2017-18 season preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

As Steven Stamkos goes, so go the Tampa Bay Lightning. Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Lightning, 42-30-10, missed the playoffs, $2.4 million in cap space

Biggest changes: General manager Steve Yzerman could have overreacted to one of the most disappointing seasons of his managerial career by firing head coach Jon Cooper and reassembling his roster. Instead, Yzerman did more adding than subtracting, hoping the addition of a four-time Stanley Cup winner (winger Chris Kunitz) and a gritty defenseman (Dan Girardi) will be enough to offset the losses of forward Jonathan Drouin and defenseman Jason Garrison on a team that, with a healthy Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan, expects to get back to where it was 16 months ago -- the Eastern Conference finals. To have enough room to sign Kunitz (one year, $2 million) and Girardi (two years, $6 million) while still being able to re-sign restricted free agents Tyler Johnson (seven years, $35 million) and Ondrej Palat (five years, $26.5 million), the Lightning were forced to part with Drouin, who was traded to the division-rival Canadiens in exchange for top defensive prospect Mikhail Sergachev. The 19-year-old Russian was taken ninth overall in 2016; he will be given every opportunity to crack the lineup this season. If Sergachev plays fewer than 40 NHL games this season, the Bolts get Montreal's second-round pick in the 2018 draft.

Case for: Stamkos and Callahan missed a combined 129 games last season and the Lightning still came within a point of sneaking into the postseason. Stamkos is fully recovered from the lateral meniscus tear that ended his promising season on Nov. 15. At the time, Stamkos had 20 points in 17 games and looked like a potential Hart Trophy candidate. Callahan's second hip surgery in 14 months cut his season short at just 18 games, leaving the Lightning without one of their most energetic, hardest-hitting forwards. Even without Stamkos and Callahan, Tampa Bay finished third in the Atlantic Division with 230 goals; but it lacked the defensive awareness Kunitz and Girardi will bring on a nightly basis. Girardi will take some of the hard minutes away from Victor Hedman, who logged a career-high 24:30 last season, 15th among all players. Kunitz, 38, has lost a step, but he is gritty and versatile enough to play up and down a very skilled lineup that features five forwards who scored 17 or more goals last season, led by Nikita Kucherov's 40 goals and 85 points. Girardi, 32, also is a step slower, but he will boost a penalty kill that finished eighth (81.4 percent) in the Eastern Conference last season.

Case against: For one, Stamkos needs to prove he can stay healthy for an entire season and the playoffs. That hasn't happened since the 2014-15 season, when he played all 82 regular season games and all 26 playoff games. It's no coincidence that the Lightning went to the Stanley Cup Final that season, losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. The same health parameters go for Girardi and Kunitz, who have put in some hard miles with a combined 1,672 regular-season games and 283 playoff games. But the biggest concern is the ability of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to carry the load. The 23-year-old Russian started a career-high 47 games last season and showed enough (41-32-8) for the Lightning to part with Ben Bishop, who was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings just before the trade deadline in exchange for goalie Peter Budaj, defensive prospect Erik Cernak and two late-round picks. If Vasilevskiy can handle the work, the Lightning will challenge for the division and conference titles. If not, they will have to scratch and claw to get into the playoffs.

Trade bait: The core of Stamkos, Palat, Johnson, Alex Killorn and Hedman are signed through the 2021-22 season and are going nowhere. The same cannot be said for right wingers Erik Condra and J.T. Brown and defenseman Andrej Sustr, each of whom is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after this season.

Goalie situation rating: 6. After Bishop was traded, Vasilevskiy went 12-4-2 in his final 18 starts and sported a .929 save percentage in March and April. With Vasilevskiy expected to play a minimum of 60 games this season, the heat has been turned up several notches. The 6-foot-3, 207-pound Vasilevskiy, who was taken 19th overall in 2012, had never played in more than 41 games before last season. Budaj, 35, is coming off an impressive season in which he went 30-21-3 with a 2.18 goals-against average and .915 save percentage for a pair of teams (the Kings and Lightning) that fell short of the playoffs. Neither goalie has had much success in the postseason, where Vasilevskiy has gone 4-5 in 12 appearances and Budaj has gone 0-2 in seven appearances.

Scout's take: "He might not be an advanced-stat juggernaut, but bringing in a guy that has won before like Dan Girardi could make a real difference -- leadership-wise and how they defend. The injuries they had last year really hurt, and not just Stamkos'. Ryan Callahan's injury really flew under the radar, and if those two guys are healthy and Victor Hedman continues to solidify himself as one of the top defensemen in the league, they can be right back where they were two seasons ago."

Prediction: 2nd in Atlantic

Depth chart/Combos


Ondrej Palat-Tyler Johnson-Nikita Kucherov

Alex Killorn-Steven Stamkos-Brayden Point

Chris Kunitz-Vladislav Namestnikov-Ryan Callahan

Yanni Gourde-Cedric Paquette-J.T. Brown


Victor Hedman-Dan Girardi

Anton Stralman-Braydon Coburn

Mikhail Sergachev-Andrej Sustr

Jake Dotchin-Slater Koekkoek


Andrei Vasilevskiy

Peter Budaj

Michael Leighton