When you think of NHL teams having an active, frenetic offseason, you picture them making a bunch of big free agent signings or a massive trade to change their team’s fortunes. For the Tampa Bay Lightning, that meant bringing back all of their key pieces for one last run together before the salary cap forces them to make some tough roster decisions next summer. I’ve decided to gather all of the NHL and Lightning writers at The Scrum Sports (including myself, Clark Brooks, Trevor Grout, and Matt Litzenberger) for a round table discussion that looks ahead to this season, answering 10 questions facing this team now and in the near-future.
QUESTION #1: Now that Stammergeddon is in the rear-view mirror, can Steven Stamkos be a 50-goal scorer again, or is that a thing of the past?
Clark Brooks: “I expect him to be better than ever. He’s only 26 and his future is set. I’m sure he did his best to concentrate on the task at hand last year, but the contract HAD to be a distraction last year, simply by virtue of it constantly being brought up. There are no such problems on the immediate horizon. All he has to do is play good hockey.”
Trevor Grout: “It’s quite possible, especially if the pre-season line of Drouin-Stamkos-Palat stays together. Stamkos was at his best when he had a great passer on his line and that’s what he could have again with Drouin.”
Matt Litzenberger: “Can he and will he are two very different questions. He absolutely can score 50 goals again. However, with the team so offensively loaded with Kucherov, Johnson, Drouin, Palat, and Killorn, I do not think he’ll get enough shots to score 50 goals. Stamkos would score 50 goals if he was on a bad team, but he’s not on a bad team, which allows him to not have to shoulder the scoring burden. I think Stamkos gets 40+ goals with a boatload of assists.”
Brooks Roland: “He’s still in the prime of his career, and he certainly has the talent to score 50+ yet again. I don’t think he’ll do it simply because the team doesn’t need him to. I believe he’ll easily top the 40-goal mark, but with him not having to be focal point of the offense and not having to worry about the contract talk, I think we’ll see Stamkos improve his two-way game even more this season. Last year, his play at both ends of the ice improved tremendously, as he even saw penalty killing time. His days as a 50-goal guy might be over, but I expect him to play the best and most complete hockey of his career this season.”
QUESTION #2: The Lightning finally re-signed Nikita Kucherov to a bridge deal: three years at $4.766 million a year. Is Steve Yzerman a Jedi?
Clark: “I think of him less as a Jedi and more as the world’s greatest weatherman. A guy who stands in front of a map as a storm is rolling in and says “I know, this forecast looks pretty bad, but it’s going to be okay. I can’t tell you how or why, but there are things going on that can’t be shown on a weather map. Then when you get out of bed the next day, the sun is shining and it’s beautiful outside. Either way, yeah, he’s definitely tapped into some ancient, mystic powers of some sort.”
Trevor: “Not as good as Yoda, but still a guy I wouldn’t wanna play poker with.”
Matt: “I’d go more Professor Xavier than Jedi. It’s the only explanation for how he gets top-tier talent in their prime to take below market value consistently. He has to have some type of mind-control mutant ability. It’s one thing to get the occasional hometown discount, but the type of deals he’s pulled off since becoming the Lightning GM are mind-boggling. The amazing deal on Kucherov is just another on the list of great deals, and shows how lucky the Lightning are to have him. The only thing Tampa fans have to worry about is if those anti-mutant laws go into effect and we lose him to fight in the human vs. mutant war that will come.”
Brooks: “Jedi, sorcerer, wizard, whatever label you wanna put on Yzerman, it’s probably accurate. He’s reached Jedi Master at this point. He’s shown time and time again that he has a long-term vision for this team and he will not compromise on that vision. He doesn’t budge on negotiations because if someone decides to leave, there’s a “next man up” mentality in this organization. Through his shrewd signings and drafts, the Lightning’s organizational depth is greater than it has ever been. I may joke that he’s a Jedi Master, but there’s no denying that he is a man with a plan and he consistently sticks with it. Jeff Vinik needs to do whatever it takes to keep him here for the rest of his career.”
QUESTION #3: Last season, several Lightning players dealt with injuries or other off-ice decisions that had a negative impact on their offensive production. Which player is likely to have the biggest bounce-back season and why?
