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NHL season preview 2016: 3 questions facing the Tampa Bay Lightning

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The Raw Charge staff responds to three questions facing the Tampa Bay Lightning in the upcoming season.

Which member of the Tampa Bay farm system is most likely to have an impact in the NHL with the Bolts in 2016-17?

Let’s accept right now that the system, nicknamed Tampacuse, is vital to where the franchise goes with how players progress and compete. Commonly, young prospects aren’t rushed to Tampa Bay (or out of Syracuse for that matter) so they can work on their attitudes and game with peers and without the pressure that the NHL-level brings.

It’s all part of a process of becoming and achievement. The question still stands about who could have the biggest impact this upcoming season, with thanks to the Lightning roster largely staying stolid (in fact, a notable addition to the roster from free agency was Cory Conacher – who was a member of the organization until spring 2013). Yet a former 1st round draft choice, defenseman Slater Koekkoek, looks to be on the verge of full-time, NHL status.

The 10th overall selection in the 2012 NHL entry draft made his pro season debut in 2014-15 at both the AHL and NHL levels, playing 72 games with the Syracuse Crunch (5 goals, 21 assists, 26 points, a plus/minus of +7) and his NHL debut with 3 games played with the Lightning (no points, an even plus/minus). While the numbers aren’t jaw-dropping, they certainly are a start of note – especially if you’re aware that he’s had shoulder surgery twice in his young career.

Last season he once again split time between Syracuse (60 games, 5 goals, 10 assists, minus-3) and Tampa Bay (9 games, 1 assist and a minus-1) also seeing playing time during the 2016 NHL Playoffs (10 game played, earning a single assist). One thing that clearly seemed to happen was the 22 year old grabbing attention and playing time for what he was doing while on the ice.

While Tampa Bay has several men in the system to keep a watch on, it’s Koekkoek who seems most likely to graduate from the role of prospect and minor-league standard to Bolts team member and young contributor.

Can the Lightning show more potency on the power play?

Well, things couldn’t get much worse on the man advantage for the Tampa Bay Lightning (15.8%) than last season. With only two teams (the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets) worse than the Bolts on the power play, signs would point to at least some improvement.

During the offseason, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman made some changes behind the bench that might signal a turnaround for the historically struggling power play unit. Todd Richards, former head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, brings more than 400 games of head coaching experience, which, along with another veteran in Rick Bowness, will be a welcome addition to the Bolts bench.

In the 2014-15 season, Richards’ Blue Jackets enjoyed a fifth-best power play in the league, a bright spot for a team that often struggled to put together a winning product for its fans.

As far as the players go, this is kind of a difficult question to answer considering the roster remains virtually unchanged from the 2015-16 season except for a few new additions (welcome back, Cory Conacher!).

One player I do predict making a difference in the 2016-17 season is Slater Koekkoek. Though his NHL career is still in its infancy, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper trusted him enough to dress him in 10 playoff games last season. And throughout his junior career and time with the Syracuse Crunch, he was known for bringing much-needed offensive talent to the blue line. If Koekkoek can continue to let those offensive skills shine in the NHL, look for the power play to work its way from the cellar.

Other than Koekkoek, captain Steven Stamkos will almost certainly continue to shine offensively on the power play, as well as the triplets and Jonathan Drouin, who enjoyed a rejuvenation after being sent down to play in Syracuse for some time last season.

Will goalie Ben Bishop's uncertain status affect his play on the ice?

The short answer. Probably not.

Ever since, even before, Steven Stamkos re-signed with the Lightning for 8 years and $68 million Ben Bishop's name was floated around in trade talks. There were several reasons why:

  1. He is in the final year of the 2- year extension he signed with the Lightning. Rather than lose him for nothing, Mr. Yzerman could bring back some tangible assets by making the right deal.
  2. Freeing up $5.5 million in salary cap could keep some of the young forwards like Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Drouin and Nikita Kucherov on the team.
  3. Andrei Vasilevskiy is very good and the Lightning would more than likely lose him in the upcoming expansion draft. Better to deal Bishop now and not have to worry about it.

So, fans prepared themselves to say good-bye to Bishop at the NHL draft. Even Bishop thought he was going to Calgary. But then the Flames signed Brian Elliot. Free agency started on July 1st with the news that Stamkos was staying in Tampa. Since the captain was staying, surely Bishop would be out the door to free up cap space for the other unsigned forwards. Yet, the summer came and went and Bishop was still on the team.

Now, it looks like Bishop will be in net when the puck drops against the Detroit Red Wings on October 13th. In all likelihood he will remain on the team for what Lightning fans hope will be another long season.

There is no point in trading him during the season unless the wheels come off and the Bolts find themselves well out of the playoff hunt. So, even if Mr. Yzerman doesn't make a public statement of support, should have peace of mind in that front during the season.

He also has a captain on the team that is pretty familiar with being this type of situation. For the entire 2015-16 season, Stamkos has to deal with the constant questions contract questions. Should Bishop find himself focusing too much on his future address, the captain will be there to get him back on track.

Factor in the shortened summer due his Team USA commitment, add in the compressed schedule due to the World Cup (lots of back-to-backs) and health should be a bigger concern than his contract. Search “Ben Bishop rehab” and the results come back not only for the torn ankle ligaments from last season in the Eastern Conference Finals, but also the torn groin from the Stanley Cup Finals the year before and the elbow injury that knocked him out of the playoffs the year before that.

Bishop does give off a lighthearted air about life in general. He is able to focus on the daily routine of hockey and not let big picture things distract him. As he has dealt with the previous two trades in his career and his injuries and the lack of offensive support he got from the team early last year, he will deal with his unknown situation. Expect another 35-40 win season with 2.10ish GAA and .920 save percentage.