Here it is, mere hours before the puck is dropped on the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2015-16 season, and I haven't written a proper season preview. Well guess what, I'm still not going to write a “proper” preview, because there are plenty already out there for you to read. Besides, I'm horrible at predictions. Let's say the Lightning are going to finish somewhere in the top 8 in the Eastern Conference and they will be eliminated in the second round of the playoffs.
Now that we got that out of the way, he is what I'm going to give to you, my loyal readers. A bunch of questions that I am literally thinking up as I'm typing. See you don't have to do outlines or actually think of layout and all of that stuff to be a writer. Just make it up as you go along. Let's get started:
Not bloody likely. I think Victor Hedman (Norris) and Steven Stamkos (Rocket Richard) have the best shots, but I wouldn't lay money on either one of them. Hedman is always going to be an underdog as long as Duncan Keith (traditional defenseman) is playing 45 minutes a game and Erik Karlson (high-scoring defenseman) is leading Ottawa in scoring. Also, Hedman (did you know Olof is one of his middle names?) has that annoying habit of getting hurt just as he's starting to find he groove. I do think he will win one in the future (after all he's only 24 years old).
Speaking of people still in their mid-20s, Steven Stamkos is in a contract year. Not sure if you've heard about that or not. Superstar players in their contract years have a tendency of producing, at least they did before teams got into the annoying habit of signing their stars to long term deals well before they had a chance to test the free agent market.
Stamkos scored 43 goals last season. In every season that's he's played 82 games he's scored at least 40 goals with the 60 he scored in 2011-12 being his high water mark. Based on what we've seen in the pre-season it looks like he will have to adjust to a new linemate. Luckily that linemate seems to be pretty talented at passing the puck. Having fully recovered from the broken leg suffered a few seasons ago in Boston, look for the former Sarnia Sting forward to challenge the 50 goal mark this season.
With no rookies starting the season on the active roster, it appears Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel don't have to worry about anyone from Tampa challenging them for the Calder.
Remember that talented linemate for Stamkos that I just mentioned. His name is Jonathan (call him Jo) Drouin. Drouin spent most of last season mired on Brian Boyle's line as he learned the boring art of two-way hockey. Even though most of his13 minutes spent on the ice every game was spent not being amazing he managed to rack up a respectable 32 points.
This season it looks like he's going to get the chance to skate with Stamkos and either Alex Killorn (15 goals) or Ryan Callahan (24 goals). That is going to give him a tremendous opportunity to pile up the points, defense be damned. Well, ok, not damned. Because if that happens he's back on the bench, Coach Cooper does demand a bit of responsibility on the ice. Still, if there was an award for best 2nd year player I'd lay my money on Drouin.
He's already made a lot of the “breakout stars” lists that have been floating around the internet. Which is much better to read than, “Are the Lightning going to trade Drouin?” Whatever was the fatal flaw that kept him out of playoff games last season seems to have been corrected based on his playing time so far in the pre-season. Of course, Coach Cooper could have just been messing with us and Drouin will start game one with Boyle and Erik Condra (per Erik Erlendsson Drouin was skating with Stamkos and Callahan). Which would still be an improvement over Boyle and the skating corpse of Brenden Morrow.
By the way, when I started typing this question I really thought Gaudreau or Filip Forsberg won the Calder trophy last year. Totally forgot that it was Aaron Ekblad. As for “Johnny Hockey” I think he's primed for a bit of regression as the league gets wise to Calgary this season.
Sweet Jesus I hope not. Nabokov, signed as a veteran influence and back up goalie, appeared in 11 games and won 3 of them before being put on waivers and traded for future considerations to San Jose in February. Part of the reason he was let go was because it was obvious he just couldn't cut it as a NHL goalie at that stage in his life. Also, there was a young prospect by the name of Andrei Vasilevskiy waiting in the wings.
Vasya proved that he could hold down the net on a part time basis over the second half of the year. So I'm sure it was with great relief that General Manager Steve Yzerman started the off-season without having to look through the bargain bin sales for a back-up goalie. Unfortunately in August, Vasilevskiy's blood cells got too chummy with each other and he had to have surgery to remove blood clots in his shoulder. That procedure has him sidelined until at least early November.
Mr. Yzerman went into scramble mode and signed Ray Emery to a camp tryout, where he didn't actually play that bad from what I read. However, instead of signing the veteran, Mr. Yzerman cut him and traded for Poulin. Now the former New York Islander (who once beat the Lightning 2-1 in a shootout back in 2014) will back up Ben Bishop as the season gets under way.
