The Hockey News’ 2018-19 Season Preview series dives into off-season transactions, best- and worst-case scenarios and one burning question for each team in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds.
Stanley Cup odds: 7-1
Key Additions: Danick Martel, LW; Andy Andreoff, LW
Key Departures: Chris Kunitz, LW; Andrej Sustr, D; Jake Dotchin, D; Matthew Peca, C; Peter Budaj, G;
Anything less than the Stanley Cup will be considered a lost season for the Tampa Bay Lightning. And there’s a good reason for that. This team, both on paper and on the ice, has what it takes to win it all. And the fact the Lightning are walking a fine line when it comes to the salary cap, this may be the year to go all-in for it.
Tampa didn’t make a single significant addition in the off-season to a group that was eliminated in the East final and was shut out in the last two games of that series by the eventual Cup champion Washington Capitals. But the Bolts are loaded at every position. They have a potential Hart Trophy winner and NHL scoring leader in Nikita Kucherov, one of the greatest goal-scorers of his generation who is channeling his inner Steve Yzerman in Steven Stamkos, the reigning Norris Trophy winner in Victor Hedman and a Vezina Trophy finalist in Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The final two games against the Caps notwithstanding, the Bolts have the firepower to score their way out of trouble, the defensive depth to shut down opponents, a goalie who led the league in wins and a lethal power play. It’s no wonder they’re expecting a parade in Tampa Bay.
The nightmare goes something like this: the Lightning come up short again in the playoffs and salary-cap constraints force new GM Julien BriseBois, who takes over after Yzerman stepped back into an advisory role, to break up a promising roster next summer. Only Pittsburgh has played in more post-season rounds than the 10 in which Tampa Bay has participated the past four seasons – and that was with the Lightning missing the playoffs two years ago – and only the Penguins and Capitals have played more playoff games. But the major difference, of course, is that the players on both those teams are wearing Stanley Cup rings while the Lightning players are not.
This group has a history of becoming complacent sometimes and underachieving at other crucial times. There seems to be something about this incarnation of the Lightning that prevents them from getting over the championship hump, and they didn’t bring in any new voices to help change the culture. It’s difficult to imagine a team winning the Stanley Cup with a penalty kill that was as bad as the Lightning’s was last year. As good as their power play has been, they had the league’s fourth-worst penalty killing during the regular season, and it wasn’t much better in the playoffs.
What splash, if any, does BriseBois make after taking over from Yzerman?
Unless you were living under a rock, you heard the chatter. With the Lightning looking to clear that final hurdle and reach their apparent destiny as Stanley Cup champions, Yzerman was looking to swing for the fences. The connection was drawn between the Lightning and Ottawa Senators, with Erik Karlsson as the reported target. When Karlsson was finally moved along, though, he landed with the San Jose Sharks, not the Lightning, leaving Tampa Bay possibly one piece short of a Golden State Warriors-esque super team.
However, with Yzerman stepping out of the GM chair, BriseBois might see the opportunity to do some tinkering of his own and do what he feels necessary to solidify an already Cup-contending roster. Ideally, that would mean an addition to the blueline, which has two solid pairings but is lacking on the third. Karlsson would have been the home run addition, but another target could emerge now that he’s off the market. If we’ve learned anything about the Lightning front office under Yzerman, it’s that they’re not afraid to be aggressive. If BriseBois takes the same tack, we might see the new Tampa Bay GM take his bat off the shoulder and swing hard come trade season.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 1st in the Atlantic Division. The Lightning are a powerhouse team, the kind you assemble in a video game with “force trade” on. Tampa Bay should win the Atlantic and go on to seriously challenge for the Stanley Cup.
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