There have been all kinds of predictions going around about where teams will finish in their respective conferences. Many of those predictions do not seem to view the Tampa Bay Lightning favorably, however. A lot of them seem to have the Lightning finishing near or at the bottom of the Southeast Division.
But this season isn't like any other but one, and that's the shortened 1995 season. No one's predictions came true that year, and the New Jersey Devils seemingly came out of nowhere to win the Stanley Cup for the first time. So, in reality, the race is wide open and anyone's got a chance.
Injuries are already becoming an issue for some NHL teams. And it's no wonder when at least half of the players in the league haven't played a game since April or May 2012. Those that are in mid-season - AHL players and those who played in other leagues during the lockout - form are going to really push at the players who are starting their seasons, and that will cause strains, sprains, and injuries due to physical exhaustion.
In the end, I think that whoever has the fewest injuries, the most depth, and the best defense will likely win the Stanley Cup this season. The Lightning have the depth, we'll see about the injuries, and defense is hopefully improved from last season with the additions that GM Steve Yzerman made over the summer. So, I think they have a pretty good shot at finishing in a top four spot in the Eastern Conference.
So the first question of this 2013 NHL Season is this:
A 48-game NHL season may defy prediction, but when it's all said and done, where do you believe the Lightning will finish the season in the Eastern Conference?
Kyle Alexander Abney, Lightning 101
An 82 game NHL season is a grind. It takes a lot of depth both up front and on the blue line, and an elite goaltender to win the Cup. That's what the last two seasons have taught us; both the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings played a similar gritty, forechecking, defensive hockey with Conn Smythe winners in net and it led them to victories in the finals. A 48 game season, though? That's a sprint. There is no time to institute a complicated, team-oriented defensive system. Freewheeling will be easier. Offensive players will have more time and space. Defensive lapses will be more common, and thus so will power plays. A short losing streak early could condemn you with no time to recover. I believe this Lightning squad, with the additions of Matt Carle and Sami Salo on defense and Anders Lindback in net (not to mention Cory Conacher, Benoit Pouliot and B.J. Crombeen up front) is built for this type of sprint. If the Bolts can be OK on the road and the same as the past two seasons at home, there is no reason they can't make the playoffs. In fact, in a 48 game season, I have them winning the Southeast Division and finishing 3rd in the conference (though it is likely one or more Atlantic Division teams end up with more points and a lower seed).
Jason Haas, Sons of Andreychuk
Given the division leader rule, my prediction is that the Lightning will finish 3rd in the conference.
Though it's tough to say this after one game, here are a few things around the league that stuck out to me: the Pittsburgh Penguins looks like a juggernaut, the Northeast should be a slug-fest and the Southeast Division is as wide open as many predicted it would be. The Washington Capitals have a ton of talent, no doubt, but I think they have an identity problem and that will hinder them this season. They've been all over the map in recent years with their playing style and I think it'll take at least this year for Adam Oates to properly set the tone with his guys. Despite the Carolina Hurricanes' additions, they still have a suspect defense at best. They really remind me of the Boudreau-era Capitals -- they could be a contender, but they remain eminently beatable. Florida will not back in to a division championship via 18 or so charity points like they did last year and the Winnipeg Jets looks like the bottom feeder.
As far as what I like from the Lightning: the defense is mobile. Gone are the days of Kurtis Foster and Matt Smaby. Matt Carle looks like a Victor Hedman clone, Eric Brewer looks refreshed with a reduced role and Sami Salo can move for a 37 year old. Brian Lee is steady. The backup dancers - Keith Aulie, Marc-Andre Bergeron, and Brendan Mikkelson - would all be regulars on other teams and that kind of depth is terrific. The forward core was stable last year but looks even better, especially B.J. Crombeen. He's indispensable as an energy guy and a damn good penalty killer to boot.
Justin Godfrey, The Hopeful Chase
I expect the Eastern Conference to resemble a rugby scrum as the teams sprint to the Mid-Summer Classic - I mean the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Lightning, with their improved defense (and hopefully improved goaltending) should be right in the mix. They should be fighting for a spot at the top of the wide-open Southeast Division which would probably put them in the 3 seed if they do prevail. If they miss out on the top spot in the division then they should be embroiled in what should be a hot mess for the 5-8 playoffs spots. If I'm forced to pick an actual spot - I say they finish with the number 6 seed.
