Hockey is back! And the Tampa Bay Lightning are once again your defending Stanley Cup Champions! It’s time for the 2021-22 NHL season to get under way and that also means it’s time for a season preview. What are some of the big story lines that will unfold through the year? Who’s a player to watch? And I’ll make a couple of predictions at the end. So let’s get into it.
The writing has been on the wall for the past few seasons, heck, really since 2015, that the Lightning were going to lose players because of the salary cap. It’s just a natural part of the cycle of a sports team that has to operate within a fixed salary world. A variety of players, some loved and some not-so-loved, have come and gone because of the salary cap and not necessarily because of the way they played.
The implosion that some have predicted has yet to come to the team, and with their core players under contract for at least a few more seasons, the Lightning aren’t in too much danger of falling off the cliff. However, this off-season saw one of the biggest turnovers of players the Lightning have had in quite a while.
The entire third line is gone, with Yanni Gourde going to the Seattle Kraken in the Expansion Draft, Barclay Goodrow off to the New York Rangers, and Blake Coleman to the Calgary Flames. The Lightning also let David Savard, whom they acquired at the trade deadline from the Columbus Blue Jackets go, and former second round draft pick Mitchell Stephens. Back-up goaltender Curtis McElhinney retired. Luke Schenn went back to the Vancouver Canucks in free agency. And perhaps one of the biggest moves of the offseason was the trade of long-time Lightning fan favorite Tyler Johnson to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Even with the restrictions the salary cap imposed on him, General Manager Julien BriseBois was still able to go out in free agency and supplement the core of the roster with some savvy signings. He brought back defenseman Zach Bogosian who won the Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2020 and then went to the Toronto Maple Leafs last season. Up front, he was able to sign veterans Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Corey Perry to round out the bottom six along with the young prospects that are vying for playing time.
With this turnover, the Lightning have to answer how they, not replace because it’s near impossible to replace what Gourde and his linemates could do on a budget, but deal with the change in the bottom six. The third line initially looked like it was being rebuilt around Ross Colton and Mathieu Joseph at the beginning of camp. Now it’s looking like Joseph might get a chance to start the season on the second line with Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn with Steven Stamkos dopping down to the third line.
The fourth line will have a different look with Bellemare anchoring the center position. And perhaps biggest of all is the penalty kill. In Gourde, Goodrow, and Coleman, the Lightning lost three of their top five penalty kill forwards. Bellemare will make up some of the gap, but the team will be looking to other players like Colton and Joseph to fill up the rest of the ice time.
What youngsters will breakout this season?
Long-time prospects and former second round draft picks Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk had breakout seasons in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch last year. Both took a good bit of seasoning in the AHL before they stepped forward offensively to be top AHL producers. Now they have to show they can contribute at the NHL level. Both are bigger bodied forwards and can bring some jam and some offensive skill in the bottom six.
Simon Ryfors, while not really a youngster at 24 years old, was brought over from Sweden as a free agent for his first taste of North American hockey. Ryfors tied for the most goals in the SHL last season with 25 in 51 games. While he’s likely to spend a significant amount of time in the AHL, he could potentially have an opportunity to make an impact at the NHL level.
Alex Barre-Boulet is another name to watch out for and a player that many fans have been waiting on to take the next step. He’s been a prolific point producer for the Syracuse Crunch the past three seasons and scored three goals in 15 games for the Lightning last season. He’s the kind of player that needs to play with offensively skilled linemates to unlock his full potential. He had that opportunity on the first line for a little bit last season, but wasn’t able to translate his game onto the score sheet effectively or consistently. Can he make an impact in the bottom six or does he ride the press box? Or will an injury in the top six once again give him the opportunity to make that impact higher up the line up?
The Olympics will be a big deal for a number of Lightning players this season. Some players are near locks to be on the roster for their nation come February. Others will have to hope their play is enough to get the invite and that they stay healthy up to the Olympics to allow them to participate.
Brayden Point (Canada), Nikita Kucherov (Russia), Ondrej Palat (Czech Republic - already selected), Victor Hedman (Sweden - already selected), Mikhail Sergachev (Russia), Erik Cernak (Slovakia), and Andrei Vasilevskiy (Russia) are all pretty much locks to represent their home countries in the Olympics. For them, it will be about continuing to play as they normally do, and staying healthy.
