The 2015-16 NHL contract year has been up and down for the Lightning. A contract extension for Captain Steven Stamkos didn't happen before training camp or at any point during the season. The roster was riddled with injuries and inconsistent play throughout the season. Not a single player played all 82 games for Tampa Bay and only three finished with 80 or 81 games. 33 different players participated in a game for the club this season. Jonathan Drouin added to the chaos by making his trade request public when he was sent to the AHL. He was subsequently suspended a few weeks later after refusing to report for a Syracuse Crunch game. The trade deadline came and went and he returned to Syracuse and eventually the Lightning with fresh, revitalized played.
Despite all of the adversity that this team went through in 2015-16, they still finished one win away from playing in their second straight Stanley Cup Final. A lower body injury to Ben Bishop in the Eastern Conference Finals and the lack of Stamkos through the playoffs ultimately did them in. The team did find bright spots in the brilliant play of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Drouin. Head Coach Jon Cooper finally showed trust in playing Slater Koekkoek over Matthew Carle and Nikita Nesterov in the playoffs. And Andrei Vasilevskiy did all he could to get the team through the Eastern Conference Finals in Ben Bishop's place. All of that bodes well for this franchise and this core's future chances at winning a Stanley Cup.
Now with the Captain back in the mix, the Lightning will likely be inactive on the free agent market. The roster is pretty well set with only their restricted free agents to deal with signing. The only other signings coming should be for depth and to fill out the Syracuse Crunch roster. The one dark horse could be a return of Jonathan Marchessault, who is a unrestricted free agent and free to sign with any other team.
For now, let's leave Marchessault out of the roster and project what the lineup should look like come opening night. Two things to keep in mind:
- I believe Matt Carle will be bought out or traded to make room under the salary cap for the restricted free agents still to be signed. As of writing, this hasn't happened, but I believe one or the other will.
- Ryan Callahan had hip surgery and is expected to miss the first month of the season. Since I'm looking at opening night, I will leave him off, but you can get a pretty good idea of where he'd slot in to the line up after his return.
|Ondrej Palat||Steven Stamkos||Jonathan Drouin|
|Alex Killorn||Tyler Johnson||Nikita Kucherov|
|Cedric Paquette||Valtteri Filppula||J.T. Brown|
|Brian Boyle||Vladislav Namestnikov||Joel Vermin|
|Victor Hedman||Anton Stralman|
|Jason Garrison||Andrej Sustr|
|Slater Koekkoek||Braydon Coburn|
In this lineup, the big debate will be between Erik Condra, Joel Vermin and Tanner Richard for the 12th and 13th forward spots. There's a lot of speculations that Richard is NHL-ready and he would provide a good checking line center that lines faceoffs. Yet barring someone like Paquette or Condra losing their roster spot, I think it's more likely Richard starts the season in Syracuse.
With Ryan Callahan being out, the bottom six is a little short on right wingers. Joel Vermin has shown he's capable of playing both sides, despite being a left hander. I also think he'd be a good compliment to Boyle and Namestnikov to provide some depth scoring while the Filppula line plays a defensive role against opposing top lines.
What do you think? Talk about it in the comments and let me know your thoughts!