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The 2020-21 Tampa Bay Lightning preview

It should be another solid season for the Bolts

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s finally here, the 2020-21 NHL season is upon us. The Tampa Bay Lightning will get a chance, although an abbreviated one, to defend the Stanley Cup they won in the bubble last season. There will be new divisions, new rules (the Drouin Rule is in effect), baseball-style home series, and an extremely limited amount of fans in the building. For the most part the Tampa Bay Lightning will be the same, and that should lead to another sustained playoff run.

Despite having to jump through a series of financial hoops in order to end up with a roster under the salary cap, General Manager Julien BriseBois was able to return most of the players that raised the Cup last year. There were a few ancillary pieces that are in different towns this year, but losing Zach Bogosian, Carter Verhaeghe, and Kevin Shattenkirk was worth it so that they could sign Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak, and Mikhail Sergachev.

Of course, they’re going to have to figure out a way to overcome the loss of Nikita Kucherov, who is out for the entire regular season following hip surgery. For a lot of teams, losing a player of that caliber would be a devastating blow, but for the Lightning it’s just a bump in the road (hopefully).

For this season preview, let’s take a look at a couple of future bets involving the Lightning from our friends at BetOnline to see if we can figure out how this season will turn out.

The offense

The Bets:

Steven Stamkos 24 ½ goals

Brayden Point 55 ½ points

At first that seems to be a pretty aggressive goal total for a 56-game season for Mr. Stamkos, especially one that he’ll go through without a pretty good playmaker in Nikita Kucherov. Upon looking a little deeper into it, it’s not quite that bad. If we do some simple math (my favorite) and just multiply his career goals per game (.51) then you end up with about 29 goals.

Mark it down and bet the over, right? Maybe not so fast. Of all of the forwards, Stamkos is likely to be the one most affected by Kucherov’s absence. Since 2017-18 they’ve played together on the top line at even strength as well as being together on the power play.

Kucherov’s ability to pass and shoot makes him dangerous on the ice and it takes focus off of Stamkos. With Ondrej Palat as the other winger on the top line (at least to start the season) teams aren’t going to be as worried about Palat’s ability to shoot quite as much as they would with Stamkos. That may lead them to cheat towards Stamkos a little more and focus on shutting him down.

That focus might be even more dramatic on the power play. Everyone knows where Stamkos is going to be on the man-advantage. With Kucherov on the ice, they have to at least respect the fact that the shooter in the right circle is going to, you know, shoot the puck from time to time. Brayden Point is going to take that spot and he’s going to have to show defenses that he’s willing to shoot first to keep defenses honest. If he’s willing to shoot, then that opens up the passing lane to Stamkos in the left circle for his one-timer.

The main concern for Stamkos is going to be his health. He’s been practicing at full-speed during training camp and appears to be all set for the season. Still, could the back-to-back core surgeries linger into the season? Could a compressed schedule lead to another injury? Those are big questions that could affect his season.

With the power play now running through Point, that gives the young center a chance to pick up a few more points on special teams. Is it enough to get him to a point-per-game pace? Possibly. In 2018-19 he put up 92 points in 79 games with 35 of those points coming on the power play. If the Lightning want to keep in the top tier of the league offensively they will need him to be close to that pace.

Where the Lightning also need help offensively will be from the second and third line. Anthony Cirelli’s defensive abilities are well known around the league, but if he can take his offensive game up to the next level, he could really help offset the loss of Nikita Kucherov. He’s had respectable production over his first two full seasons, putting up 39 and 44 points in those years. Somewhat impressively he’s done that with minimal power play time. Last season was the first year he was on the man advantage, averaging roughly a minute per game. Expect that number to increase dramatically as he picks up a regular spot on the second unit.

On his line will be Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson. Can Killorn produce at the same rate he did during the regular season last year or will he regress to what his normal career numbers are? Chances are no. He shot an extraordinary 18.39% at 5v5 last season, 8% better than any other season in his career. His other numbers are in line, if not a little below his career numbers. Still, he’ll probably see some time on the power play and plenty of ice time.

Johnson will be playing with a chip on his shoulder and as much as folks wanted to trade him, it was mostly financial, not performance that dictated. Were his counting numbers down a bit? Yes, but the underlying possession numbers were still positive (52.15% FF% and 53.2% xGF%). You can argue that he was a bit snakebitten.

The third line that had such a great postseason starts the season together. Barclay Goodrow, Yanni Gourde, and Blake Coleman did a great job of shutting down the opponents in the bubble. Having Coleman for an entire season could be good for another 20 goals.

Rounding out the offense will be a fourth line that may see a few different combinations throughout the year. Mitchell Stephens will center it, but the players surrounding him could change. Alex Volkov and Patrick Maroon will start there, but Mathieu Joseph will most likely cycle in as well. Other players popping up from the taxi squad or Syracuse could fill in as well.

Once again the Lightning should have at least three lines that can generate offense while playing solid defense. The fourth line is the fourth line (as can be said for most teams in this league).

As for the bets, I say take the under on Stamkos goals and the over on Point’s….well, points.

