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Lightning given top odds to win the Stanley Cup, but they have work to do this summer

The Lightning are the early favorites to win the 2019 Stanley Cup, but standing between Tampa Bay and a second trip to the NHL's winner's circle are some key off-season changes.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have suffered plenty of heartbreak over the past few seasons. In 2015, Steven Stamkos and Co. were handed defeat in the Stanley Cup final. That was followed up by a return trip to the conference final in 2016 only for the Lightning to come up short. And after an injury-riddled campaign cost the Bolts a berth in the 2017 post-season, Tampa Bay was back in the playoffs this time around only to see their 2018 Stanley Cup bid come up short in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.

But as the Lightning watch the Washington Capitals parade around D.C. with the sport’s greatest prize in tow, Tampa Bay can do so knowing that the feeling around the betting world is that next year is their year. Or at least that’s what the sportsbooks are projecting.

That’s right: despite the fact the Stanley Cup was just handed out to the Capitals, it’s not Washington, with 14/1 odds to repeat as champions, who are in top spot in the betting futures, according to Bovada. Matter of fact, the Capitals come in behind four Eastern Conference opponents, including the Pittsburgh Penguins (11/1), Boston Bruins (10/1), Toronto Maple Leafs (10/1) and, yes, the Lightning, whose 9/1 odds make them the Vegas favorite to win the Stanley Cup next season.

If the Lightning coming in at top spot on the betting board seems somewhat familiar, well, that’s because Tampa Bay has been basically locked into the top-five by oddsmakers over the past few seasons. Ahead of the 2016-17 campaign, the Lightning found themselves inside the top five at most sportsbooks. Entering the past season, Tampa Bay sat at 10/1, good enough to finish tied for the second-best odds. So, after coming within one win of advancing to the Stanley Cup final for the second time in four seasons, it’s no wonder the upcoming campaign is being seen as Tampa Bay’s time to shine.

That said, being the favorite and actually winning the Stanley Cup have absolutely no relation, and the question facing the Lightning as they head into the summer is what needs to be done to make sportsbooks’ faith in Tampa Bay’s championship chances seem prophetic rather than misguided.

We’ve already seen the Lightning make some off-season alterations with eyes on the upcoming campaign, of course. While they’re not major moves in that they’ll alter the on-ice personnel with which coach Jon Cooper can work next season, Tampa Bay made two changes behind the bench not long after their playoff exit, relieving associate coach Rick Bowness of his duties and “mutually agreeing to part ways” with assistant Brad Lauer. In all likelihood, though, that was only the tip of the iceberg in what could be a busy off-season in Tampa Bay.

Beginning with in-house free agency, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman will face some challenges this summer. The most pressing decisions will be what to do — or what to pay — restricted free agents J.T. Miller and Cedric Paquette. Miller, acquired at the trade deadline from the New York Rangers, is coming off of a career year and the versatile 25-year-old forward holds arbitration rights that give him some bargaining power. As for Paquette, a short-term, low cap-hit deal could be all it takes to keep the 24-year-old pesky winger in the mix. Another RFA concern will be Slater Koekkoek, though the financials on his re-signing shouldn’t be too tough for Tampa Bay to stomach. And truth be told, the Lightning’s $6.86 million in cap space, which could become more than $13 million if the cap rises to the top of its projected limit, should be more than enough to keep all three in the fold if Tampa Bay so chooses.

As for unrestricted free agents, Chris Kunitz, 38, will likely be allowed to walk, particularly if the Lightning want to get younger and add more speed. Meanwhile, one would assume UFA defenseman Andrej Sustr, 27, is also as good as gone given he was scratched for half the season and used sparingly — we’re talking below 13 minutes per night — when he was in the lineup. He was also nowhere to be found come playoff time if we needed any more indication that his time in Tampa Bay was likely over. Sustr might not be the only rearguard who gets the axe, however. As we noted Sunday, defenseman Braydon Coburn, 33, seems as good a candidate as any across the league to be bought out this summer. Given he’s earning $3.7 million to be a sixth defenseman in Tampa Bay, his cost outweighs his usefulness and a buyout could open up nearly $2.5 million in spending room for the Lightning next season.

And the potential for both Sustr and Coburn to be out the door is where free agency and the trade market kick in for Tampa Bay. 

It’s been no secret the blueline has been a target for improvement for Yzerman in recent years, and the Lightning’s acquisition of former New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, 28, at the trade deadline — and supposed interest in Erik Karlsson before that — addressed that need somewhat. The further emergence of Mikhail Sergachev should also bolster the defense, particularly if the 19-year-old builds on his defensive game. But really solidifying the back end is going to require a more talented fifth or sixth defenseman, one who can be trusted by the coaching staff as an every-game player. A John Moore or Nick Holden type might fit the bill and the Lightning’s salary structure if they come in under $2 million. And checking in to see how much of a raise Michal Kempny will want on his $700,000 salary after playing top-four minutes for the Cup-champion Capitals might be worthwhile, too.

Getting some additional stability on the blueline could go a long way for the Lightning, as well, because the defense was picked apart as the post-season wore on. That was particularly the case against Washington, who were a nightmare opponent for Tampa Bay and scored 23 goals across the seven-game set. That’s not to mention saving money on the bottom half of the defense by getting rid of the Sustr and Coburn contracts could go a long way in helping Tampa Bay have the cap space necessary to inject some additional offense into their lineup, too. The Lighnting's lack of strong scoring options outside the top-six came to roost in the Eastern Conference final when the Stamkoses and Nikita Kucherovs of the Tampa Bay lineup were slowed down.

Rest assured, if we estimate the Lightning’s cap space after signing their RFAs at about $6 million, there will be money to spend on bolstering the bottom-six with a Kunitz replacement who can provide some extra scoring. For that, a conversation with Thomas Vanek might not be the worst move, though the price will have to be right given the 34-year-old is fresh off of a 24-goal, 56-point season. He could be due more than the $2 million he made this past season. Riley Nash, 29, might not be a half-bad option, either, as he comes off of a career-best 15-goal, 41-point campaign. Speedy goal-scorer Michael Grabner can also bring some cost-effective punch to the bottom half of a roster, too, though the 30-year-old is streaky. Other veteran options that won’t cost a pretty penny could include 31-year-old Derek Ryan, 28-year-old Derek Grant or a reunion with 34-year-old Valtteri Filppula, though he’d have to be willing to take a sizeable pay cut.

All of this is to say that while sportsbooks are looking favorably upon the Lightning’s odds as Stanley Cup champions next season, Tampa Bay won’t find themselves in the winner’s circle for the second time in franchise history without some off-season tinkering. And given how painfully close the Lightning have come in recent years, you can rest assured that Yzerman will do whatever he feels necessary to get Tampa Bay back to the league’s summit.

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