Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2018-19, where Last Word on Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2018-19 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Puck Drop Preview: 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning
Following a summer that featured the blockbuster trade sending struggling forward, Jonathan Drouin, to the Montreal Canadiens for promising young defender, Mikhail Sergachev, the Lightning were poised to come out swinging. Tampa Bay got hot early and often. Their 54-23-5 record was good enough to secure their first divisional title since 2003-04. Having the most points in the East with 113 made them the heavy favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Their blockbuster Trade Deadline acquisitions of Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller from the New York Rangers increased this status even further.
Coincidentally, Tampa Bay not only hosted the All-Star Game and had an overwhelming presence on the Atlantic Division roster. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Victor Hedman were all selected to represent their division. Head coach Jon Cooper led the team from behind the bench. After being sidelined with an injury, Hedman was switched with Brayden Point. Despite this disappointing news, the Swedish defenseman still went on to win the Norris Trophy.
The Lightning coasted fairly easily through the first half of the playoffs. They won each series in five games against the New Jersey Devils and then the Boston Bruins. Tampa finally faced resistance from the eventual Cup Champions, Washington Capitals, in the Eastern Conference Final. Their season came to an end after seven games.
General Manager, Steve Yzerman has been busy this summer. The Lightning’s most pressing needs were to manage big contracts. Key players, Miller, Kucherov, and McDonagh were all locked up long-term. Earning deals spanning a length of five, eight, and seven years respectively, the core of this franchise shows lots of promise. Other important depth players such as Louis Domingue, Slater Koekkoek, and Cedric Paquette were all re-signed to short deals.
Lightning fans and the entire hockey world alike all kept a close eye on Yzerman for more than his contract renewals. This off-season has been highlighted by the trade rumors of Erik Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators. The clear-cut favorites for weeks had been the Lightning but they ran into cap space issues and the deal still remains in limbo. Though Tampa seemingly fell out of leading contention, Yzerman may have more tricks up his sleeve.
Extra: Andy Andreoff
Extra: Slater Koekkoek
Players to Watch
It’s hard to pick only a select few players to watch when the whole team is as lethal as this. Most of the focus will be on what the younger players can do. Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point each made big names for themselves. In Gourde’s rookie season, he recorded an amazing 25-39-64 across all 82 regular season games. Point broke out in his second year. He posted an equally impressive 32-34-66 in as many games. The two have solidified themselves as prominent top six forwards on a wildly elite team at such a young age. It’ll be interesting to see if they can repeat.
Two other youngsters look to prove themselves this year. Potential rookie, Anthony Cirelli, and the developmental project, Adam Erne. Cirelli produced well in the AHL and had a very solid run with the Lightning at the conclusion of the regular season. In the final 18 games of Tampa’s season, he went 5-6-11. It’s widely anticipated that he will have a rookie season that reflects last spring’s NHL stint.
Meanwhile, Erne has been a different story. He has bounced between the Lightning and Syracuse Crunch over the past two years. The 23-year-old puts up good enough numbers in the AHL but then comes up short when called up to the big leagues. While struggling with limited minutes, Erne has been re-signed to a one year “show me” contract this summer. He will have to fight hard for a spot on the fourth line with Andy Andreoff and Ryan Callahan when he returns from injury rehab. The window is quickly closing to be the player Tampa Bay’s front office thought he’d be.
Stanley Cup Aspirations
It’s not likely that the Lightning’s chances of winning their second championship slimmed at all this summer. With the amount of elite talent and staunch roster depth, Tampa once again proves to be not only favorites for the division title again but Cup favorites as well. As long as starting goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy can stay healthy, they have a legitimate shot. Despite division rival Toronto Maple Leafs improving monumentally on their offense, Tampa still has a better roster all-around. Winning the President’s Trophy, though not unattainable, will be tough given the strength of the Central Division. Nevertheless, all signs point once again to the Lightning representing the East in the Final for the first time since 2015. It’s Cup or bust in Tampa Bay.
Aside from the team being Cup favorites again, there are many individual accomplishments on the line. Nikita Kucherov finished last season third in points with 100 and tied for ninth in goals with 39. Given the improvement on the first line with J.T. Miller, his offensive production could see an even greater surge. Should Capitals captain, Alex Ovechkin still have a Stanley Cup hangover, the Maurice Richard Trophy could be open. With Edmonton Oilers captain, Connor McDavid‘s lack of elite wingers, the Art Ross Trophy is also very much attainable.
Vasilevskiy was another player who came just shy of collecting hardware at the NHL Awards this June. He finished third in Vezina Trophy voting. The Russian tied fellow finalist, Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets, for the most wins with 44. He also tied winning goaltender, Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators, for most shutouts with eight. Assuming there are improvements on his goals against average and save percentage, the Lightning netminder could be in the running for the Vezina once again.
WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 17: Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates with his teammates after defeating the Washington Capitals in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Capital One Arena on May 17, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)