Has Tampa recovered from its choke job?
An NHL record-tying 62 victories, a 3-0 lead in Game 1 of the playoffs…and the Lightning got swept in Round 1 by Columbus in one of the biggest upsets in hockey history. So, what have the Bolts learned? Maybe they have to keep their cool better after Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov emotionally imploded in the playoffs, earning a one-game suspension. Maybe they have to take the foot off the gas in the regular season, a lesson Washington learned when it finally lifted the Cup after it stopped winning Presidents’ Trophies. Or maybe Tampa has to change nothing. The other 62-win team, the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, didn’t win either – but did win it the next two seasons. As Lightning players stated after their defeat, one bad week at the wrong time did them in. Perhaps it was a fluke.
Will the new-look D-corps be an improvement?
Gone are veterans Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi. Kevin Shattenkirk, signed for cheap after the New York Rangers bought him out, brings mobility to the right side. He was a bust at his $6.65-million price tag in New York but, at just $1.75 million in Tampa, should be a bargain. He won’t be asked to handle shutdown defensive duty, and he’s been a consistently impactful possession driver on the offensive side relative to his teammates throughout his career.
Do the Lightning need more grit?
If there was a knock on Tampa entering the playoffs, it was a lack of nastiness, especially at forward. The Bolts’ deep, high-skill attack helped produce pinball regular-season numbers, but they, along with other all-finesse teams, bombed in Round 1 against a bigger, meaner opponent. Luke Schenn will add sandpaper on defense, but he’s seventh on the depth chart, and the Bolts didn’t add an impact forward who enjoys dirt under his fingernails. With RFA Brayden Point’s contract freezing GM Julien BriseBois’ cap space, pursuing a crash-and-bang forechecker such as Micheal Ferland, Wayne Simmonds, Brandon Tanev or Noel Acciari wasn’t an option. Size and physicality matter less than they used to but, in the past two seasons, the Capitals and St. Louis reminded us muscle still counts in the post-season.
Stanley Cup Odds: 7/1
The Lightning have been so successful turning no-names into good NHLers in recent seasons that our ears perk up every time one of their farmhands has a big year. Carter Verhaeghe, 24, isn’t even a lock to make the team but led the AHL in scoring last season. If he gets a look, we have to pay attention.