Alexis Boucher, Sons of Andreychuk
These questions are tough because there are just too many variables. Key players could get hurt, the goaltending could flounder, the goals stop coming. It's especially difficult with only 3 games under our belts right now.
In a fit of wild optimism (no, I'm not drunk), I am going to say the Lightning come in second in the Southeast Division and just get into the playoffs in the 8th spot. Aim high, eh?
Nolan Whyte, Frozen Sheets
I don't know. I think this season is a tough one to call. Not only have the first few games been up and down, but the last few seasons have been up and down as well. I like the forward corps, that's for sure, assuming that Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Malone can stay healthy. The defence looks improved over last year's squad, but there's definitely the health concern with Salo. And the goalies? Yeah, I think Anders Lindback is an improvement on Dwayne Roloson's last grasp.
So what is my PREDICTION? I predict a squeaker campaign, with playoff qualification going down to the last moments. The Bolts will make it in, I think, but in a low spot. Sixth at the highest.
And five players will have at least 40 points. Which five? Stay tuned.
Bill Philp, Hockey Independent
The Lightning will finish third in the Southeast Division, behind the Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers. They will squeak into the playoffs as the seventh or eighth seed. The defense is improved but not deep. It is one major injury away from being as dreadful as last season. Anders Lindback has to prove he is the real deal and can handle the number one job. The offense will score and put up huge numbers. Special teams will need to be solid to make the postseason tournament.
John Fontana, Raw Charge Editor
You know, part of me doesn't want to say anything because I’m afraid I'll jinx things. Another part of me thinks that the Sun revolves around Saturn's moon Europa and that Earth is in orbit around Venus, so you know...opinions vary in my mind and sanity is a figment of someone else's imagination
Back to the topic of the Lightning and the conference standings, I'm going to stand by something I said in the Raw Charge season preview when I say that I expect Tampa Bay to make the playoffs, I also expect things to be strange in the final standings.... Not total anarchy (like the Columbus Blue Jackets winning the west or something) but some season anomalies with thanks to the short season.
Having to give a number, though, I'm going to aim low and suggest the Bolts just sneak into the playoffs with a seventh seed. That has nothing to do with what will happen in the second season.... That just says where they'll end up in the first one.
Clark Brooks, Raw Charge Staff Writer
I honestly believe the Lightning can and will win the Southeast Division.
Why? First and foremost, I think anybody could win the Southeast. That could be taken as a knock but I believe there are smaller gaps in terms of levels of skill between the five teams in that division then there are in others.
Secondly, while last year's Lightning was a disappointment because they didn't make the playoffs a year after almost winning the Eastern Conference, they also weren't exactly bottom feeders. They were a team that struggled in certain key areas and found themselves in that second echelon of teams that are scrappy but not talented enough to overcome their shortcomings. I feel like they've addressed those shortcomings.
Third, I'm a homer. I'll admit that. But I'm not completely delusional. So while I sincerely believe that they can and will win the division, they'll enter the playoffs as the number three seed because the Ottawa Senators and the Pittsburgh Penguins are significantly better.
Clare Austin, Raw Charge Staff Writer
The smart money is on the Lightning finishing somewhere between first and fifteenth in Eastern Conference.
In all seriousness, when you look at the predictions the national media made for the season, few of the teams who were expected to be the top teams have done all that well so far, and some of the teams that were supposed to be awful have had successes. It's weird out there. Ken Hitchcock, head coach of the St. Louis Blues, brought a little perspective when he said "I just think you throw out the first 10 games. . . . You try to find out who can play and who can't play. Then, after 10 games, you're going to know what you've got." What we see now is not what we can expect in a month or two.
My take is that there are a lot of players who could have breakout years. There are a lot of players who could have poor years. And that's not just for the Lightning; that's for everyone. I do believe that Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos can have very good years again. I do believe that Anders Lindback will put up better numbers than Mathieu Garon and Dwayne Roloson did last season, and I do believe that Matt Carle will improve the defense. I hope that Lindback does very well, not just acceptably well. I hope that Cory Conacher will continue to be as good as he's looked so far. I think the Lightning will do better than they did last season, but they'll still need failures on the part of other teams to claim the division title, and possibly to get into the playoffs at all.
Carolyn Christians, Raw Charge Staff Writer
I'll go with the Tampa Bay Lightning finishing second in the Southeast Division, 5th in the Eastern Conference. I'm probably going to be totally wrong.... And that's my Carolina Hurricanes bias - they're close to figuring it out and they've got good skills that will come through. I think the Caps will sneak in at 8th.