If there’s one thing I’ve learned as an Oilers fan and to a lesser extent an NHL fan, it’s to never count out the Lightning until their core players are traded and they start a rebuild.
They may have lost quite a bit of their depth due to cap issues, but they’re still a very good team – I’d say still a cup contender. They may have lost out last season to TO in the playoffs in the first round, but that will mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. That just gave them some breathing room to rest and relax after three straight deep playoff runs resulting in three straight appearances in the Cup finals, winning two of them.
The strength of their team starts on what I would say is honestly probably the best first line in the NHL – Stamkos-Point-Kucherov. That’s 113, 95, and 84-point players (not necessarily in that order). Two 30-goal scorers and a 50-goal scorer. Total scoring? Fourth, 14th, and 23rd in the league.
With the departure of Alex Killorn – who signed as a free agent with the Ducks – seemingly taking some punch out of their second line – Brandon Hagel was re-upped with a $5,000,000 raise for the next seven seasons after this one. Why? Hagel put up almost identical stats to Killorn and they couldn’t afford to keep both, so they signed Hagel and let Killorn walk. In their defence, Hagel did blow the doors off last season going 30-34-64 with a +23 to boot, all of which are career highs for him. TB is betting that won’t be the last time he puts up those kinds of numbers and hoping he can do it again – otherwise they have a boat anchor contract that will be near impossible to get rid of.
Centring Hagel is the less heralded scorer Anthony Cirelli, who hopefully gets a Hagel bump in his numbers as he’s never even cracked the 20-goal or 50-point marks in his career – sort of like an early Sam Gagner. On the other wing, they added reclamation project Conor Sheary, a player who was a great complimentary winger who made the NHL just to win two straight cups with the Penguins only to drop off after that. With the Lightning’s cap situation, they were forced to go bargain basement shopping. $6 million spread out over the next three seasons, we’ll see if it works out.
The third line is centred by sniper Nick Paul, who set career highs with 17-15-32 last season for the Lightning. On his wings is the well-traveled Michael Eyssimont, who started last season with the Jets, then went to the Sharks, and finished up the season with the Lightning. He put up five goals and 15 points between the three organizations last season. Trade deadline pickup from last year Tanner Jeannot rounds out the line – between TB and Nashville he went 6-12-18 last season. Outside of Paul, certainly, a third line that has less bite than years past for TB.
The fourth line has been completely turned over, so Logan Brown, Luke Glendening, and Tyler Motte are all newcomers to the team this year. None of these players are anything more than average fourth-liners.
Like the Rangers, the Lightning boasts a great 1-2 punch at the top of their D corps with Mikhail Sergachev, who put up career-bests with 54 assists and 64 points, with the 10 goals tying a career-high, and Victor Hedman, who was right behind him in team scoring with 9-40-49 last season. Those are the guys who anchor the left side on the first two pairings. Playing with Hedman will be Nick Perbix, a second-year NHLer who put up 5-15-20 and +11 in his rookie season, which definitely looks like a stay-at-home guy. Ditto for Sergachev’s partner Erik Cernak – 2-14-16 and +8 last season.
As you would expect with their cap situation, the bottom pairing is unimpressive with two blueliners plucked from the bargain bin – Zach Bogosian and Calvin De Haan. Neither player put up numbers of any consequence for TB last season.
Although he’s cooled off the last few seasons, I still consider Andrei Vasilevskiy a top 2-3 goalie in the league. Certainly starter caliber, he put up a .915 sv% and 2.65 GAA. Perhaps like the rest of the team with a longer offseason and more time for the bumps and bruises to heal, he’ll rebound a bit more next season. Backing him will be – yup, you guessed it, a player plucked off the bargain bin in Jonas Johansson. He’s only got 35 games of NHL experience with three different teams, most recently playing three games for the Avs last season – and although he did very well in those three games – .932 and stingy 2.10 respectively – it is, after all, only three games so picking this guy as Vasilevskiy’s backup is a bit strange. He may only be making the NHL minimum, but if Vasilevskiy ever goes down with injury boy are the Lightning in trouble.
So as you can see, they’ve lost some bite but I still won’t count them out. If the Oilers were to beat them it would be like a passing of the torch from one time period to the next in the NHL.