The Tampa Bay Lightning have no shortage of big household names right now. Tampa Bay had four players voted into last season’s All-Star game. Technically, five Bolts were involved since Brayden Point replaced Victor Hedman due to injury. In addition, Hedman and Nikita Kucherov were voted to the NHL’s First All-Star team at the end of the season. Unfortunately, Kucherov and Hedman can’t play every minute of every game. Teams need solid players throughout the roster, not just on the top two lines. So what new faces, if any, should the fans be expecting to see?
So far, the Lightning’s offseason has been quite the ride, beginning with John Tavares declining Steve Yzerman’s offer to come to Tampa. Instead, he chose to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not only will he not be suiting up next to his longtime friend Steven Stamkos, but he will actually be a division rival for the next several years. Following Tavares’s decision, the Lightning fan base was truly ablaze after an NHL insider announced on Twitter that Erik Karlsson was being traded to the Lightning. However, the rumors eventually fizzled out, and Karlsson remains in Ottawa.
The 2018-19 season is now less than three months away and the roster is almost complete. Steve Yzerman has locked down some key players to long-term deals. But the roster hasn’t changed much from what fans saw last season. One key change is the departure of Chris Kunitz who played on the fourth line next to Cedric Paquette. Kunitz was a solid veteran presence who filled the role of fourth-line grinder well and accounted for some key plays in the postseason. Alternate Captain Ryan Callahan will also miss the first half of the season recovering from shoulder surgery.
So a departure in free agency and an unfortunate injury leave the Lightning with two spots to fill. Barring a late move in whats left of the offseason the Lightning will most likely fill these spots with players from the Syracuse Crunch; the Lightnings AHL affiliate.
Shortly after the 2018 offseason began, the Lightning traded Peter Budaj to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Andy Andreoff. Andreoff does not have the most impressive stat sheet, with only three goals and nine points last season. Should he make the opening night roster, he will most likely be filling the fourth line spot Chris Kunitz vacated. Andreoff is a solid power forward with faceoff ability. While more offensive production would be an excellent bonus the Lightning acquired him for his work in the defensive zone and on faceoffs more than his offensive prowess.
A familiar face for Lightning fans, the Bolts re-signed Erne to a one year deal this offseason. Coming off a lower-body injury, he could very well see more ice time this year. With Callahan out until November at the earliest, Erne could fill his role on the fourth line, or maybe even the third. Many players initially struggle when they move up to the NHL, and Erne was no exception.
While Erne has had some productive seasons in Syracuse he currently has only seven points in 49 career games for the Lightning. Even though he’s dealt with injuries, it would still not be a huge surprise to see Erne on the roster. Having experience in the NHL gives him an advantage over other Syracuse players ready to move up. While he hasn’t lit up the scoreboard yet, he is a solid two-way player who could see time on the penalty kill as well.
Mathieu Joseph, a fourth-round pick in 2015, is more of a prototypical Lightning forward. While a tad undersized, he makes up for it with speed and a knack for making big plays on offense. Joseph had a breakout rookie season last year, leading Syracuse with 53 points. Along with his offense, Joseph consistently showed an ability to play solid defense. A well-rounded winger with good hockey instincts, his skills make him a great candidate to be called up this season. Joseph is signed to an entry-level contract through 2020 and could find himself in Tampa this year.
Drafted in 2017, Alxendar Volkov wasted no time in making his presence felt. In his inaugural season, Volkov led Syracuse with 23 goals. A second-round pick out of Russia, he spent his first year in Syracuse not only learning North American tactics but also learning English, thus making his on-ice performance even more impressive. Considering he is only 20 years old, he will most likely spend another year or two in Syracuse, but expect him to get a lot of attention during training camp.
Another player who made his professional debut in Syracuse last year is center Mitchell Stephens. Stephens had a solid rookie year in Syracuse even if it was a little streaky at times. After going without a point for 11 games, Stephens exploded with 22 points in the next 25 games. Stephens also participated in the Biosteel camp where he played on Tyler Seguin’s team and impressed with a hat-trick in the final game. Stephens shows high hockey IQ and great skating ability, however, his biggest obstacle is the Lightning’s depth at center. Given the players already on the roster, Stephens will probably spend another year or two in Syracuse to develop.
The players above are the most likely to candidates to be the final pieces of the roster. The final pieces of a team that has come so close to a Stanley Cup in recent years and come up just short. The Lightning are one of the most complete teams in the NHL. A true championship team gets results from every player, not just the stars. If this is Tampa’s year to hoist the Stanley Cup, they’ll need these younger players to step up and make the team better than it was last year.
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