The Tampa Bay Lightning kick off their 24th season of play on Thursday (and it’s my 19th as a fan). The expectations are great. Following on the heels of consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, winning the Atlantic Division seems to be a given. They are a trendy pick to return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in three seasons.
There’s also a sense 2016-17 might be the last shot at glory for the original iteration of the Yzerplan. While the team will in no means be blown up, certain cast members will be wearing different uniforms at this point next season. That’s a worry for another day, though. Today we celebrate the potential of the 2016-17 Tampa Bay Lightning. By celebrate, I mean make wild, totally unsupported predictions about the Bolts and the league in general. I have sought zero collaboration for these predictions and the rest of the Raw Charge staff may disavow any or all of what follows.
Will Steven Stamkos fold under the weight of his new contract?
No. Nope. No way. First of all, it isn’t really that much larger than the one he had been playing under for the last couple of years. Second, he doesn’t have to worry about it this year. There is no outside influence, no media reports, no breaking “Twitter-like-gate” stories, etc. All he has to do is worry about getting to the arena. He is in Tampa Bay for the foreseeable future He can walk his dog in peace and answer only hockey-related questions like “why is the power play still horrible?”.
He’s Steven Freakin’ Stamkos, folks! He rolls out of bed and scores on a one-timer from the circle. Even in what was a bit of an off year, he scored 36 goals and might have hit 40 if his blood hadn’t betrayed him. He was a bit snake-bitten in the World Cup of Hockey as he hit the post more times than he hit the back of the net, but he was getting scoring chances and skating fast.
“Wait,” you say, “He was playing with the best of the best in that tournament, maybe that’s why he had so many chances?”
I reply with - look at who he is going to play with on the Lightning. For the first game he’s going to play with Jonathan Drouin and Ondrej Palat. Maybe, if they don’t get going right away Jon Cooper mixes it up and Stammer plays with Alex Killorn or Nikita Kucherov. Guess what? With the exception of Killorn, all of those guys played in the World Cup as well. The man is surrounded by talent.
My prediction - 45 goals, 91 points.
Slater Koekkoek - more goals or healthy scratches?
One of the first “surprises” of training camp was James Wisniewski being released from his tryout contract. That cemented Slater Koekkoek’s spot on the roster. Now he just has to keep that spot. There are 7 defensemen on the roster and on many nights, all of them will be in the lineup. Right now Koekkoek will be splitting time with Nikita Nesterov in that 6th/7th defenseman role.
To stay on the ice, Koekkoek has to do what he does best. He isn’t on the roster to lay people out with huge hits or to block shots. He’s there to take the puck from his zone and get it to the opposing zone. If he doesn’t lose possession as he’s skating, or fire blind passes up the middle, then Koekkoek will get rewarded with power play time.
If he pulls a Matt Carle (just cause he’s gone doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun) then he’s going to find himself in a suit instead of a sweater during game time.
Koekkoek remains a young kid, though. He’s not going to play all 82 games. He’s going to make mistakes. At some point around January he’s going to get tired. It happens with everyone. Slater just needs to make sure he learns from his mistakes and doesn’t repeat them. There are going to be games where Coach Cooper wants to go with an extra forward and that will cost Koekkoek playing time on ice.
Only Victor Hedman cracked double-digits in goals from the blue line last season (although Anton Stralman would]ve if he hadn’t cracked his leg in late March). I think the Big Swede has company in the goal scoring department this season.
My prediction - 11 goals, 8 healthy scratches
Speaking of Matt Carle, who is the new scapegoat for the team?
Every club needs a scapegoat — the player that we, as a fan base, can come together and blame for a losing streak. For the past two seasons, it’s been Matthew Carle and his huge contract. GM Steve Yzerman took care of the Carle conundrum by buying him out during the 2016 off-season.
So who does that leave?
The first name that leaps out is Valterri Filppula. He’s getting on in years (32 seems ancient on the current roster). His numbers keep going down (8 goals in 76 games last season) while his cap hit is an inconvenient $5 million for the next two seasons. There are young players who could use his ice time. Yet, Cooper seems to have an unwavering trust in Filp and that’s a perfect recipe for trouble.
The Finnish forward also has an unhealthy love for skating into the offensive zone, circling around and losing the puck. Nothing brings out the online groans in unison more than offensive zone turnovers. Turnovers are a subjective stat. I swear, I’ve seen him turn the puck over four or five times in a game and when I look at the box score, it says “zero”. His possession stats are still passable (50.9 Corsi, 52% in the faceoff circle), but he is failing the eye test.
Candidate number two for the role of scapegoat is Braydon Coburn. Defenseman are always high on the potential blame list since their mistakes tend to show up most prominently in the back of the net. Coburn plays a quiet game in the sense way he doesn’t show up prominently in stat columns or the highlight reel.
Among the other six defensemen on the roster, Coburn doesn’t really have a gimmick: Jason Garrison has a big shot, Victor Hedman is a Swedish defensive god on skates, Anton Stralman is good at everything, Slater Koekkoek is the young kid with promise and Nikita Nesterov is a Russian Jason Garrison and Andrej Sustr is really tall. Braydon Coburn is just kinda’ there. That, just being there, has absolutely no statistical justification, but fans emotions aren’t always stats-driven.
