Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2017-2018, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the starts of this hockey season and offers are insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around till the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2017-2018 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on the Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2017-2018 Tampa Bay Lightning.
Puck Drop Preview: 2017-18 Tampa Bay Lightning
In the 2016-17 season, the Tampa Bay Lightning pushed hard for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but ultimately fell short. The Bolts ended up in fifth place in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division. Finishing with 94 points, the Lightning settled for a 42-30-10 record and placed 13th in Goals For (234) and 16th in Goals Against (227).
Forward Nikita Kucherov recorded 40 goals and 45 assists, good enough for 85 points on the year. Jonathan Drouin also did his fair share of tallying up goals. He settled for 21 goals and 32 assists, giving him a total of 53 points. In addition to the veterans offensive contributions, a few young standouts added scoring deeper into the roster. Chief among them was young gun Brayden Point, who notched 18 goals and 22 assists.
The Lightning had their fair share of injuries during the season, but their biggest came when center and captain Steven Stamkos went down after tearing his lateral meniscus in his right knee. He was eventually ruled out for the rest of the season, including post-season, if they would have made the playoffs.
Even though they didn’t make the playoffs last year, general manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Jon Cooper have been busy during the off-season, making moves left and right.
First, the Lightning sent star goaltender Ben Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for backup netminder Peter Budaj. Next, they dealt star forward Jonathan Drouin to the Montreal Canadiens and got young prospect Mikhail Sergachev in return.
But it didn’t stop there.
The Lightning were able to snag Pittsburgh Penguins veteran Chris Kunitz and sign him to a one-year contract, as well as signing New York Rangers vet Dan Girardi to a two-year contract. They were also able to re-sign Ondrej Palat to a five-year contract extension and Tyler Johnson to a seven-year contract extension, rounding off the signings by announcing a two-year extension for Jake Dotchin.
Gaining players like Kunitz and Girardi add depth to the roster. Tampa Bay might not need it, but it will most likely pay off in the long run. Getting back Palat and Johnson add fire to the crucial attack that got the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final just a few years back. And with the return of Stamkos – hoping to play a full season – the Lightning are likely to make themselves Cup contenders yet again.
2017-2018 Line Predictions
Ondrej Palat – Tyler Johnson – Nikita Kucherov
Chris Kunitz – Yani Gourde – J.T. Brown
Dennis Yan – Brayden Point – Erik Condra
The first line is a line that Tampa will use frequently. Last year, that line took 282 face-offs and won 151. Johnson is one of the better centers in the league when it comes to the face-off circle. With Palat on the left and Kucherov on the right, the top line will rank among the best for this upcoming season.
The second and third lines have some of the more experienced players in the league and will add veteran presence to an overall youthful team. The second line will feature Stamkos and Callahan, while the third has Chris Kunitz. All three players can control the tempo and pace of the game if their linemates can contribute to the flow and work together.
The last line looks to have young stars. Brayden Point and Erik Condra add their style to the fourth line, which will likely be deployed in high-leverage game-ending situations.
Andrej Sustr – Jake Dotchin
Slater Koekkoek – Dan Girardi
Seventh defenseman: Braydon Coburn
The defensive pairings could range and be shifted a little, but this mock-up provides a glimpse into the likely order to begin the season.
Stralman and Hedman have led the way with the top pairing numerous times, so it’s no surprise that these two, when paired together, are essential to the Lightning’s defensive play. Not to mention that Stralman is very good at blocking shots, and Hedman is good at taking shots from the point.
The second pair also adds experience with Sustr and Girardi. These two experienced defensemen have shown that they can carry on the stellar play of the top pair if they can play at their highest level on a consistent basis.
The last pairing sees the unlikely coupling of a young gun with a more dynamic defenseman. Slater Koekkoek has had his fair share of time in Syracuse, which earned him a call-up with the Lightning. He’s impressed in multiple games that he played last season and looks to continue his play heading into the 2017-18 season.
Vasilevskiy took over the starting position after seeing Bishop head West. With the impressive record he notched towards the end of the season, it was no question that he would be the starter for the coming year, even with Cooper’s insistence on sharing the workload between the two netminders.
Despite Vasilevskiy’s importance to the franchise, the fact that Budaj spent so much time splitting games with one of the league’s premier goaltenders means that the gap in talent when interchanging these two should be minimal.
It’s tough to say who will be the starter set in stone, but Vasilevskiy knows this team and will likely begin the season as the number one.
Players To Watch
The 5’8″ center from Spokane, Washington had a good season last year. As a result, Johnson racked up 45 points. Before then he was on the rise to become an elite player for the Lightning. His rise to glory continues this season. The athleticism from Johnson is incomparable to any other young center in the league. Look for him to improve on his point total and continue to garner attention league-wide.
After filling the massive shoes Bishop left, Vasilevskiy went on to have a good record to end the regular season. The Russian goaltender went 23-17-7 with a 2.61 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage. He also recorded two shutouts.
Now that he has a wide open door for the starting spot, Vasilevskiy will need to stand on his head this season. A complete first full season as starting goaltender is in his sights and he will certainly be looking to impress. He has a lot to prove, and this season will be the perfect opportunity to show what he has to offer.
The 19-year-old prospect is the must-watch player for Tampa Bay as he’s suiting up for the first time in the Bay area. Although he’s only 19, the Canadiens must have seen something special in him when they selected him ninth overall in first round of last year’s draft. He could be the breakout player that puts the league, and the division, on notice.
Players On The Decline
Drafted in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, the 35-year-old has been around the league for quite some time. It’s clear that he has lost his groove, seeing him as the backup to Quick in LA for a good period of time. Since his arrival in Tampa Bay, Budaj was also the backup to Vasilevskiy but got playing time at the end of the season.
Although having a record of 30-21-3 is decent, his play has decreased and his form is starting to unwind. If he can regroup and perform well in his first season with the Lightning, maybe, just maybe, he can scoop up half the starts in 2017-18.
2017-18 Tampa Bay Lightning Season Prediction
When you first hear Tampa Bay Lightning, you automatically think of their success. The Stanley Cup in 2004 was the first in their franchise history. Then in 2010-11, the Bolts made it through all the way to the Conference Finals but came up short to the Boston Bruins 4-3. 2014-15 was a better season for the Lightning when they made it through to the Stanley Cup Finals – their second appearance in franchise history – but eventually fell to the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2. The following season, they came up short against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Conference Finals 4-3.
It’s no question that this team can make the playoffs. However, they need three things to happen in order for them to qualify this season: 1.) Players meeting expectations, 2.) A healthy Steven Stamkos, and 3.) Goals.
If that can happen, the Tampa Bay Lightning will finish second in the Atlantic Division and will most likely visit the Conference Finals.