Clark: “Stamkos. The contract is a done deal and at some point, you’ve gotta believe he’s hit his quota for weird injuries/ailments. Blood clots? Come on.”
Trevor: “I see JT Brown being a guy who takes the next step in the evolution of his career.”
Matt: “I think the obvious choice from fans is Tyler Johnson. If he can rebound to his form of two seasons ago after such a sluggish year, that is great news for the Lightning. However, I think Ryan Callahan needs to stay healthy and become that grinder scoring threat he once was, allowing him to give that offensive pop to the 3rd and 4th lines. If Callahan can return to close to 20 goals for the season, that will be a huge boost to the bottom two lines’ offensive production; a terrifying proposition to opposing teams.”
Brooks: “There are multiple candidates worthy of inclusion here, such as Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, and Jonathan Droun, but I’m gonna go with Tyler Johnson. It took him a while to get over the wrist injury from the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, and the injury he suffered early last season kept him from finding any sort of rhythm until the playoffs. With him being completely healthy, I’m expecting a big season from him, especially going into a contract year.”
QUESTION #4: Who ends up leading the team in each of the following: goals, assists, and points?
Clark: “Stamkos leads in goals with over 50. Drouin leads in assists with… a lot. And Stamkos leads in points.”
Trevor: “Stamkos in goals, Drouin in assists and Kucherov in points.”
Matt: “Goals: Steven Stamkos; Assists: Victor Hedman; Points: Nikita Kucherov”
Brooks: “Stamkos will lead the team in goals, Drouin will lead in both assists and points. Yep, I said it. Drouin will lead this team in points.”
QUESTION #5: Jonathan Drouin rebounded from a turbulent regular season a year ago to be a force in the playoffs. Will he continue his ascent? How many points will he finish with this year?
Clark: “The one concern I have about Drouin is that his surge last year was at least partially fueled by a desire to shut up his critics. It’s hard to tap into that over an extended length of time, especially when the waters are calm, as they seemingly are now. But he’s talented enough to be successful without that. I can see him notching 60 points this season.”
Trevor: “Drouin finishes with 60 points.”
Matt: “I think Drouin will become the player Bolts fans hoped he’d become when they drafted him. I think you’ll see a young kid coming into his own, as he has finally bought into what the organization and Jon Cooper is selling. I think Drouin nets 20+ goals and 25+ assists, while vastly improving the Lightning’s power play unit.”
Brooks: “The 2016 playoffs were Drouin’s coming-out party. The 2016-17 season is when he arrives as a force for the Lightning for years to come. The insanity of last season is behind him, all sides have mended fences, and Drouin makes the leap to stardom. I’m predicting around 25 goals and 55 assists.”
QUESTION #6: Name a prospect that has a good chance of being called up and either sticking with the team for good this season or ends up making such a good impression that he probably makes the roster in 2017.”
Clark: “I believe Ben Bishop’s departure is inevitable if not imminent. For that reason, I think the next time we see Kristers Gudlevskis, he’ll be here to stay.”
Trevor: “Brayden Point will stay with this team all season long.”
Matt: “Does Slater Koekkoek still count as a prospect after he played a huge chunk of last year’s playoffs? I don’t care if he doesn’t count; I’m going with Slater Koekkoek! The kid has great size and puck movement for a defenseman. If he can add a little more physicality to his game and limit his turnovers, I think he can shore up the Lightning’s defensive pairings this year.”
Brooks: “I was going to go with Brayden Point, but since he’s now on team’s roster for the season opener, I’m going to go with Joel Vermin. Remember, this team not only has some tough decisions to make regarding their roster next summer, but they also have to deal with the expansion draft. That will open up a spot for Vermin, who played well last season after being called up from Syracuse before he suffered an injury. He also showed what he can do in the preseason, so if there’s any more injuries this year, expect him to get the call from the AHL again. Don’t be surprised if he’s in a Lightning uniform for good in the fall of 2017.”
QUESTION #7: Which Lightning players do you think will either win a post-season award or be named a finalist, and which award(s)?
Clark: “In case it isn’t obvious, I’m really high on Stamkos. So I wouldn’t be shocked if he picks up his third Rocket Richard.”