My Prediction: It’s Filppula. Trade him already.
When will the first comment be made that Brayden Point isn’t playing enough?
Personally, I believe Point is better served being on the top line in Syracuse than with the Bolts and playing on the third line. Although, a Point/Vlad Namestnikov/Filppula third line could be entertaining to watch (and I know they‘re all natural centers).
That being said, Point isn’t going to be playing 20+ minutes a game; he’s going to be playing between 9 and 12 minutes with maybe some time on special teams. Since he is the only shiny new toy on the roster, that’s not going to be enough for some fans. The same fans that lobbied for more playing time for Namestnikov and Drouin in the past will be doing the same thing for Point.
The first sign of distress (re: two games in a row where Tampa Bay scores less than two goals) will bring those folks out en masse. Point will make some 4th pair defensmen for the Sabres look bad and fans will shout for Point to be thrown on a line with Stamkos. Coach Cooper will talk about the process and not wanting to rush a young player. Steve Yzerman will glare at someone and make them feel uncomfortable for even thinking he might be wrong and Point will keep playing 9-12 minutes.
My Prediction: October 26th.
Bonus Prediction: First “Point” pun headline will be on NHL.com before October 20th.)
Bonus Bonus Prediction: The over/under on “Braydon” “Brayden” “Braydan” mistakes for the season is set at 56.5. Take the over.
Will J.T. Brown score 10 goals this season?
I love J.T. Brown. He plays hard every night, he’s fast, he’s got great Halloween costumes. The thing is, he was born with stone hands. In 198 NHL games Brown has scored 15 goals. Granted, goal scoring isn’t what earns him his paycheck but he does generate enough chances to outscore Riley Nash for goodness sake.
Brown does have some positive things going for him with how he gets his shots on net. 58 of his 238 total shot attempts made it through to the opposing goalies last season. That 238 total was the highest of his career, so he’s generating more offense as he becomes more experienced..
While he might not much ice time every game, he should at least play in every game. That should continue in the season ahead. He’ll be playing with offensively talented linemates in either Point or Namestnikov, who are playmakers and not just shooters.
My Prediction for Brown: 10 goals right on the nose.
Will we see #DeathTaxesConachar on Twitter this season?
When Cory Conachar Version 1.0 played for the Norfolk Admirals for the Tampa Bay Lightning, he scored on a consistent enough basis that the three things Bolts fans could be certain of were death, taxes and Conachar scoring a goal. After the team changed AHL afiliates to the Syracuse Crunch, and after the 2012-13 NHL lockout came to an end, Bolts fans saw it themselves — the abilities of Conacher.
Then he was traded for an oversized goaltending prospect. Conachar wandered the hockey world for the next few seasons before signing a free agent deal with Tampa this offseason.
Conacher had a good camp, but it wasn’t enough to make the team (and his entire contract could be sent to Syracuse without counting towards the cap. Yea financial factors influencing on-ice decisions!). It was an odd demotion since his game replaces that of the out injured Ryan Callahan better than Brayden Point’s. Conachar is a versatile forward who can fill on any line. If you need him to kill penalties he will. If you need him to provide offense he can. He’s comfortable in Cooper’s offense. So dust off those #89 jerseys and wear them with pride.
Conacher will start the season with the Crunch, but this is hockey in a condensed season. There will be injuries (bonus prediction: Val Filppula is the first player to miss significant time) and Conachar will be on the short list for recall.
My Prediction: He scores 4 goals in a Lightning uniform this season.
- Calder Trophy - Auston Matthews. He’s good. He’ll get a lot of playing time in Toronto.
- Art Ross Winner - Sidney Crosby - He misses the first couple of weeks of the season but comes back with a vengeance. He holds off Connor McDavid to lead the league in scoring and then retires at the end of the year.
- Worst Team in the NHL: Columbus. Torts gets fired in January. Sorry Coach.
- The JustinG. Guilty Pleasure Team: Every year there is a team that I watch as a guilty pleasure. Edmonton has been the team for the last couple of years. I’m done with them (well, mostly. I’ll still watch for McDavid). This year I it’s going to be Arizona. Max Domi and Anthony Duclair are fun to watch. They’re surrounding that duo with more young talent in Dylan Strome and Jakob Chychrun. Louis Domingue catches with his right-hand. Shane Doan is old and beloved. They’ll wear the kachina jerseys at least once this year (November 25th). They may be bad, but they’ll be fun bad.
- Does Rick Nash get traded? Yes. A playoff bubble Los Angeles Kings makes the deal right before the trade deadline. The Rangers officially begin a rebuild.
- Does a Canadian team make the playoffs? Yes. Two of them. Montreal gets in. Calgary rides another streak of advanced-stat defying play to sneak in as well.
- Stanley Cup Winner: Tampa Bay Lightning. Yes, it’s the homer pick. I don’t care. It just feels like the year.