2017-18 NHL Stanley Cup Futures: Tampa Bay Lightning
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING +1500
In: Mikhail Sergachev, Chris Kunitz, Dan Girardi,
Out: Jonathan Drouin, Jason Garrison
Following back-to-back seasons which saw the Lightning lose in the Stanley Cup Final and the Eastern Conference Final, respectively, the outlook for 2016-2017 was promising. It was touted as the year in which this core finally takes the next step to capture the franchise’s second Stanley Cup. Instead, the Lightning missed the playoffs altogether.
What went wrong?
The start of the season was a defensive disappointment, as the team uncharacteristically deviated from their disciplined game and did not receive the consistent goaltending required for a championship team. However, they were able to win enough games to mask the troubling defensive deficiencies that were beginning to appear in their game.
It was only a matter of time before the defensive cracks became an abyss. Once Steven Stamkos went down, the Lightning were unable to out-score opponents and the team spiraled to last place in the conference with a 22-24-6 record.
Tampa Bay finished their season on a 20-6-4 run, and while ultimately it was not enough to qualify for the playoffs, the final third of the season will set the tone going into 2017-2018. Most notable will be the improvement in goal and on defense.
Once Andrei Vasilevskiy was given the keys to the net after Ben Bishop’s trade deadline deal, he made the most of his opportunity, posting a 12-4-2 record. With 50-55 starts as the expectation for Vasilevskiy, the young goaltender will be required to build on the potential he has shown without being forced to look over his shoulder. It is his time to shine, and I expect a Vezina-caliber season from him.
It is essential for Vasilevskiy to carry the load since the Lightning defense does have major question marks, especially since they were unable to address their need for a top four defenseman in the offseason. Consequently, the team will now be forced to rely on the development of an unproven back end.
If Tampa Bay is afforded the luxury of playing Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman on different pairings, the defense will hold up just fine. This is where the emergence of highly-touted prospect Mikhail Sergachev and progression of Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek will be vital. It is unfair to expect any of the three to carry the load in what would be their first full seasons, but if they continue to improve, there is enough depth with veterans Braydon Coburn, Dan Girardi and Andrej Sustr to fill out the defensive corps. The nightmare scenario would be if the kids are not ready and the three veterans are thrust into larger roles than what they are suited for.
The Tampa Bay offense is the least of their concerns, but it does boil down to Stamkos. With a healthy Stamkos, the Lightning will possess two dynamic scoring lines and a third line centered by Tyler Johnson. That’s deep. More importantly, it will allow Ryan Callahan to slot into a comfortable third line position and facilitate the low-pressure development of Yanni Gourde.
If the Tampa Bay Lightning can stay healthy, they should be a force offensively. If Vasilevskiy is ready and the defense behind the two studs proves to be serviceable, this team has all the tools required to be your 2017-2018 Stanley Cup Champion.
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DALLAS STARS +1200
ANAHEIM DUCKS +1500
CALGARY FLAMES +2500