Trevor: “Stamkos, Bishop (If he even makes it as a Bolt to the end of the season), and Brayden Point.
Matt: “Steven Stamkos – Hart Memorial Trophy Finalist; Ben Bishop – Vezina Trophy Finalist; Victor Hedman – James Norris Memorial Trophy Finalist”
Brooks: “I’m gonna say Ondrej Palat will be a finalist for the Selke Trophy and Victor Hedman is a finalist for the Norris.”
QUESTION #8: Which Lightning player is most likely to be chosen in next summer’s expansion draft and why?
Clark: “Bishop, if he’s here, for obvious reasons. But since I’m pretty sure he’ll be gone, I’d say Palat. You’re not likely to find a “star” in any expansion draft (although someone will slip through an organization’s cracks and emerge as such because that always seems to happen), but Palat is a perfect mix of youth and skill that would be a perfect building block for a new franchise.”
Trevor: “Alex Killorn – Don’t get me wrong I love the guy, but he would be a very good piece for the Las Vegas franchise.”
Matt: “Tyler Johnson. I know many Lightning fans may wonder why I put him on this list, but unless he can return to being a 25-plus goal scorer this season, he is expendable. The Lightning can afford to let him go, as the price to keep him long-term vs. what he provides is not worth it. Johnson could likely command nearly $6 million per year, and I think that money is better allocated to guys like Drouin, Koekkoek, and other young talent that I think have more upside than Johnson.”
Brooks: “Alex Killorn. While he’s been a very good player for the Lightning, and he has elevated his game in the postseason, he has yet to top 20 goals in a season. That puzzled me when he was given such a long-term deal with the raise that he got. Since his contract doesn’t have sort of movement clause for this season, he could be a prime candidate to be exposed in the expansion draft, especially since he’s still got plenty of good hockey in him. I just think there are bigger priorities for the Lightning down the line, and they’ll need the salary cap space.”
QUESTION #9: Do you think the Lightning will win the Stanley Cup, why or why not? If so, who do they beat in the Stanley Cup Final? If not, who knocks them out of the playoffs?
Clark: “I’m a fan and a hometown guy, and I don’t apologize for either of those things. As such, I always believe the Lightning will win the Stanley Cup… at least until the season begins and they show me otherwise. I’d like to see them sweep the Blues in the Final because I have friends in St. Louis and that would be a lot of fun for me. If that doesn’t happen, they’ll probably be swept by the Blues in the Final because I have friends in St. Louis and that would suck for me.”
Trevor: “Lightning all the way. No one knocks them out.”
Matt: “The fan in me wants to say yes, but I’ve seen how hard it is to win the Cup; so logic dictates “no”, they won’t win the Cup this year. They are absolutely one of the favorites to win it, and deservedly so. However, to win the Cup, everything needs to break right for your team; no devastating injuries and no off-ice distractions, all just to get to the playoffs. Then once you are in the playoffs, you need your team to stay hot, to keep avoiding injuries, and to not run into a Jean-Sebastian Giguere-like goalie performance that single-handedly ends your season. If they lose in the playoffs, it’ll be to the likes of the Capitals or Penguins.”
Brooks: “The fan in me always believes they can win. This time, the reporter in me also strongly believes that they can and will win the Cup. There’s too much talent and playoff experience for that not to happen. Usually bad injury luck in one season doesn’t carry over to the following year. As long as the Lightning stay completely healthy and have no weird off-ice situations, I believe they’ll be holding the Stanley Cup over their heads in early June. In a Stanley Cup Final that will drive the country of Canada into a deep, dark depression, the Lightning will top the Nashville Predators in six games to capture their second title”
QUESTION #10: What is your bold prediction that has a remote chance of coming true but will be fun to make anyway?
Clark: “Bishop scores a goal.”
Trevor: “Steven Stamkos wins the Hart and the Art Ross Trophies.”
Matt: “Jonathan Drouin goes for 30/30: 30 goals and 30 assists. The Lightning win the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference.”
Brooks: “Ben Bishop is his usual stellar self, but Andrei Vasilevskiy receives more playing time and plays so well that Bishop gets traded before the All-Star break.”
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