You’re reading the newest edition of THN.com’s Burning Questions series, a continuing feature in which we ask three crucial questions about every NHL franchise. In today’s file, we’re posing three burning questions about the Tampa Bay Lightning:
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS FOR THE LIGHTNING IN 2022-23:
1. Can the Bolts once again defy the odds and make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final?
There were more than a few people last season who didn’t see the Lightning running the table in the Eastern Conference and set up a showdown for what would’ve been their third consecutive Cup victory, but those people were proven wrong by the veteran-laden Tampa Bay core and their deep pool of talent overall. The Bolts were nearly eliminated in the first round by Toronto, but Tampa superstar goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy found his game late in the series and carried them through to the second round, where they swept the Atlantic Division-champion Florida Panthers before outlasting the New York Rangers in six games of the Eastern Final.
Ultimately, the Lightning lost to a better, deeper Colorado Avalanche team in the Cup Final, but they proved to everyone they still have gas in the tank, and still should be regarded as a Cup frontrunner. Tampa Bay GM Julien BriseBois had to say goodbye to veteran contributors Ondrej Palat and Ryan McDonagh, who departed via unrestricted free agency and trade, respectively, this summer. However, the Bolts still have a superstar at every key position – Vasilevskiy in net; perennial Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman on defense; and Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov at forward – and they still have impressive depth virtually everywhere.
The Atlantic Division is going to be even tougher this season, and good luck on the health front is going to be necessary for Tampa Bay to finish with home-ice advantage in the post-season this year. But the Lightning’s players know full well the real test will come once the playoffs begin, and they’ve demonstrated they can once again rise to the challenge and be difference-makers when the games really count. Betting against them in the playoffs wouldn’t be a wise thing to do.
2. What do the new guys have to offer – especially the new-ish players acquired midway through the year last season?
BriseBois did make some roster additions this summer – veteran forward Vladislav Namestnikov signed as a UFA for his second tour in Tampa Bay; 33-year-old blueliner Ian Cole signed a one-year, $3-million deal to help soften the blow of losing McDonagh; and depth players Philippe Myers and Hayden Fleury also were added to the defense corps – but, for the most part, the Lightning’s lineup is the same as it was last season.
In many ways, that’s good news – management and head coach Jon Cooper can rely on talents they know can deliver wins in high-pressure situations – but there are a couple of players acquired before the trade deadline last season who are going to be important contributors for them in 2022-23.
The first is winger Brandon Hagel, who was acquired from Chicago along with two fourth-round entry draft picks in return for forwards Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk, and two conditional first-rounders in 2023 and 2024. That is not an insignificant sum for Tampa Bay, but they’re clearly in win-now mode and willingly surrendered part of their future in order to bring in the 24-year-old Hagel, who at the moment is a big-bargain asset at only $1.5 million per season for this season and the 2023-24 campaign.
Hagel didn’t generate a lot of offense as a Bolt – he posted only four goals and seven points in 22 regular-season games, and in the 2022 playoffs, he had only a pair of goals and six points in 23 games – but in 55 games with the sad-sack Blackhawks last year, he had 22 goals and 37 points. Clearly, BriseBois believes he can be a notable force on offense, and as per CapFriendly.com, Hagel projects as Tampa Bay’s second-line winger, so he’s going to get good opportunities to thrive.
The other in-season key acquisition last year is 27-year-old center Nick Paul, who was acquired for bottom-six forward Mathieu Joseph and a fourth-rounder in 2024. Paul was brought in in part for his size (at 6-foot-3, he’s tied with Corey Perry as the Lightning’s tallest forward), and he stepped up in a major way in the post-season, scoring both goals in Tampa’s Game Seven win over the Leafs, and chipping in five goals and nine points in 23 games. BriseBois committed to keeping Paul around for the long term when he signed him to a seven-year, $22.05-million contract this summer, and Paul will be the Lightning’s second-line center between Hagel and veteran Alex Killorn – at least until injured center Anthony Cirelli returns to action in or near December. Regardless of what line Paul is on, the Bolts need him to be just as clutch to take the pressure off other forwards, and he’s shown the ability to move the needle when it counts.
3. Will Tampa Bay rely more on backup goalie Brian Elliott in order to keep starter Andrei Vasilevskiy fresh and healthy for the playoffs?
The short answer here is “yes", as Cooper likely will turn to the 37-year-old Elliott to reduce the wear-and-tear on Vasilevskiy. Last season, Vasilevskiy played a whopping 63 regular-season games, and Elliott played in the other 19. Elliott posted respectable individual numbers (including a 2.43 Goals-Against Average and .912 Save Percentage), but ideally, he should be playing 25-30 games this coming year.
If Elliott slumps or is injured, the Lightning don’t have a ready-made NHL-level goalie to take over the backup job, and BriseBois may look to the trade market to add an experienced hand in net. Tampa Bay is capped out, though, so any move management makes will have to be a dollar-for-dollar deal, or require a trade partner to retain some salary, likely in exchange for a solid prospect or higher draft pick. Bolts brass knows their playoff success likely depends on Vasilevskiy, but to get there, they will need more out of Elliott this season.