It must’ve been a really odd season for the hockey press that is looking for any excuse to drop to their knees for Steve Yzerman. Steven Stamkos got hurt, as has kind of been his wont in recent years. Ben Bishop was bad, and then he was gone. Tyler Johnson, Valterri Filppula both missed serious chunks of time. And though there was a late charge to get into the playoffs, they missed out after back-to-back conference final-at-least appearances. How could such a thing happen to a team with a GM as genius as Stevie Y? Oh right, the blue line behind Hedman blew chunks. Well guess what? IT STILL DOES! Yzerman has kept salary cap doomsday off for another year or two at least, and the Bolts look ready to regain their place atop the East.
Tampa Bay Lightning
’16-’17 Record: 42-30-10 94 points (5th in the Flortheast)
Team Stats 5v5: 51.2 CF% (7th) 49.8 SF% (18th) 51.7 SCF% (7th) 7.3 SH% (18th) .924 SV% (16th)
Goalies: Yzerman might have waited a touch too long to move Bishop along if the plan all along (no, not THAT plan all along) was to install Vasilevskiy as the starter anyway. Bishop kind of fell off, as really tall goalies over 30 with groin problems tend to do, and now here we are in the Vasil Era. He was pretty good last year, though a .922 even-strength SV% is basically only ok. He’s probably going to have to be better this season, but at 23 he certainly is on the arc up. They’ve been grooming him for this for a few years now, so they’re fairly confident he can handle it.
Backing him up is Oh Lord, Stuck In Peter Budaj Again. Budaj was this close to saving the Kings bacon last year after Jonathan Quick went splat. But he wasn’t quite enough, and a backup role is exactly what he should be. If they have to depend on him for any length of time, they are in trouble. If he’s spotting Vasilevskiy, they’ll be all right.
Defense: This has been the Stevie Y blindspot since he arrived, and it looks like it remains so except for one move. Yzerman traded problem child, or what he and Swingin’ Jon Cooper decided was a problem child, Jonathan Drouin back to Montreal for Mikhail Sergachev. Sergachev has averaged just about a point-per-game from the blue line in the OHL the past two years. Does that mean he’s ready for the NHL now? Probably not. Could the Bolts absolutely use what he promises? You’re damn right they could. Are Yzerman and Cooper, between changing robes and extolling the features of this new massage oil he just found, probably going to make him “earn” it just like they did with Drouin? Almost certainly. And that could be the downfall of this team.
Because once again, beyond Victor Hedman, who is running out of time to contend for a Norris so this had better be the year, this blue line sucks to high heaven. Even analytic darling Anton Stralman started to slow up last year at 30, seeing his CF% drop below the team rate for the first time in his career. He’s a second-pairing d-man at best, and the Bolts might still have to use him with Hedman.
And once you get past those two… bring your galoshes. The second pairing could be Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi. The Twitter feed of “Florida Man” could just document what these two do on the ice and it would be no weirder than documenting the goings-on of various Florida psychopaths. They can’t seriously put these together with a straight face unless they want Vasilevskiy to decapitate both in a fit of rage after they give up four changes from 10 feet in one shift, which they are going to do. Beyond that is Slater Koekkoek and Andrej Sustr. It’s a dude named “Slater” with a last name that sounds like it came out of Labyrinth and basically the Stanford University mascot. Good god this is a problem.
Forwards: It would be a real shame, I mean for Lightning fans because we don’t really give a flying fornication, if that blue line ruins a forward corps that Yzerman has magically kept together and is one of the better collections around. If you’re really going through Hossa withdrawal, you should watch Ondrej Palat night in and night out because it’s the next best thing. If Stamkos isn’t actually made of cardboard and the hopes of Florida children, the top line of those two and Kucherov is as dangerous as you’ll find anywhere. Tyler Johnson as his own durability issues, but if healthy it’s hard to find a better #2 center, even if he’s the reason that every fan thinks their undrafted college signing is going to change the rotation of the Earth. Alex Killorn is getting up there and Vlad Namestnikov is useful enough to round that out.
Ryan Callahan sucks, but if kept on the third and fourth lines that’s acceptable. Brian Boyle has been replaced by Brayden Point, cornering the market on “Brayden or Brayndons.” Chris Kunitz washed up here and he might actually be washed up, but again on the bottom six you could do worse. Bryan Trottier-in-his-own-mind Cedric Pacquette and bowling ball J.T. Brown anchor the bottom unit.
Outlook: It’s limited. They’re going to be a playoff team unless they have injury problems again or Vasilevskiy completely shits it. But the forward group, as good as it is, isn’t as good as Toronto’s. The blue line is probably worse than Toronto’s. The coach, while good even if he’s raising his eyebrows during the game to whatever blonde is behind the bench and has vaseline between his toes, isn’t as good as Toronto’s. They might win this division if Stamkos goes off, but this blue line is going to need some help midseason if they’re going to. They’re one trade away, but I don’t know what that trade is right now. I’ll just go ahead and start Johnson-for-Doughty rumors now because I’m bored. Once in the playoffs they kind of look like a second-round out depending on draw.
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