As October creeps closer, another NHL season creeps with it.
Even though they were fighting for their fourth straight playoff berth in 2016-17, the Lightning felt like underdogs. Maybe it was because captain Steven Stamkos, months after inking a lucrative new contract, fell victim to the most serious of injury bugs. Maybe it was because a 3-8-2 January forced them into an uphill climb for wild-card contention. But Tampa Bay rattled off quite the finish, going 20-7-4 over the course of its last three months and ending the year on an 8-1-1 stretch. Its offense had near-top-10 numbers for the season, but in the end, even a 42-30-10 record (94 points) wasn’t enough to lift the team out of the Atlantic Division and into the postseason.
General manager Steve Yzerman wasted no time getting to work on Tampa Bay’s roster this summer. While the organization made headlines for, he left no stone unturned in a hunt to better the Lightning both for an immediate trip back to the playoffs and for the long haul. Now, in an Atlantic Division where they figure to have as good a shot as anyone, they hope their potential produces results.
Key additions: F Chris Kunitz (Penguins), D Dan Girardi (Rangers), D Mikhail Sergachev (trade with Canadiens)
Key losses: F Jonathan Drouin (trade with Canadiens)
A mere look at the names who have come and gone this summer doesn’t do Yzerman justice. Kunitz is a nice bargain-bin find from the Stanley Cup champions, and Sergachev is by far the most intriguing of Tampa Bay’s additions even if he lacks NHL experience — check back down the road, when his defensive potential could be part of the core. An aging and declining Girardi getting $6 million over two years was all but unanimously panned, however, and the team is sure to regret shipping away Drouin’s goal-scoring talent at least a little bit early next season.
How, then, did Yzerman and the Lightning have such a wonderful offseason? They took care of business in house. Drouin might have had offensive ability, but getting the Canadiens’ top blue-line prospect for a unit that needed assistance was a whole lot more than a short-sighted victory. And between new — and reasonable — contracts for everyone from goalie Peter Budaj to restricted free agents Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, there was an admirable commitment to pieces that should still be helping Tampa Bay make title runs years from now. Throw in the fact that someone as big as New York Islanders free agent-to-be John Tavares, and this team could be even more fun to watch as a future destination for elite talent.
Sergachev might not make his NHL debut with the Lightning for some time, but it might not matter. Tampa Bay might be hard pressed replicating, let alone topping, its late-season stretch, but over the course of an entire season it’s not over the top to suggest the Lightning could emerge as one of the Atlantic’s most dangerous contenders. As is the case with just about every team, that depends on a lot of things, but considering the core that Yzerman has kept tightly wound together, the Lightning shouldn’t have too much trouble reprising their role as a top-10 offense. Stamkos will be back, remember, and he’ll be joining an already potent cast including Johnson, Palat and Nikita Kucherov.
No one should be banking on Girardi to right Tampa Bay’s defensive wrongs, but Budaj should be more settled in the net after his in-season arrival. And even with the slightest of blue line improvements, the Lightning figure to be right where they were at the tail end of their last campaign — threatening to come roaring into the playoffs, full steam ahead. There’s too much promise to ignore here, and all signs point to Tampa Bay at least restarting its postseason streak.