There are always unanswered questions for a team before the season starts. The Tampa Bay Lightning have a few of their own.
Who will pick up Vincent Lecavalier's offensive production?
The Lightning has a pair of prolific scorers in Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis and there is no question that both will be at the top of the stat sheet this season. The question is though, who else will pick up the offensive duties after the exit of Lecavalier?
Ever since Lecavalier's departure, fans and media alike have been asking who the new second line center will be. Two likely candidates are forwards Valtteri Filppula and Alex Killorn. Last season, Filppula had nine goals and 17 points in 41 games with the Detroit Red Wings. It might not have been his best season, but he isn't too far removed from 2011-2012 when he scored 23 goals and added 43 assists. Filppula also led Detroit in faceoffs won last season (55.4%),Lecavalier, by comparison, was 54.5% in the faceoff circle last season..
The other candidate, Killorn, scored seven goals while adding 19 points in 38 games as a rookie while playing mostly on the left wing. Killorn is a natural center, though, and could step into the role.
In recent years, the Lightning have been a top-heavy, one-line team to carry the load offensively. There is no need for Tampa to do that this season. The team is stacked with skilled forwards and it is just a matter of time before others find themselves in a larger role.
Who will be the Lightning's starting goaltender?
This is the million dollar question and it's possible that Tampa Bay won't know the answer entering the season. Coach Jon Cooper said during the first week of training camp that he does not want the media or fans to read too much into the Lightning naming a starter and that the goaltender starting on opening night is not necessarily the team's bonafide starter.
According to Cooper, both Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop are "fully qualified" to be starters and he's impressed with both of their abilities thus far. Cooper also said that Tampa Bay could go into the season depending on a tandem between the two netminders, a system that worked well for him in the past - specifically 2011-12 when he won the AHL's Calder Cup with the Norfolk Admirals.
The goaltending situation will work itself out in the end but this question will linger for a while.
What will Tampa Bay's defense look like?
Coach Cooper has a much different style compared to former Lightning head coach Guy Boucher's, especially when it comes to playing defense.Cooper wants all five skaters buying into a defense-first mentality.
It's obvious how poorly the Lightning played in their own zone last season.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to open up the stat pack and see that we need to be better defense," Cooper said after the first day of training camp. "I think we're the only team to have given up over 400 goals over the past two years, so we have to shore that up and it takes a team to do it. You can't sit there and rely on your goaltender to make every single save."
There are multiple better-than-average puck moving defensemen on the Lightning, but they just could not find any consistency last season. Matt Carle, Victor Hedman, and Sami Salo all had a positive plus/minus rating, but that doesn't mean the Bolts were able to gain control of the puck or clear their own zone effectively.
Other returning defensemen Radko Gudas, Eric Brewer, and Keith Aulie were atop the the team lead in hits, so expect the defense to fit right in to the more physical Atlantic Division this season.
Physical or not, the Lightning is going to have to "shore up" defensively like Cooper said. If they don't, expect the same embarrassing results as last season.
"All five guys have to buy in when they're playing defense," Cooper said. "It's not fun playing defense; it's a lot more fun scoring goals, and while you need to score goals to win a hockey game, to win in this league it's a premium that you keep the puck out of your net."
Associate Coach Rick Bowness was hired in the off-season after his dismissal as associate coach with the Vancouver Canucks. Bowness, a veteran coach in the NHL, was hired to do much of the same things he did in Vancouver. He will assist with the penalty kill unit and the blue line. Bowness utilizes the same all skater participation approach as Cooper does when it comes to defense.
It will be interesting to see if the forwards on the team will buy into the defense-first mentality, and how it affects the ability for the Lightning to score. It's not an evil if the team scores less by playing responsibly and controllign the puck, it's much more like a necessity.
How will Lightning Coach Jon Cooper fare in his first full season in the National Hockey League?
Jon Cooper was promoted to head coach last season from the franchise's American Hockey League affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch. Cooper has coached 15 games behind an NHL bench (the team went 4-8-3). That's not many, but Cooper said that it surely gave him a feel for what to expect.
"In those 15 games, I got to know some of the NHL landscape, the players and how to adapt to life in the league," Cooper said. "To be around it for the month-and-a-half I was here, I think I set myself farther ahead to help put our team in a better position."
Cooper has succeeded at all levels he has previously coached at since his first head coaching job with the St. Louis Bandits of the NAHL in 2006-07. There shouldn't be too many questions surrounding Cooper's ability to coach at the NHL level. He was bound for a promotion and would have probably gotten one even if Tampa Bay didn't offer him the head coaching job.
Will the "Tampacuse" movement push out Tampa Bay veterans?
The Lightning's depth on both sides of the puck is deep through the system. There is a crop of young talent pushing for ice time in the NHL after being successful in the AHL for a number of consecutive years. Is it possible that we'll see these players push out any number of team veterans?
Two seasons ago, the Lightning's then-AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, captured the AHL's league championship. Many of the players that contributed to the championship, (Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Mark Barberio, Richard Panik, Alex Killorn, and Radko Gudas) all made their NHL debut with the Lightning last season, and as training camp nears a close, Gudas and Killorn are assured roster spots, while Johnson, Palat, Panik, Barberio and several members of last season's AHL Eastern Conference champion Syracuse Crunch (Brett Connolly, J.T. Brown, Andrej Sustr among others) continue to vie for limited roster spots.
Management was keen to see both Killorn and Gudas last season, and sent down NHL vets Dana Tyrell and Brian Lee to create roster space for the two.
It would not be out of the realm of possibility for general manager Steve Yzerman to move a veteran before the start of the season (or after the seasons tarts) specifically to make room for one of the aforementioned "Tampacuse" prospects.
What other questions going into the season are on your mind that remain unanswered? Let's hear them in comments.