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Regular season looms for Lightning on heels of active off-season

Trevor Grout | The Scrum Sports

Its been nearly six months since the Tampa Bay Lightning played a game of consequence. It feels like much longer than six months since the best regular season of the salary cap era ended in shocking fashion in an opening round sweep. Following that playoff face-plant against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Lightning have had time to think about that stunning setback.

While the team and their fans found themselves with a longer offseason than expected, there was no slowing down for Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois. Heading into this first full off-season as the GM, BriseBois entered the summer with his work cut out for him. He ended it by locking up a pair of his core players. On top of that, he also made tweaks to the roster in an effort to finally put the Bolts over the top.

With the puck dropping on the regular season at Amalie Arena tonight at 7 pm, let’s take a look back at the Lightning’s offseason while also peering ahead into what to look for in the regular season.

Ryan Callahan’s career comes to a close

When you’re a team that can classified as a Stanley Cup contender, chances are you’re going to be tight against the salary cap. As the Lightning entered the summer facing a cap crunch, the first contract everyone expected the team to get rid of was Callahan’s. The veteran winger had one year left on his current six-year deal with an AAV of $5.80 million. His contract also contained a modified no-trade clause and no-movement clause.

On June 20th, Callahan was diagnosed with degenerative back disease. As a result, the team immediately placed him on LTIR (long-term injured reserve). The move signaled the end of Callahan’s NHL career. It was sad to see his career end like this, but he eventually agreed to have his contract traded to the Ottawa Senators along with a 2020 fifth- round draft pick for goaltender Mike Condon and a 2020 sixth-round draft pick on July 30th.

Additions, subtractions, and a new deal for Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Callahan’s retirement turned out to be the just the tip of the iceberg for the Bolts’ off-season moves. Eligible for an extension a year before becoming a restricted free agent, Vasilevskiy, the team’s starting netminder and reigning Vezina Trophy winner, signed an eight-year deal worth $76 million on July 29th. Featuring an AAV of $9.5 million, that contract will kick in on July 1, 2020. The team also signed veteran goaltender Curtis McElhinney to a two-year deal worth an AAV of $1.3 million to be Vasilevskiy’s backup.

However, the Lightning said goodbye to a few faces. They traded JT Miller to the Vancouver Canucks as part of a package for a conditional first round pick in either 2020 or 2021. Tampa Bay also traded away winger Adam Erne to the Detroit Red Wings for a 2020 4th round choice. On the blue line, the Bolts allowed veteran defensemen Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman to walk in free agency. Girardi ended up retiring and Stralman signed a three-year deal with the Florida Panthers.

Finding value late in the summer and finally re-signing Brayden Point

Despite those losses, the Lightning made up for it by taking a gamble on defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. Following his buyout by the New York Rangers, the Lightning signed him for one year and $1.75 million. To make up for the loss of Callahan, the Lightning snagged Stanley Cup champion forward Patrick Maroon. The cost was another one-year contract worth just under $1 million. Tampa Bay also signed defenseman Luke Schenn and brought back defenseman/winger Luke Witkowski. While Witkowski made the opening night roster, Schenn got placed on waivers. After clearing waviers following the end of the preseason, the Lightning sent him to Syracuse of the AHL.

With the voids filled on offense and defense the focus was now all on re-signing Point.

Despite the rumors and concern that a deal was nowhere close to being finalized, the Lightning finally signed their prized restricted free agent. The Lightning and Point agreed to a three-year bridge deal worth $20.25 million ($6.75 million AAV) on September 20th. Point is the latest Lightning player to sign a bridge deal coming out of his entry-level contract. Nikita Kucherov, Vasilevskiy, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Alex Killorn all signed similar bridge deals following the end of their ELC’s.

The rise of Carter Verhaeghe

Preseason is usually a fun time to see rookies and prospects for the first time, along battles for roster spots. When you possess a stacked roster, it’s difficult for young guys to overtake veterans. However, some players may surprise and really challenge veteran players for their roster spot. The one prospect I kept my eye on this summer was forward Carter Verhaeghe. Coming off the best year of his career in the AHL, I felt he had a great shot at making the final roster.

My lone concern for him was his skating ability and puck possession. Despite looking sluggish in the first pair of preseason games he played in, he showed improvement as the exhibition season wore on. Head coach Jon Cooper even noticed his improvement in the final games and spoke very highly of him. That usually means there is a good chance a player will survive the final roster cut.

Injuries arrive late into pre-season

BriseBois reported that Point will be missing some time to start the season due to recovering from off-season hip surgery. This opens up one spot on the roster for a short time while Point recovers. In my opinion, the perfect choice is Verhaeghe, who made the opening night roster. Forwards Cedric Pacquette and Johnson both suffered injuries in the preseason finale. Cooper provided an update on the status of both players earlier this week.

 Another exciting, and hopefully, eventful season is on the horizon

Overall, this summer turned into a busier off-season for the Bolts than many thought. As a result, the Lightning once again appear primed to have another strong season. The Lightning remain the favorite to win the division, contend for the President’s Trophy, and challenge for Lord Stanley’s Cup. CapFriendly has the Bolts’ cap space sitting at almost $1.8 million, and with the core of the team intact for years to come, the future looks bright.

The team and the fans all want to forget about the disappointment of last season’s playoffs. While they may not replicate the amazing regular season of 2018-19, the Lightning look as strong as ever. If the gamble on Shattenkirk works and Maroon’s Cup experience wears off on the Lightning, this team may just be more dangerous than before. While staying healthy is always key, I feel the Bolts have enough depth to overcome any issues that come their way this season.

Depth is going to come from the bottom two lines, in particular the 4th line. This is where I would love to see a lot of points come from so that the team is not relying too much on star players like Stamkos and Kucherov. While there is talent on the defense, at times they lacked consistency and synergy. In my opinion, Mikahil Sergachev needs to have a better season and prove he can be a dominant threat on the blue line. I also would love to see some of the younger players take charge and show the veteran leaders of this team that they can be a reliable asset.

Bringing the Cup back to Tampa Bay

As we learned from last season, having an exceptional regular season does not guarantee success in the playoffs. This season, the Bolts should treat any team they face in the playoffs as if it is a barrier they have to break to get the Cup. Never play down to the level of an opponent regardless of their record or skill. I feel this team was too comfortable going into the playoffs last season, leading to the early playoff exit.

Show no fear, show no mercy, play like the merciless team everyone knows they’re capable of, and then the Cup should be there for the taking. Players who were invisible in last year’s playoffs need to step it up. Look at the heart and excitement the Blues played with last season in the playoffs. Maroon’s experience could prove to be very valuable. Look at the way Boston punished players with their physical play and mastery of puck movement. Tampa Bay can win a championship, as they have the pieces to do it. In the end, however, it is up to them to play like they really desire Lord Stanley’s Cup.

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