It's rather odd for me to be writing about predictions for the upcoming season. I don't like making them as a general rule. I don't know how helpful it is to make some blanket statement about where the Lightning will end the season. I don't know how much things like that help us to understand what's happening with the team or what's reasonable to expect from anyone.
Predictions are the thing to do in the lead up to opening day, though. There are a lot of people predicting that the Lightning will finish high in the Atlantic Division, behind the Boston Bruins, even as far as the conference or Stanley Cup finals. If that reinforces someone's personal feelings on the matter, they'll like those predictions. If it doesn't, they'll argue with them. In all cases, those are not much more than elaborate guesses.
And let's face it. There was a lot of change in the Lightning locker room this offseason. Gone are Teddy Purcell, Nate Thompson, B.J. Crombeen, Sami Salo, Ryan Malone, and Voldemort, among others. In their place are Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, Brenden Morrow, Jason Garrison, Anton Stralman, Jonathan Drouin, and possibly someone from the Syracuse Crunch, though who that might be is still to be determined. It's hard to look at this roster and not get excited.
But as journalist David McRaney wrote, "success boils down to serially avoiding catastrophic failure while routinely absorbing manageable damage." He was referring to the world of business but it's true of an NHL season as well. It's a long season, and doing stuff right is only part of the battle. Coping with problems and mistakes is a huge part of it as well.
Last year the team avoided catastrophe twice when it appeared inevitable. Then they succumbed to the toll of routine damage in the end. The playoff losses to the Montreal Canadiens, despite what many people will tell you, were attributable less to goaltending alone and more to goaltending plus a sudden and pervasive inability to control space. It's possible that Ben Bishop would have made some kind of difference, but don't forget, he was putting up a .904 in the second half of that season. It wouldn't have been a huge difference.
I can sit here before a single point has been earned in the 2014-15 season and say that the Lightning shored up their defense, brought in some veterans who may or may not find the scoresheet all that often, and still managed to keep the doors open to youngsters. Franchise-wide they have one of the best forward corps in the NHL. Their depth in goal is unprecedented in the Lightning's 22 year history.
IF the Lightning are able to maintain their ability to control the puck like they did last season AND they're able to prevent opponents from controlling the puck; IF special teams (especially the penalty kill) improve; IF goaltending doesn't dip further than we expect it to.... In other words, IF the things that the team can control are controlled and the things that they can't control either go their way or at least don't go too far the other way, the Lightning are in good shape to make it through the season.
The good news is that they've put pieces in place that give them as good a chance at all of those things as they possibly could. But a successful NHL season requires more than great planning and a good depth chart. It requires, as loath as we are to admit it, hella good luck as well. The damage is going to come. It comes to everyone. Being hit in just the right way at just the right time for it to be absorbed will be crucial.
I do have certain expectations. Call them predictions if you like:
I expect this team to make the playoffs, barring some kind of unforeseen catastrophic event. It will be a huge disappointment if this roster doesn't do at least that well. I expect them to compete with the top teams in the division. Other than backup goaltender, there's no obvious hole in the team.
I expect Anton Stralman to surprise a lot of New York Rangers fans who had written him off. I expect him to be a difference maker when he's on the ice.
I expect Valtteri Filppula to have fewer points but to continue to tilt the ice for teammates. His personal shooting percentage will almost definitely decrease. So will Ryan Callahan's.
I expect the sophomore forwards (Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, and Richard Panik) to have tougher time this season. Teams know about them now. They've had time to study game video and figure them out.
I expect other teams to try to do to the Lightning what Montreal did in the playoffs. Thus I expect some tough battles over space coming out of the neutral zone. I have no idea how that will play out.
I expect goaltending to be above average but not elite, although I'm leaving open the possibility that it could be worse than that.
I expect the first callups to be whichever of Vlad Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov, or Jonathan Marchessault don't make the team out of camp.
I expect to continue to marvel at J.T. Brown's ability to do so many things right, but I'm not going to predict he'll finally start potting the goals.
I expect Andrei Vasilevskiy to make his NHL debut before New Years unless he just doesn't do well in the AHL at all. I expect him to get in the neighborhood of 10 games. I really think Yzerman wants to take things slow with him, but that "taking things slow" doesn't mean no NHL time whatsoever.
I expect Kristers Gudlevskis to spend most if not all of the season in Syracuse, getting only injury callups. However, goalies are strange creatures. You never know.
I think these are reasonable expectations, but I've been wrong before and I'll be wrong again. What do you guys think?