 27-year-old has 24 points and 18 fights in 159 career games. His results aren’t good enough to hold a regular spot, but if he’s an inexpensive low-maintenance fill-in option, that works, too.
He hasn’t been able to earn full-time employment in the league, but Adam Erne brings a physical presence, recording 108 hits in 49 career games. Like Paquette, he’s in the mix for a fourth-line spot, but also battling for a job.
Tampa Bay’s prospect pipeline is deep and talented. Anthony Cirelli made a late-season appearance and stayed in a third-line role for the playoffs, and the likes of Boris Katchouk, Taylor Raddysh, Mathieu Joseph, Mitchell Stephens, and Alexander Volkov are all conceivably within striking distance of an NHL job in the not-too-distant future. That’s a lot of quality forwards on the way, and should allow the Lightning to replenish their roster when they eventually need to let some veterans move on.
FREE AGENT DEFENCEMEN
One of the league’s best on the blueline, Victor Hedman has put up 33 goals and 135 points over the past two seasons, and while his possession numbers weren’t as dominant as they had been in the previous couple of seasons, there is no question that Hedman is at or near the top tier of the position, and he played a career-high 25:51 per game last season.
Acquired in a trade with Montreal, 19-year-old Mikhail Sergachev was astonishingly productive in a relatively sheltered role as a rookie. Since 2000, there have been two teenage rookie defencemen to produce more than 40 points in a season (Tyler Myers, 2009-10; Zach Werenski, 2016-17). Moving forward, he’ll take on more responsibility, with bigger minutes and tougher matchups. His future looks bright.
Injuries hindered Ryan McDonagh a bit as he was dealt from the Rangers to the Lightning, and that may have affected his performance somewhat. Even so, it was a smart move for Tampa Bay to make, because they still have McDonagh, at a very reasonable price, for next season.
Veteran Anton Stralman has been a reliable presence on the Lightning blueline, though last season’s 18 points was his lowest total in four years with Tampa Bay. He’s heading into the last year of his contract (same with McDonagh, Coburn and Girardi), so there are some decisions to make but, presumably, the Lightning would like to keep Stralman in a top-four role for more than just one more season.
When the Lightning signed stay-at-home defender Dan Girardi it raised some eyebrows because he had a horrific track record with respect to shot differentials, especially over the previous four seasons. Girardi’s shot metrics were slightly better, but he finished with his best goal differentials (54 for, 41 against at 5-on-5) of his career. In a third-pair role, that’s okay.
Six-foot-5 defenceman Braydon Coburn has settled into a more limited role – his 16:01 average time on ice last season was his lowest since his rookie season of 2006-07. The 33-year-old is fine, if a tad pricey, for that role, so it would be reasonable for Tampa Bay to seek out a trade, if possible.
Twenty-four-year-old Jake Dotchin has played 83 career NHL games, spending quite a bit of time as Hedman’s partner. He’s not necessarily first pair material, but a physical presence who could certainly slide into a regular spot if there is room.
The 10th pick in the 2012 Draft, Slater Koekkoek isn’t going to live up to that slot, but he’s been a serviceable pro in 76 NHL games. At this stage of his career, it might be better to get an opportunity with another team, just to see if a new environment might improve his chances of becoming a full-time NHLer. If that doesn’t happen, he’s potentially a depth option for the Lightning.
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2018-19 CAP|
FREE AGENT GOALTENDER
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2017-18 CAP||STATUS|
While Andrei Vasilevskiy stumbled a bit down the stretch, he was good in the playoffs, and he’s a 23-year-old who has now been an above-average starter for the past two seasons. He’s a rising star at the position and still reasonably priced for two more years, at which point he’ll still be a restricted free agent.
Louis Domingue, the 26-year-old who was acquired from Arizona, looks like he will secure the backup job. He has a .907 save percentage in 96 career games, which is suitable enough, but he’s not going to be pushing Vasilevskiy for the starting job either.
|Cal Foote||D||60||19||51||70||+31||Kelowna (WHL)|
|Boris Katchouk||LW||58||42||43||85||+53||Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)|
|Taylor Raddysh||RW||58||33||50||83||+24||Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)|
|Anthony Cirelli||C||51||14||23||37||+2||Syracuse (AHL)|
|Mathieu Joseph||RW||70||15||38||53||+10||Syracuse (AHL)|
|Mitchell Stephens||C||70||19||22||41||+17||Syracuse (AHL)|
|Connor Ingram||G||35||.914||Syracuse (AHL)|
|Dominik Masin||D||72||9||15||24||+25||Syracuse (AHL)|
|Alexander Volkov||RW||75||23||22||45||+19||Syracuse (AHL)|
|Adam Erne||LW||41||12||14||26||+4||Syracuse (AHL)|
|Erik Cernak||D||71||5||13||18||+30||Syracuse (AHL)|
|Dennis Yan||LW||43||13||10||23||+11||Syracuse (AHL)|
|Otto Somppi||C||59||28||55||83||+39||Halifax (QMJHL)|
|Oleg Sosunov||D||71||7||19||26||+35||Moose Jaw (WHL)|
|Alexei Lipanov||C||55||14||25||39||-5||Sudbury (OHL)|
No first-round pick.
The Lightning have approximately $68.1M committed to the 2018-19 salary cap for 18 players.
One top-nine forward
WHAT I SAID THE LIGHTNING NEEDED LAST YEAR
Depth forwards, one top-four defenceman, backup goaltender
Yanni Gourde, Chris Kunitz, Mikhail Sergachev, Dan Girardi
Tyler Johnson, Braydon Coburn, Slater Koekkoek, Jake Dotchin
PROJECTED 2018-2019 DEPTH CHART
|LEFT WING||CENTRE||RIGHT WING|
|J.T. Miller||Steven Stamkos||Nikita Kucherov|
|Ondrej Palat||Brayden Point||Tyler Johnson|
|Alex Killorn||Anthony Cirelli||Yanni Gourde|
|Cory Conacher||Cedric Paquette||Ryan Callahan|
|Andy Andreoff*||Matthew Peca||Mathieu Joseph|
|Adam Erne||Mitchell Stephens||Taylor Raddysh|
|LEFT DEFENCE||RIGHT DEFENCE||GOALTENDER|
|Victor Hedman||Mikhail Sergachev||Andrei Vasilevskiy|
|Ryan McDonagh||Anton Stralman||Louis Domingue|
|Braydon Coburn||Dan Girardi||Connor Ingram|
|Slater Koekkoek||Jake Dotchin|
|Dominik Masin||Erik Cernak|
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com