Last year I was bullish on this team from the start. I picked them as my Stanley Cup Champion before the season and stuck with them the whole way. And how close they came to making me look really good. They made it all the way to the Finals before falling short to the Chicago Blackhawks. Now they are back to do two things - to take one more step up the ladder and to prove that nothing they accomplished last year was a fluke. To do that they need to overcome the challenge of bouncing back from playing such a long season last year and shake off the disappointment of losing when it mattered most. The advantage they have on that front is that they are such a young team. That means that enthusiasm should be high, and the physical toll should be much less than it would be for older squads.
As I write this there is still a giant elephant in the room for this team. Steven Stamkos is the top pure goal scorer in the league. He's also a free agent after this year. I believe that he wants to stay in Tampa Bay, but he has not yet been able to come to terms with the team. He's highly-coveted by pretty much every team in the league, so the longer he remains without an extension the more of a distraction it could be for the team. It should be too hard to figure out - he is worth every dollar top players get and will be for a long time. Keep an eye on these negotiations - or the lack of them - to see what happens and what it could mean.
Tampa Bay Lightning Offseason Moves
GM Steve Yzerman obviously loves the team he has built because he basically did nothing to it. The only departures are ancient winger Brenden Morrow and
depth defender Mark Barbiero. Erik Condra and Tye McGinn are the only additions that could see ice time, and a best they are third or fourth liners. This
is as much as any team in recent memory has ever stood pat with what they had before. Given the amount of talent, the youth and the chemistry that they
have, it's hard to argue with the move.
Tampa Bay Lightning NHL Outlook
It is hard not to envy the upside of this team. This team was the top scoring squad in the league last year and could be even better this year. Stamkos is only 25, so if the contract isn't a distraction he should be poised to be even sharper as he enters his prime. Jonathan Drouin had a somewhat disappointing rookie year, but his talent is massive, and if he can build off the experience of last year and take a step forward he will be key. The Triplets - the young line that scored more than any other in the NHL last year - are all 25 or younger and have upside yet to realize. Defenseman Victor Hedman is already one of the best in the league, and is only 24 so he'll get better both defensively and offensively. If this team stays healthy, keeps their egos in check, and keeps marching forward then they could be dangerous.
Of course, there is always the chance that things won't work out so well. Teams won't be surprised by this team and will work harder to disrupt their offense. Young players can just as easily regress than move forward. If the Triplets struggle to recapture the magic of last year and Drouin doesn't find his game then the offense could sputter. If Stamkos isn't focused because of his contract then that could be an issue. A defensive injury could be a problem, too - the top five defenders for the team are very easy to like, but depth beyond that is a real concern. Massive upside overall, but no guarantees.
Tampa Bay Lightning Schedule
The schedulemakers did the team no favors early on. Eleven of the first 16 games are on the road, and all but one are against teams that are legitimate playoff contenders. If the team isn't in a good place early on then they could find themselves in a hole that they could be forced to dig out of all season. They also close out with four on the road - including three against elite Eastern teams.
Tampa Bay Lightning NHL Futures Odds (from Bovada)
The Lightning are in a four-way tie with the Ducks, Kings and Rangers at +1000 as the second choice to win the Stanley Cup behind only Chicago. Predictably, then, they are tied with the Rangers atop the Eastern Division race at +450. They are favored to win the Atlantic Division at +215, just ahead of Montreal at +240.
2015-16 Tampa Bay Lightning Predictions
I liked this team last year, and I like them at least as much this year. It's hard not to since they are the same team. They will likely be my Stanley Cup pick again this year, It's important to note, though, that the East is just brutal this year. The Rangers are always strong. Washington and Pittsburgh are dangerous and improved. Montreal and the Islanders are strong. The Bruins should be better. Detroit can't be counted out. Columbus, Ottawa, Philadelphia and Buffalo believe that they have done enough to contend. Very good teams will be out of the playoffs early in the East. I like this team better than any in the conference, but it is far from an easy task to win it.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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