As the NHL All-Star game approaches, the Tampa Bay Lightning have reestablished themselves as a potential contender in a very crowded and competitive Eastern Conference after rattling off a seven game winning streak to start the new year. Before breaking down the last game prior to the break occurring, it’s time to hand out some midseason progress reports about where the who on the team has exceeded expectations, who hasn’t, and what the team where the team will end up finishing in the second half of the season.
Nikita Kucherov- In a team full of inconsistencies this year, Nikita Kucherov has been one of the lone constants all season. Kucherov has played in every game this season while being the dominant offensive spark the Lightning have needed from their top-tier forwards and centers. Kucherov leads the team in points with 41, and is tied with Steven Stamkos for goals scored with 20. Outside of the stats though it’s been clear to anyone watching the Lightning this season that anytime Kucherov steps on the ice he is a threat to score or facilitate a score. Kucherov’s effort is never in question. He looks quicker than most of the other players he is on the ice with and that can be contributed to his continued growth as a young pro who is getting the benefit of a few off seasons within a professional organization that has been able to develop young scoring talent. If the Lightning make a run to win the division it will likely be due to Nikita Kucherov’s continued success. If we had to name a midseason team MVP, Kucherov would absolutely be on that short list if not the obvious choice.
Vladislav Namestnikov- While not an afterthought coming into the season by any means, most Bolts fans did not expect Namestnikov to be the fourth in points on a loaded offensive Eastern Conference Champion team halfway through the season. However, Namestnikov has been absolutely stellar in his continued development in his first full season in the NHL. He has been plugged in to multiple lines throughout the year due to the litany of injuries and has done exactly what the team needed when called upon. The youngster has been able to facilitate on the power play with some tremendous passing, while also chipping in 10 goals of his own when the team has needed scoring. The most impressive and telling stat showing how great Vladislav has been is his +/- leading the team at plus 15. For a guy who has played on several different lines he has managed to make those around him better or compliment those around him, which is the sign of a great player. The Lightning came into this season hoping to see a big jump by the highly touted prospect Jonathan Drouin, instead they look to be getting that jump from lesser touted Namestnikov.
Ben Bishop- Became the big time consistent goaltender the Tampa Bay Lightning had been looking for since Nikolai Khabibulin as he led the Bolts to the Stanley Cup Finals last year. Only an injury robbed Bishop of his chance to put on a show in the Cup final, leaving Bolts fans excited to see what Bishop would look like coming off his best season of his career last year. Bishop has not disappointed, being in the top 5 in goals against by hovering around only allowing 2 goals a game. Bishop would likely have even more than his current 19 wins on the season if only he’d gotten a little more offensive support during the first couple of months of the season. Bishop saw several early losses allowing only one or two goals, so it’s been nice to see the team start to reward him with some offense these last two months rewarding Bishop’s excellent play. Inevitably the Bolts chances will be tethered to Bishop’s health and his ability to keep goals out of the net. If the first half of the season is any indication the Lightning are in great hands going forward with a net minder who can take over any game he is in and shut down even the most potent scorers when he is in net.
Tyler Johnson- Expectations are everything; no more so than with the young up and coming star Tyler Johnson who continued to build on his terrific 2nd season last year, which he scored 29 goals, and tallied 72 points in the regular season. He also was a monster all the way through the Lightning’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals putting in 13 goals. On the precipice of a new contract the team was expecting the youngster to continue his growth and anchor the talented “Triplets” line that wrecked havoc on opposing blue lines last year, however his growth hasn’t carried over into the new season. Part of the regression is likely due to Johnson suffering an injury early in the season, but there is no question Johnson has looked lost at times this year, either overwhelmed by the new attention defenders are paying him or by trying to do a little too much and forcing the issue at times. Johnson is in line to get a very sizeable raise if he is able to continue his strong play from a season ago but half way into this season his production is not that of a top tier player; which the club & fans now view Johnson to be. Expectations are everything, and Johnson is only on the disappointment list so far because everyone expects so much out of him.
Ryan Callahan- The good news is Ryan Callahan has managed to stay healthy this season, something that previously had eluded the talented winger for much of his career. The bad news is despite playing in 47 of a possible 48 games this year he has only accounted for 14 points (5 goals/ 9 assists) with a minus 5 +/- in those 47 games. This money Callahan is making, and the line he is supposed to help anchor a 28 point season is not going to cut it if the Lighting are to make another deep cup run. A strong second half can easily erase a lack luster start this season but currently Callahan has been a disappointment this year.
Jonathan Drouin- It’s tough to make a worse contribution than the youngster has done to the Lightning this year but with the latest failure to even honor his minor league assignment like a professional it’s safe to say the 3rd overall pick from 2013 has been a total disaster. It’s tough to say what will come of his career since he’s still so young but right now suspended indefinitely in Syracuse he doesn’t look to be able to help this club in the foreseeable future.
Where are they are headed:
This Lightning club has been maddeningly inconsistent this year, showing at times they can skate with any team in the league dispatching top teams with ease; while following up with long stretches of stagnant offense and penalty riddled losses to lower rung teams. If the Lightning can find any kind of scoring consistency from their top two lines, and Ben Bishop can stay dominant & healthy they will be in contention for the division all year. I think the Bolts likely end up with 96 to 100 points and a 3, 4 or 5 seed in the playoffs. How far they go in the playoffs is anyone’s guess but a healthy Ben Bishop and a plethora of scoring forwards & centers now with playoff experience make the Lightning as dangerous as any team in the playoffs once they get in.
JANUARY 27 VS. TORONTO
The Toronto Maple Leafs are in the midst of a competitive race for the bottom of the conference, and hoping to secure the number one overall draft pick as they attempt their what seems like fourth or fifth rebuilding attempt of the last decade. The Leafs have tried to shuck their expensive free agents who haven’t performed, in an attempt to get young and build a good foundation going forward. This has come at the expense of scoring and goals against, causing them to focus playing their youth as they sink in the standings. One of the lone bright spots this year for the Leafs has been journeymen center man Leo Komarov who leads the team in goals and points. The other bright spot for the Leafs is goalie James Reimer continues to be arguably to be one of the best goalies in the NHL, leading the league in save percentage and second overall in goals against average despite not getting much offensive support. The Leafs will look to grind out the Bolts by playing with a physical forecheck and hope to disrupt the Bolts offensive flow while relying on their rock solid goaltending to get a win. The Leafs and Lightning have had a history of playing really close and exciting games no matter each team’s make-up, so the Bolts can’t get caught looking ahead to the break when only a few points will likely separate the top seed from the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference as the season winds down. The Lightning won’t take the ice again until February 3rd when they take on the Detroit Red Wings at Amalie Arena.
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