Jan Rutta (Czech Republic) has a pretty good shot of making the team as there are not many Czech defensemen playing in the NHL, but he could get beat out by defensemen playing in Europe and Russia. Ryan McDonagh is a player that will need to be at the top of his game to make the Team USA roster. McDonagh has a good amount of international experience and is a shutdown defensemen, but Team USA has a bevvy of left handed defensemen to draw upon that are a bit flashier and put up more offense.
Steven Stamkos is another player that needs to be at the top of his game, and healthy, to make the Team Canada roster. This is likely his last chance to make it after being an alternate in 2010, injured in 2014, and NHL players not participating in 2018. Team Canada always has the deepest pool of elite players to draw from, especially at the center position. Stamkos does have a little bit of an inside track owing to Jon Cooper being selected as the head coach of Team Canada and the fact that despite being a natural center, Stamkos has played on the wing a lot over the past few seasons. That experience gives him a higher comfort level in shifting to the wing at the international level that many centers will not have.
My first prediction is that Nikita Kucherov will win the Art Ross Trophy, leading the NHL in points this season. As long as Connor McDavid is playing in the NHL, this is always going to be a hard award to win. He did it in 2018-19 putting up 128 points and beating McDavid by 12 points. He came up short in the race in 2019-20 with 85 points for 7th in the NHL training Leon Draisaitl by 25 points. 2019-20 though was the season where Brayden Point had off-season hip surgery and it took him a little while to get going to full speed.
Kucherov didn’t play all of last season due to his own off-season hip surgery, but he’s already gotten the game recovery out of the way by playing in 23 playoff games and leading the NHL for the second straight playoffs in points. In his last 48 games, all playoff games, Kucherov has recorded 15 goals, 51 assists, and 66 points. And keep in mind that it’s the playoffs and the competition is at it’s best every series. Over an 82 game season, that performance pro-rates to 26 goals, 87 assists, and 113 points.
That could be enough for him to get to the Art Ross Trophy. While 26 goals would be the lowest total goals he’s posted in an NHL season since his rookie season of 2013-14 when he scored 9 goals in 52 games while playing on the third line. Kucherov is more likely to put up 35-40 goals, which when combined with that assist rate, would match up closely to his 128 point 2018-19 Art Ross campaign.
I took a look at Evolving-Hockey.com and their Fantasy Stat Projections to get an idea of what they see coming for Kucherov with their model. They put him at 44 goals, 71 assists, and 115 points, which is second to Connor McDavid in their model and his 116 points.
My second prediction is that Mathieu Joseph will break out and score at least 20 goals this season. Joseph is set to get a more consistent role on the third line and with that an increase in playing time. Joseph has averaged 11:15 TOI over his three year career and averaged 10:56 last season. Between playing on the second or third line and likely seeing more penalty kill time, his TOI could easily move up into the 13-14 minute range and potentially over 15 minutes.
In his first season and last season, Joseph was a very good shooter, though he saw a dip to his shooting percentage in his sophomore campaign. At even strength, he scored 1.07 G60 in 2018-19, 0.62 in 2019-20, and brought that number up to 1.15 in 2020-21. If Joseph is able to maintain that 1.15 G60 rate while playing an extra two minutes at even strength per game, then he can get to the 20 goal plateau, but just barely.
There’s still quite a bit of an IF in that prediction, because there’s never a guarantee of a player maintaining a rate stat from limited ice time when they get more ice time. But the possibility is there for Joseph, especially since he could find himself playing with linemates that have a bit more offensive upside in their game than he has in the past whether that’s on the second or third line.
He outperforms his ixG and tends to shoot mostly from the slot in. Whichever line he plays on, he should continue to get those kind of opportunities for wrist shot snipes and greasy goal jams. This prediction gets a bit easier if he can also convert his speed and skill into shorthanded goals or maybe even finds himself playing a little bit on the second power play unit.
Going back to Evolving-Hockey.com Fantasy Stat Projections to look at Mathieu Joseph, they have him projected for 16 goals, 14 assists, and 30 points, but in 67 games which is probably due to him playing less than full seasons in the past. Pro-rate 16 goals in 67 games and you get 19.58 goals, which puts it really close to that 20 goal mark which does make me feel more confident about this prediction since I came to it through intuition and then supported it with stats.
The season will get underway on Tuesday with the Lightning raising the banner and then taking on the Pittsburgh Penguins (minus Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) on the NHL’s new broadcast partner, ESPN. A handful of the games throughout the season will be broadcast exclusively on ESPN+ (like the Lightning vs. the St. Louis Blues on November 30th), if you haven’t signed up yet, now is your chance.