Injuries played a big part in where the Lightning landed and it started fairly early in the year, as Steven Stamkos suffered another major injury, only 17 games into the season and never returned. Tyler Johnson was another player that couldn't quite hit his stride in the year, suffering through numerous injuries through the year and limiting his season to only 66 games.
It wasn't all bad news, but the good news just wasn't enough to make up for the bad luck. Through the rough times, Nikita Kucherov emerged as an elite scorer in the league, doing a lot of the work by himself on some nights, while Jonathan Drouin finally showed some reasonable consistency.
Nevertheless, the Lightning were poised to not only be a playoff team, but many thought that they would be contenders, as their core group of players have been excellent playoff performers already in their careers. I think we'll find, as we move along in this post, they are not far off from returning to the playoffs and seeing what they are really made of.
Given the excitement that was surrounding the Lightning after the 2016 playoffs, I was thinking that they would be more popular at this year's draft, rather than only 11 players being snapped up. They were fairly popular early on, with five players taken in the first three rounds of the draft, including one 1st round pick in Ben Bishop. The injury to Stamkos saw him dropped at the first Waiver Draft and two more Bolts were taken to bump up their number. At the second swap, the Lightning saw one dropped and Stamkos picked up again, in a failed hope that he would return before the end of the year. The Lightning were busy at the trade deadline, selling off assets, including Bishop and Valtteri Filppula, and they finished the season with 11 players on active pool rosters.
The breakout season for Nikita Kucherov lifted him to the top of their scoring table, as he finished 10th overall in pool scoring with 40 goals and 85 points in 74 games, having one of the better scoring rates among skaters. Kucherov was 5th among all forwards in scoring and earned himself a reputation of being a top flight forward in the league.
Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Brayden Point and Alex Killorn rounded out the pool worthy forwards for the team, giving the sign that they were not short on scoring up front. Offense from the back end was spotty, despite having the second-best defenseman in the league, Victor Hedman, and also Anton Stralman, as their only two pool-worthy defenders. Since the Lightning dealt Bishop to Los Angeles for Peter Budaj, they finished with two pool worthy goalies, but their new number one, Andrei Vasilevskiy, was 22nd among all goalies, while Budaj, who started a lot of the Kings, finished 9th.
What I Said Last Year, At This Time...
Personally, I don't see Stamkos returning to the Lightning, but this team won't come away empty-handed. Any deal that ships him out in this off-season, will certainly have a pool worthy player in return, maybe even two, but a bundle of futures for this team to help retool underneath the active roster. The Stamkos blood clot did a lot to solidify the roster, when he wasn't in the lineup, so there is a lot of belief that they won't have to go too crazy in this off-season, to end up close to where they finished up this season and I think that's about right. I would expect a divisional playoff spot and for their top guys to ramp it up in the playoffs again. Many factors go into how far a team travels in the playoffs, but if they are all healthy, they have more than enough experience to carry them all the way.
You could only imagine my surprise, when Stamkos did re-sign with the club, so they were only empty-handed when he was hurt early on in the season. The Lightning's expectations for the year were very high and they came up very short on that prediction above. A damn shame, really. How can they possibly recover from such a poor result?
2018 Pool Outlook
|Nikita Kucherov||4.767||Victor Hedman||7.875||Andrei Vasilevskiy||3.500|
|Alex Killorn||4.450||Anton Stralman||4.500|
|Steven Stamkos||8.500||Jason Garrison||4.600||Connor Ingram||0.759|
|Ryan Callahan||5.800||Braydon Coburn||3.700|
|Vladislav Namestnikov||1.938||Libor Hajek||0.864|
|J.T. Brown||1.250||Dominik Masin||0.808|
|Erik Condra||1.250||Mathieu Joseph||0.743|
|Anthony Cirelli||0.925||Matt Spencer||0.743|
|Brett Howden||0.925||Erik Cernak||0.702|
|Adam Erne||0.874||Ben Thomas||0.690|
|Boris Katchouk||0.864||Daniel Walcott||0.650|
The Lightning have a good portion of their top forwards heading to restricted free agency, so they are not on the current table of signed players, nor do they have a lot of goaltending in the wings behind Vasilevskiy. Of course, the disappointment of Stamkos' 2017 season will be taken into account for 2018 projections, but it doesn't boost the outlook of this team's potential enough. It's going to be a busy summer for Steve Yzerman, the team's GM, and it sounds like he'll have lots of teams to play with.
Potential Losses in the Expansion Draft
Stamkos has a no-move clause, Hedman has a no-move clause... Ryan Callahan has a no-move clause? It's true. If there was a guy, thus far, that I would negotiate to waive that clause, thus far in these outlooks, it would be Callahan. There's no guarantee that Vegas would take him, but at $5.8 million and nothing to show for it, you can at least try and convince him to waive it later on too, if needed.
We're also protecting the likes of Kucherov, Killorn, Palat, Johnson and Drouin, keeping Stralman, protecting Slater Koekkoek and then Vasilevskiy in net. It does leave a couple of interesting defensemen open for plucking, not to mention their potential back-up in Kristers Gudlevskis.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap
The Lightning are going to have plenty of work to do, with three pool-worthy forwards heading to restricted free agency in Drouin, Palat and Johnson. These guys will not be coming cheap, so that becomes an early story line, indeed.
Peter Budaj is the only pool worthy UFA this Summer, coming out of the lineup, but the team is also cleaning out a lot of depth through free agency, which could signal some clean-up, one way or the other.
With all of these revelations, the Lightning already have 31 players under contract for $66.7 million, they also still have a $1.8 million buyout still on the books, which doesn't leave them with a lot of space, $4.4 million under the current cap ceiling number, so negotiations will have to be at their best at the team level to bring this team back into the playoffs.
Looking for a rookie for next season out of the crop of young players the Lightning have does seem to be a bit of a trick, according to some outlets. A kid like Mitchell Stephens though, branded as a good two-way player, coming out of the junior ranks, could be what Tampa is looking for, in terms of their depth. It's hard to say what his offensive numbers would look like exactly, but a good work ethic can get a guy a long ways, if implemented properly by the coaching staff.
Needs at the 2017 Entry Draft
The Tampa Bay Lightning seem to try and find the best player available to them at these drafts and that trend should likely continue. They haven't been too shy on the smaller, more skilled players available in the draft and there appears to be a hard-working centre, maybe on the small-ish side, but he has reportedly got some real upside and that is Sweden's Lias Andersson. Andersson had a good World Juniors and was playing in the Swedish Elite League, so he should have a bit of a head start on some other prospects.
The Lightning have some work to do in this off-season, more within their own organization, with their restricted free agents, than anything else. At the face of their current signed roster, it doesn't look like they have a lot there to work with, but that's going to change throughout the summer and I'm sure it's not only going to be signings done here. Management has had a good handle on what they've needed, they've just experienced some bad luck. A healthy Stamkos can vault this team back into contention and it will just be a matter of getting to the playoffs, before the real show starts for these guys. Their needs for this off-season include a good third defenseman and a quality back-up goalie, sign their free agents and I think this team has a shot at a division title.