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Some thoughts on the 2022-23 Tampa Bay Lightning NHL season

You can call this a preview if you’d like

New York Rangers v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Six Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

I was 445 words into a standard season preview for the Tampa Bay Lightning before I hit “select all” and then “delete”. It was fine (there were stats and everything), but, honestly, there are better previews out there. Instead, I figured I would just share my thoughts about this upcoming season for our favorite hockey team.

Let me start by saying that I don’t think the Lightning will win the Stanley Cup this year. I know, I know, burn the heretic at the stake. I do think they will be very good and flirt with the 100 point mark in the regular season, but overall, the losses they’ve suffered to the roster, combined with the improvement other teams in the Eastern Conference have made will make the journey to the Stanley Cup Final tougher than it’s been in year. The lack of depth the Lightning have after losing Ondrej Palat, Ryan McDonagh, and Jan Rutta worries me.

That being said, I am hopeful that some of the folks filling those voids will step up and prove me wrong. Vlad Namestnikov apparently enjoys being back in the area as he capped off his preseason with a hat trick and led the team in goals. It’ll be fun to watch an older (he turns 30 in November) and wiser player bounce up and down the line-up throughout the season. It looks like he’s starting on the third line, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the top line for at least a few games before he blows the candles out on his birthday cake.

He’s all growns up!

I’m also looking forward to the debut of Cole Koepke and am hoping that he can do something that Boris Katchouk, Taylor Raddysh, and Alex Barre-Boulet couldn’t last year - translate success in Syracuse to success in Tampa. Koepke was a bit of a surprise with the Crunch last season as he found the back of the net 20 times in his rookie season. Hopefully he finds that success early with the Lightning and forces them to keep him on the roster even when Anthony Cirelli returns to action in December.

Even if Koepke and Namestnikov find their groove early can they replace the offense that the Lightning are missing with Cirelli on the shelf for a few months and Palat calling New Jersey home now? The team scored 285 goals last year, good for eighth in the league. Will they be able to match that? Healthy seasons from the big guns would go a long way to alleviate that concern. However, as Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov hover closer to that age where production tends to level off or drop and injuries seem to keep reoccurring, can we expect them to play 79-82 games?

As I mentioned in the Kucherov post last week, time is an undefeated opponent and while this team can probably fight that off for a little while, it will catch up to them. They were one of the oldest teams on the ice last year and despite a small injection of youth (Koepke, Cal Foote playing a full role) they will be toward the older end of the scales this season again.

Father Time might not be here for Stamkos or Kucherov, but he’s probably late for a date with Corey Perry. Should we expect another 19-goal season from a player with 1366 career games (regular season and playoffs) under his belt. Also, it’s not like he’s played those games on the edges, that’s 1300+ games of being in the thick of things. The entire fourth line may be aging like a fine wine, but at some point their experience isn’t going to be enough to keep up with the youth of the opposition.

Despite all of that negativity and doubt, I’m not that worried about the offense. They will find a way, they always do. The defense, well that’s going to be interesting to say the least. Victor Hedman is going to be fine and put together another Norris-level season. That’s what he does. Chances are he’ll drag his defensive partner along to a career year as well. After that things get dicey.

Mikhail Sergachev is bumping up to the second pair (and is already bumped and bruised) where he has to turn all of that potential into actual productivity. He’ll be partnered up with Erik Cernak, who will give his all for the 65 games or so that he’s healthy while breaking and hematoma-ing 75% of his body parts. The third pairing is a wild card. Haydn Fluery/Phillipe Myers/Ian Cole (maybe) and the rest will be a work in progress. How much Coach Cooper can trust them will be evident early on when you check the ice times of the blueliners. If Hedman and Sergachev are topping 27 minutes a night, well, it could be a long season.

Having new pairings and players on the blueline can cause confusion in the defensive zone, but also create headaches for the goaltender. Andrei Vasilevskiy is going have to get used to how the new guys play in front of him. From their tendencies (do they like to go down low early to block shots or stay upright) to how they play the puck and communicate on the ice, the visuals will be different for Vasy early on. While that is stuff you can kind of learn in practice, until he’s used to it at game speed, there could be some awkward moments.

There is solace in knowing that no matter what kind of obstacles he will face, Vasilevskiy will find a way to rise up to the challenge. If there is anyone on the ice that I am not worried about over the long stretch of the season, it’s the Lightning netminder. The team seemed to find a nice balance in workload last year for him, so expect the same kind of split in playing time we saw with Brian Elliott during the 2021-22 season. Also expect that weird two weeks during the season where Vasy looks normal to the point where we get a little nervous. Then we write a “What’s Wrong With Vasilevskiy?” article and he fires three straight shutouts to remind us that he is the best netminder of this generation.

Despite all of the questions I have, this team knows who they are. They are confident in their skills and abilities. They’ve been through the fire and the doubts before and proven their detractors wrong. After all, in the last three seasons only one team has gotten the better of them, and that took a couple of overtime wins. A bounce here, a too-many-men call there, and who knows, we could talk about the Lightning going for a four-peat.

Personally, as a fan, I’m going to remove all expectations for this team. If they win another Stanley Cup, great. If they go full Montreal and end up in the Dishonor for Connor Part II Sweepstakes, also great (the first round picks they traded to Chicago are Top 10 protected so a horrendous season wouldn’t be a total loss). If they finish in the middle of the pack, that’s also fine by me.

So, yeah, those are my stream of consciousness thoughts on the Tampa Bay Lightning as we hit the start button on the 2022-23 NHL season. I do have one wish for the season. Can we, as the one fan base in the NHL, not fall for the “league/refs hate our team” storyline? If anything, the Tampa Bay Lightning are Uncle Gary’s fevered dream of a franchise. They are a small market team, run by an owner with strong ties to the community, powered mostly by homegrown talent, led by a captain that choose loyalty over money, succeeding in the Sun Belt. Why in any god’s name would he hate this franchise? If anything he’d be pulling for them as they embody pretty much everything he’s tried to integrate during his regime.

As for the refs, it’s easy to say they don’t like the Lightning, but if you watch games around the league, you know they blow calls for just about every team on a nightly basis. It’s not easy to ref a game at NHL speed when you’re on the ice. A lot of calls that look obvious to us from our couch and the camera above the rink aren’t so obvious to a person who has to look through and around a bunch of fast-moving, large human beings.

Trust me, your blood pressure will thank you if you don’t get caught up in the conspiracy theories. Accept that bad calls happen and in the end it all evens out. Sometimes we forget that sports are supposed to be fun. We are still in the Golden Age of Lightning Hockey - sit back and enjoy!