The Defense

The Bet:

Victor Hedman over/under 44 ½ points

Yeah, it’s weird to judge a defense by it’s offense, but that’s all we have. Hedman leads a defense that is really strong on the left side, but has a lot of question marks on the right. It looks like it will be Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Mikhail Sergachev on the left along with some sort of rotation between Erik Cernak, Jan Rutta, Cal Foote, and Luke Schenn on the right.

Sergachev had a breakout season last year and may be the most dynamic player on the blueline. Hedman is by far the best all-around player, but Sergachev has the ability to do things that few other defenders can.

Coach Cooper does an excellent job of balancing the playing time of his defenders. Last season the top blueliners averaged between 15 and 17 minutes of ice time at 5v5. Hedman and Sergachev separated themselves from the others with their power play time. They will probably split Kevin Shattenkirk’s ice time among all of the players on the right side of the ice.

Cal Foote made the opening night roster. The fact that he can slide back and forth on the taxi squad without having to go through waivers most likely means he won’t play every game this season, but he should get a fair share as long as he can stay up to speed at the NHL level. After watching him in Syracuse for the past two seasons, I can say - don’t expect too much from the rookie. His game isn’t flashy, but it’s productive. He usually makes the correct play and doesn’t flinch under pressure. He won’t produce much on offense and his ability to skate with top-end talent will be a question, but he shouldn’t make too many mistakes.

As for the bet. That’s a tough one. Forty-five points is a lot for a defenseman, even one who plays as much as Hedman does. I would most likely stay away from the bet, but if forced to choose, I would say take the under. Even with an excellent season, he may not get to that number.

Goaltending:

The Bet:

Andrei Vasilevskiy final save % over/under .9205

Andrei Vasilevskiy played every game during the Lightning’s postseason run last season and was one of the key factors on their way to the Cup. Not only did he play every game, he played extremely well, proving any doubters he may have had that he belonged among the game’s elite. He’ll be expected to do much of the same this year.

After a start that he even acknowledged wasn’t his finest, Vasilevskiy posted pretty decent numbers during the regular season. They weren’t worthy of a Vezina, but among the top tier of the netminders in the NHL. Part of it could be a little bit of inactivity during the games. The players in front of him did an excellent job of limiting the shots he faced. Despite being third in the league in ice time (behind Carey Price and Connor Hellebuyck) he faced just 29.58 shots/60 which was 48th in the league (among goaltenders who had played at least 500 minutes). That’s almost two shots fewer than he saw in the previous year.

With every game being played within the division, and all of the opponents wanting to play their best against the defending champs, he won’t have many easy nights. The Lightning should be a shoo-in for the playoffs which should allow Coach Cooper to sprinkle in some nights off for his former Vezina-winner. When asked about playing time last Friday, the head coach agreed that the ratio most coaches use for a full season (roughly 60 out of 82 games) is a good starting spot for the number of games he expects Vasilevskiy to start.

That would put him at about 40-41 starts. However, with back-to-back games and three-in-four-night stretches throughout the year that number could fluctuate a bit. Coach Cooper will have to temper his tendency to lean on his number one goalie and make sure Vasilevskiy is rested for the postseason.

On the nights he’s off, it will be Curtis McElhinney getting the call. The veteran has played his role admirably during his tenure with the Lightning. At 5v5 he allowed 2.40 GAA and a .921 SV%. He allowed 33 goals against an Expected Goals Against of 30, but was slightly better than Vasilevskiy in High Danger Save % (.847 vs. .844). In all the epitome of a solid back-up goaltender.

He did allow three or more goals in 12 of his 18 starts, but also faced more shots per 60 minutes than his batterymate (30.27 vs. 29.58). There were a few games where he bailed his teammates out like a 31-save, 2-1 (OT) win against on February 10th.

A big concern for Lightning fans would be Vasilevskiy suffering any type of long-term injury. It’s probably the one spot on the roster that would derail their championship hopes the fastest. McElhinney did make 33 appearances in 2018-19 for the Carolina Hurricanes and posted acceptable numbers. Could he do it again if the Lightning need him to? That’s a question that the Lightning don’t want to find out the answer to this year.

As for the bet - I like the over. After struggling a bit at the beginning of the season he still ended up at .917. With a familiar defense in front of him, he doesn’t have to adjust to any new tendencies from new teammates. He seemed to fix the issues with perimeter/low-danger shots beating him as the season went on and he should see his goals saved above average back up to where it normally resides (in the mid-teens) as opposed to the 9.77 he posted last year.

Overall prediction:

The Bet:

Tampa Bay Lightning over/under 73.5 points

Despite losing their best player for the entire season, the Tampa Bay Lightning still boast one of the top point totals in the league. According to BetOnline, the 73.5 points is tied with Colorado for the highest total in the league.

To get to the over, the Lightning would have to acquire roughly 66% of the points in their season. With eight games against the Red Wings and Hawks each, they could rack up more than half the points needed against just those two teams (yes, I think they will be that bad).

If they stay healthy they have an excellent chance to win the division and do so easily. Carolina, Dallas, and Columbus will most likely be their top competition, but none of those teams can match the Lightning offensively. They also have the top goaltender in the division. Those are the two most important factors in a short season like the one that is upcoming.

Take the over.