While projecting forward lines that Jon Cooper will use for the 2014-15 season this early in the year is probably a wasted effort, the blue line might be a little bit easier to predict after Steve Yzerman added two top-4 NHL defensemen to the lineup in the same off season for the second time since he took over as general manager.
Wait, he's done this before, you say?
You'll recall the first time Yzerman and the Lightning tried this was in the summer of 2012, when veteran right shot defenseman Sami Salo was signed on the first day of free agency and veteran left shot defenseman Matt Carle was signed three days later (after the big domino, Ryan Suter, had fallen).
Salo spent most of his time alongside Victor Hedman, but never contributed as much offensively as some might have hoped. He did stay healthy, however. Meanwhile, Matt Carle's big money deal had some thinking he was quick fix to what had been an ailing Lightning defense group. While neither guy has drastically altered the fate of the club, both certainly helped the team make some strides forward by getting serviceable NHL veterans in place to supplement (or, in Carle's case, become part of) the core.
This second attempt to reshape the blue line all at once with a pair of NHL veterans bears a lot of resemblance to what was done in 2012; Jason Garrison (a left shot capable of playing the right side) was acquired in a trade in exchange for the 50th overall pick just prior to the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and Anton Stralman was quietly signed to a very favorable contract on July 1 while other Eastern Conference teams were tripping over themselves to hand guys like Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland gobs of cash.
So where does everyone fit in?
Training camp will tell us more, but the best guess now is probably something like this:
Victor Hedman - Anton Stralman
Matt Carle - Jason Garrison
Eric Brewer - Radko Gudas
I've got my doubts about pairing Garrison with Carle, as Carle-Gudas was a pair that struggled a lot in 2013-14 and Garrison, while more experienced than Gudas, doesn't really seem likely to fix Tampa Bay's second pair in 2014-15. Garrison isn't any more mobile and might be dealing with a lingering hip injury; heavy defensive minutes next to Carle (which is what Carle and Gudas saw last season) would likely be a recipe for more of the same kind of mess as was seen a year ago.
All that said, the prospect of pairing Swedish possession monsters Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman seems like something that might be too good for Jon Cooper to pass up. After all, the Lightning rode an outstanding pairing getting good offensive usage and producing with it (Hedman-Salo) and a more challenged pair in defensive situations that got beat more often than not (Carle-Gudas) to great overall year-end effect: namely, 46 wins, 101 points in the standings, and home ice in the first round of the playoffs. So if Garrison gives the Lightning's second pair even the tiniest edge over what Carle-Gudas did a year ago, and Stralman and Gudas succeed on the top and bottom pairs, the end result would still be a net positive, and quite possibly a big one.
There might be some concerns about pairing two physical, slower guys on a pair like Eric Brewer and Radko Gudas, but both guys are smarter with the puck than they get credit for and they wouldn't be exposed to big 5v5 minutes or very tough competition. Gap control and defending the speed rush would likely be an issue, but one Jon Cooper could mitigate with careful usage. Both guys are also likely to continue to have a big role on the penalty kill. You also have more mobile puck-movers Mark Barberio and Andrej Sustr -- one of each handedness -- to mix in as potential 7th defenseman or injury replacement, or just to mix someone new in if the chemistry isn't there.
Barberio-Sustr would actually likely be a pretty solid bottom pairing of its own, so having them as a the 7th and 8th guys on the depth chart is good news for the Lightning's overall depth and for the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL, who might not be raided as frequently as they were a season ago.
As for the goaltenders, it's likely to be a one-man show:
Bishop was signed to a very fair 2-year deal in the style of Sergei Bobrovsky's contract from last year. Bishop, like Bobrovsky, is coming off a huge year with a shorter NHL resume; so he gets the big payday to reward him for oustanding past performance but the team avoids the long-term albatross contract that many teams are committing to and sometimes immediately regretting.
There's no doubt that Jon Cooper worked his workhorse a bit too hard last year; whether this was merely a case of "riding the hot hand", as Cooper has been apt to do at least since his days with the Norfolk Admirals, or a lack of faith in back-up Anders Lindback is unclear. It's likely a combination of both. The bottom line is Bishop is the undisputed number one and he should be expected to play and play a lot.
Then there's that hubbub about Evgeni Nabokov, the 39-year old goaltender signed to a 1-year contract on July 1. A one-year contract for a goaltender his age is clearly a stop-gap measure as the Lightning continue to develop Andrei Vasilevskiy and Kristers Gudlevskis in the AHL. Don't be surprised, however, if after a few months of solid AHL work one or the other gets a cup of coffee with the Lightning that turns into a Big Gulp. After all, Gudlevskis started last year in the ECHL and Vasilevskiy is already a veteran of a full season in the very competitive KHL. Both guys have the potential to help the Lightning win games as soon as this year, without harming their long-term development.