Bishop is a bit of a workhorse having played in 63 and 62 games in each of the two seasons he's been the starter for the Lightning. The Lightning do have two back-to-back games schedule in October (12th and 13th and 23rd and 24th) so look for Poulin to have at least two starts this month. Should Vasya continue to heal in an appropriate manner, the most starts I could see Poulin getting would be 4-5.
Of course, this is assuming Bishop stays healthy. The big netminder (who is only 4 wins away from taking over the all-time franchise lead) suffered through an injury during the Stanley Cup Finals last spring. If he were to re-injure his groin, or suffer a new malady, things could go off the rails quickly for the Lightning. If that were to happen, Poulin would probably split time with Kristers Gudlevskis until Vasilevskiy is healthy.
There is a decent chance that at the end of the season Bishop will be able to lay claim to the title of Greatest Goalie in Lightning history as he has a shot at the wins, shut-outs, goals against and save percentage categories. On the offensive side, it looks like Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis are safe.
Stamkos trails Lecavalier by 107 goals and 455 points so I don't think he's nicking those leads anytime soon. A strong season on the power play may get him on top of that chart as he only trails Vinny by 8 power play goals.
The knee-jerk reactions to this is, “Of course not. Are you high?” Let me tell you that I am not under the influence of anything stronger than beer (my one and only Southern Tier Pumking of the year. I tend to like the Christmasy beers more than the pumpkin beers).
In all likelihood Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV! will stay together as much as possible for the season. However, should the offense struggle at any point during the season I wouldn't be surprised to see Coach Cooper shuffle things around. With Drouin looking to take on a bigger role with the offense that drops some very talented people down to the “third” line.
Per Erik Erlendsson Alex Killorn is skating with Valteri Filppula and newcomer Erik Condra in the pre-game rushes for Thursday. Killorn spent most of last season on Stamkos' line and Filppula has the talent to skate on the top two lines as well. That's a lot of pieces to shuffle around.
Should something stagnate or MBNK doesn't score on 15% of his shots, would Coach Cooper be tempted to try Drouin with Johnson or Filppula with Palat to shake things up? Long time Lightning fans might remember the endless flip-flopping of St. Louis between Lecavalier's line and Brad Richards line or between Lecavalier and Stamkos despite the success Lecavalier had with Marty.
And let's not forget to factor in the injury situation. Tyler Johnson played a good portion of the Finals with a broken wrist. While he claims to be 100% ready to go, wrist injuries (along with back and foot) tend to linger a bit longer. Again for an example see Vincent Lecavalier. If he is bothered by the wrist and needs to miss anytime then does Coach Cooper blow the whole line up or just slot Filppula or Vlad Namestnikov* into his place?
So, there are five things I'll be watching over the next six months. Who knows, at the end of the season I might even come back and revisit some of these questions to see what actually happened.
I think Montreal win the Eastern Conference and loses to Anaheim in the Finals.
Conner McDavid wins the Calder and keeps Edmonton in contention for a playoff spot until late in the season.
Phil Kessel scores 35 goals, finds chemistry with Evgeni Malkin forcing the Penguins to find yet another winger for Sidney Crosby. At the deadline they trade their first round pick to Arizona for Shane Doan.
Buffalo and Florida fight for the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs with Buffalo edging out the Panthers on the last day of the season.
Patrick Kane settles out of court and is eventually suspended for 4 games for unspecified conduct that is “detrimental to the team/league”. The Hawks make it to the Western Conference finals.
Las Vegas is awarded an NHL franchise. It is announced at the Winter Classic. The Panthers, despite their success, are bought by Quebecor and moved to Quebec.
Some friends' predictions:
Washington beats Chicago in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Pittsburgh, Nashville and St. Louis all miss the playoffs (for a Penguins fan he never thinks they're good – and that includes the year they won the Stanley Cup)
P.K. Subban wins the Norris and Ryan Johanssen is league MVP.
Superstar Sean –
Hawks will be better than people think (he's having trouble focusing on hockey with the Cubs still in the playoffs. If he survives the postseason we may check back with him)
Ducks vs. Penguins in Stanley Cup Finals. He is also living the Cubs dream.
Anyone else care to make some predictions?
* One of the most annoying things about typing on a new computer is that all of the spellings of names that I have saved to the dictionary have disappeared. Less Russians and more John Smiths please Mr. Yzerman.