1) In what areas and how does the club have to cover for the absence of Martin St. Louis from the lineup?
As far as on the ice, the answer would seem to be that the club has already done that. Faced with the abrupt and unexpected loss of a seemingly irreplaceable superstar (the team captain!) while fighting for a playoff berth, the Lightning named a new captain right away and went ahead and made the playoffs, with an astonishing second place finish in a division where many thought they'd be buried in last by February. Mission accomplished!
While it's a valid speculative argument that the team could have reaped benefits from the veteran leadership of St. Louis and made a better showing in the 2014 NHL playoffs, a suitable counter-argument is that they reaped greater benefits from taking their lumps and learning the hard way what playoff hockey is really all about. St. Louis was already at the point where the Lightning had to start planning for what life would be like without him on the roster. Every (awful, hurtful, clumsily-handled) thing he did in manipulating his departure just helped to speed up the inevitable.
As far as off the ice, in the minds of some of the fans who supported St. Louis for all those years and had come to think of him as "The Heart and Soul of the Lightning", there may yet be work to do. After all, one does not simply replace a "Heart and Soul" with just some other guy wearing the same uniform. Many of those fans are prepared to bestow that designation on Steven Stamkos, the team and arguably the NHL's most dynamic player who added a level of tough guy cred in coming back from a broken leg in less than four months. Some look to Ryan Callahan, the player acquired in the trade for St. Louis. Others may choose to support one of the many young Lightning players, with hopes that they one day assume the role that St. Louis held here for so long. Still others, out of bitterness or other reasons, may simply decide not to bestow that kind of mantle on any one individual player again.
The organization is limited in what it can do about that. Beyond designating who appears in what commercials, billboards or team-distributed print material like programs and pocket schedules, they have less say in what player becomes the face of the franchise than the players themselves and ultimately, the fans.
2) Where will Jonathan Drouin spend most of his playing time this season, at wing or at center? On which line?
When Jonathan Drouin was originally selected #3 overall in the 2013 NHL entry draft, his position on the Lightning was never set in stone. Although he is a left wing by trade, the former QMJHL Most Valuable Player was moved to center at the beginning of the 2013-14 hockey season by the Lightning organization.
Despite the fact Drouin was probably ready to compete in the NHL last year like his former Halifax Mooseheads teammate Nathan MacKinnon, the Lightning decided to be patient. With a forward corps loaded with depth and talent - from Steven Stamkos and former Lightning right wing Martin St. Louis, to a group of highly touted prospects developed through the system nicknamed Tampacuse (two of whom, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, ended up being Calder Award finalists, losing out to MacKinnon) -- Drouin was optioned back to Halifax where he spent last season playing center. The position change did not seem to affect his offensive production, as he finished with another 100+ point season.
The anticipation of Jonathan's NHL debut has been drawn out 3-4 more weeks as he recovers from a fracture in his thumb. When he does make his Lightning debut, expect to see him start on left wing. While Steve Yzerman has said the organization sees Drouin as a center in the long run, the truth is that the organization is already well-stocked at center with Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula, Johnson, and 2014 free agent signee Brian Boyle, not to mention NHL-ready prospects such as former first round draft pick Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette. Where the hole is in the lineup is on the left side; Palat, Alex Killorn and free agent signee Brendan Morrow are the experienced left wingers on the roster, while right winger J.T. Brown has seen his share of playing time at left wing to fill a need last season. While Drouin has spent the last year playing center, as a young 19-year-old transitioning to the fast-paced professional game, playing his natural position of left wing makes more sense regardless if it is temporary or long term.
Which line Drouin will ultimately play on is not as transparent. The ideal fantasy scenario that's been hyped since his drafting was Drouin placed on Steven Stamkos' wing, but throwing Drouin to the wolves - top line minutes versus top defenders - is just not likely to happen right away, at least not during 5-on-5 play. It's on the second or third lines, with Filppula or Johnson, where it's more likely Drouin will land once he returns to the lineup. It gives him time to adjust to the NHL game while playing with capable linemates. All of those line logistics will be worked out on his return.
3) Which second-year NHLer on the roster is at greatest risk to suffer a sophomore slump? Who is most likely to escape it?
In a year where 16 (!) players played in a game for the Lightning with one season of NHL experience or fewer, there's no shortage of "sophomore slump" candidates for 2014-15.
The first ones that come to mind are those that exceeded expectations by so much a year ago. Tyler Johnson (50 points in 82 games) and Ondrej Palat (59 points in 81 games) were indispensable parts of a Lightning team that had to weather a near season-long injury to the team's offensive centerpiece. While they've displayed good chemistry with each other and tremendous poise for such young players, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic with both of them moving forward.
The first concern is usage -- both players saw a dramatic uptick in ice time and offensive usage after the Stamkos injury. They were top line players from November through the end of the season, something that's not guaranteed to continue. Palat, so far, has been skating with Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan on the top line but there's obvious doubt about whether or not they'll continue to be 20 minute forwards.
The second concern is just plain dumb luck -- and Johnson and Palat saw a great deal of good fortune on the ice last year. While it's true they made some of their own look through strong two-way play, there's no denying they also got more than their fair share of bounces. On the flip side, one player who is likely "sophomore slump"-proof is JT Brown, who couldn't seem to buy a goal last year if his life depended on it in spite of numerous grade-A scoring chances.
It's important when assessing any player -- but especially second year players coming off a noticeably "up" or "down" season -- to remember that process matters more than results. Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and JT Brown can play exactly as hard, exactly as smart as a year ago, they could even play better. But hockey is a game of bounces and sometimes they don't go your way. If Johnson or Palat hit a bad run of shooting luck, as is common in the NHL, they might not quite make it back to 50-60 points, and that's just fine. If they're playing smart, managing the puck, and helping the team win, the points will eventually come. Process is what matters -- not results.