2014-15 Season Preview: Strengths and Weaknesses
You don't have to look hard, or for long, to find a 2014-15 NHL predictions piece that favors the Lightning to go deep into the Eastern conference playoffs.
Sportsnet has them 7th in the NHL. The Hockey News? Second in the Atlantic and Eastern Conference Champion. Lightning players, and the team itself, are all over predictions pages for both USA Today and SB Nation. There's no shortage of good projections for this team, which has grown an impressive stable of young forwards and supplemented it nicely with good free agent signings and trades in the off season.
There's a lot to like about this Lightning team in 2014-15 -- but the Bolts are still far from perfect.
1. Youth + Experience
If you've been following along with the Top 25 Under 25 series, you've no doubt noticed that the Tampa Bay Lightning have a ton of young talent all slotted for big NHL minutes this fall. Keeping the young guys mentally focused and physically prepared for the grind of the NHL season was a point of emphasis for GM Steve Yzerman this summer. With former St. Louis Blues captain Eric Brewer and former New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan already on the roster, he went out and signed former Dallas Stars captain Brenden Morrow to add another veteran voice in the locker room.
There will be a nice balance of youthful vigor and veteran experience in the Lightning line-up this year, something they may have lacked a bit a season ago.
2. Offense Offense Offense
From the full SB Nation preview and Managing Editor John Fontana:
A healthy Steven Stamkos is the general fixation point when you think of the team's offense, but it goes beyond this. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson combined for 47 goals and 62 assists in their rookie seasons, veteran Valtteri Filppula notched 58 points of his own in 2013-14. Now factor in the looming addition of rookie Jonathan Drouin and former 1st round draft pick Brett Connolly and you have the makings of a diverse scoring threat for the Lightning, with speed, deftness, responsible two-way play and tenacity. The loss of Martin St. Louis shouldn't hinder the efforts of anyone listed, while the dark horse contributor on offense is Nikita Kucherov.
The Lightning have a lot of very fast, very skilled forwards. They will be deadly in transition and in open space. The Bolts will look to clamp down in their own end, quickly move the puck out of trouble, and go on the attack -- and they've got the horses to do it, as they've demonstrated in various preseason dismantlings.
It's been a buzzword for Steve Yzerman since he took the job in Tampa Bay, and it's all coming to a head with the big club this year. Good, NHL-caliber players will be left off the final roster when the last cuts are made and the season gets underway. Waiver eligibility and exemption might decide who gets sent back to Syracuse more than anything else, as bubble players Vlad Namestnikov, Cedric Paquette, and Jonathan Marchessault have all fought hard to demonstrate that they belong in the NHL this year but might not make it even if they've deserved it.
That's not a bad thing though -- the Lightning will have options for call-ups if and when injuries occur, or if they want to shake things up in their NHL lineup. They'll have a 4th pair of NHL-ready defensemen in Mark Barberio and Andrej Sustr, who were both quite good in limited NHL roles last year. And they have two outstanding goaltending prospects in Andrei Vasilevskiy and Kristers Gudlevskis manning the nets in Syracuse, ready to be called upon should anything happen to either Ben Bishop or Evgeni Nabokov.
In short, the Lightning bench is deep, and that should keep everyone fresher and help the Lightning over the course of an 82-game season.
1. Special Teams
The power play didn't blow anybody away a year ago -- the Lightning finished with an 18.5% conversion rate (13th in the NHL) which was good but not great. But if you felt like the Bolts held onto the puck way too long when they should have been putting more pucks to the net, well, you're dead-on. The Lightning were dead-last in the entire league in terms of shot-generation at 5v4. Let me stop and emphasize that again -- the Lightning took the fewest shots on goal per 60 minutes on the power play in the entire NHL last year. They attempted the 2nd fewest shots on the power play, and had the second fewest scoring chances too, so this wasn't just a case of "waiting for a good chance" or getting a lot of shots blocked.
Only by converting a good amount of their chances were the final conversion numbers decent. A full season of Steven Stamkos likely changes things a bit, but with or without him, the Lightning simply must find ways to put more pucks on net on the power play moving forward.
The penalty kill last year wasn't much better, sadly, as the Bolts did most of their damage at 5v5. While the Lightning under Jon Cooper finally realized that shorthanded offense is a thing, they were far too passive on the penalty kill, routinely collapsing to the netfront and praying that Ben Bishop would make a save. The Bolts were in the bottom third of the league in terms of scoring chances given up while shorthanded last year, and while the additions of veteran penalty killers Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan help some, the shot numbers seem to indicate that the problem might have been systemic and not personnel-based.
We're not strictly talking pure pugilism here, but the Lightning do lack a certain element of sandpaper you'll find on most NHL rosters. Opening night heavyweights from a year ago B.J. Crombeen and Pierre-Cedric Labrie have been discharged and will now punch faces for new organizations (the Arizona Coyotes and the Chicago Blackhawks, respectively). Keith "Muhammad" Aulie is also no longer in the organization after the Lightning got a good, long look and realized he just wasn't very good as an NHL defenseman.
Grittier forwards Ryan Malone and Nate Thompson were also replaced in the off season for other vets with a bit more skill in their mitts; Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow bring some edge to their game but both have considerably more goal-scoring ability than the guys they're ostensibly replacing.
More importantly, though, is a concern that Tampa Bay's speed/finesse style of controlling the puck (the Detroit model, as it were) does not match up well against some of the "heavier" teams in the NHL -- think the Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, or Los Angeles Kings. Can a smaller, faster, skilled lineup win against teams like Boston that will dump, chase, forecheck, and wear you down in the corners and around the net like the Bruins will? Put more specifically, can Tyler Johnson match-up against Carl Soderberg and win? Can Steven Stamkos beat Patrice Bergeron?
3. Defending the crease
This one's a bit of a nitpick, but it's something that has stood out in recent seasons -- Lightning goaltenders being run at in their crease.
Ben Bishop is coming off an injury-riddled season where at times he could barely hold his stick (but somehow still played well.) His back-up is 39 years old. This should go without saying, but keeping those guys healthy and productive will be critical to the Lightning's success this season.
But, if things go to plan, defending the goalie (and avoiding #CupCheck/#NutSpear 2.0) won't be an issue because even getting the puck near Ben Bishop will be difficult given the Bolts' balanced attack and puck possession philosophy.