THN’s PRE-SEASON PREDICTION: No. 6 in Atlantic Division
2013: 18-26-4. 14th in East.
KEY DEPARTURES: Vincent Lecavalier, J.T. Wyman, Benoit Pouliot, Brendan Mikkelson, Evan Oberg.
KEY ADDITIONS: Valtteri Filppula, Jonathan Drouin.
THE PROS: Between a perennial Rocket Richard candidate, the defending Art Ross champion and now a baby-faced No. 3 overall pick, not many teams have the firepower Tampa Bay holds. A top 10 offense for the past three years, rising to third in the league with a 3.06 goals-for average in 2013, the Lightning went 15-0-1 in games where they scored at least four goals last season. The power play, though not as high end, improved by nearly four percentage points. To touch up a Wayne Gretzky quote, you lose 100 percent of the games you don’t score a goal in, so the Lightning has that going for them. Unfortunately, there are two sides of the puck.
THE CONS: Well…everything else needs some work. Despite the terrific record when they scored at least four goals, Tampa Bay was putrid when they scored less than that, going 3-26-3. The blueline continues to be an issue for the team, both in terms of playing within its own end and in effectively advancing the puck to the well-armed forwards. This shortcoming also exposed Anders Lindback, who was acquired last summer to try his hand at the vacant No. 1 goalie position. The Swede was average, which forced GM Steve Yzerman back into the trade market to pick up Ben Bishop at the cost of Calder candidate Cory Conacher. And even though Bishop was an improvement (.917 SP), he still had a 2.99 GAA in Tampa, which speaks more about the defense in front of him. Yzerman failed to address his roster’s biggest shortcoming in the off-season, electing instead to give the farmhands a shot first (Mark Barberio), which doesn’t bode well for the immediate future. Even the strong part of the lineup, the forward corps, took a bit of a hit at center after Vincent Lecavalier was bought out and replaced with Valtteri Filppula. Lecavalier may have been overpaid, but he produced more than the ex-Wing will.
X-FACTOR: Victor Hedman, the only prized possession on defense, needs to step up and take charge of the unit. While his point production took a welcome step up over 44 games last season, he still has to show steady reliability over a full season. The blueline in Tampa isn’t going to be fixed overnight, but Hedman’s ascension as a huge, minute-munching, point-producing defender would help them get there faster. He doesn’t have to be Chris Pronger, but he needs to be better in his fifth NHL season.
PERIPHERAL PREDICTION: Radko Gudas’ beard is named MVP of Tampa Bay’s defense.
ATLANTIC NO. 6: TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING