Despite losing their top goal-scorer for more than half the season and trading away their leading point producer, the Tampa Bay Lightning reached the playoffs for the second time in the past seven years and, with a young roster, appear to be moving in the right direction.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Tampa Bay Lightning club that, because of all their young players, has lots of flexibility.
Veteran defenceman Eric Brewer is in his mid-30s, as is winger Ryan Malone (and who knows what his future holds?), but with Sami Salo headed for free agency, and Martin St. Louis traded, the Lightning have turned to the next generation.
That generation is led by 24-year-old Steven Stamkos, one of the game's brightest offensive talents, and 23-year-old Victor Hedman, a rising star on the blueline. This past season saw rookies Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Radko Gudas, J.T. Brown, Nikita Kucherov, Richard Panik, Mark Barberio and Andrej Sustr all play more than 600 minutes for Tampa Bay. That's some solid foundation building.
Not all of those young players are going to be what the Lightning hope, but a lot of them could be contributors and they already provide a competent and inexpensive supporting cast.
The Lightning have to go into next season with their eyes wide open, recognizing that part of their success last season was due to Ben Bishop's terrific goaltending and if that regresses, as sometimes happens with goaltenders, there will be some statistical challenges to overcome, but there are options available to improve the goaltending if need be.
They are an above-average possession team and have a roster of young players that offer potential for internal improvement. Maybe that next generation isn't quite Cup-ready, but the Lightning have lots of reasons to be hopeful for their future.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.
Steve Yzerman/Jon Cooper
A fractured tibia caused Steven Stamkos to miss 45 games, the first games he missed since his rookie season, and even if he wasn't 100% when he returned to the lineup, Stamkos is a finisher with few, if any, peers. No one has scored more goals in the past five seasons, and he does it with a ridiculous 18.2% shooting percentage, also the best in the league.
The challenge for Stamkos, going forward, is that he won't have Martin St. Louis on his wing and after Stamkos returned from his injury -- at a point once St. Louis had been traded to the New York Rangers -- he managed 21 points (8 G, 13 A) in 24 (regular season plus playoff) games. A healthy Stamkos is an elite performer, but the Lightning will need to provide support that will allow him to produce at his customary high level.
Signed as a free agent last summer, following a season in which he had a career-low on-ice shooting percentage, Valtteri Filppula bounced back with the second-best offensive production of his season, playing a career-high 19:59 per game. He had solid possession stats while facing quality opposition, just the kind of results teams like to get out of a second-line centre.
A lack of size may have made the climb more difficult for Tyler Johnson, but he established his place as an NHLer last season, playing every game and taking on big minutes once Stamkos was hurt. Johnson played in all situations, tied for the rookie goal-scoring lead, with 24 goals, and ranked third among freshmen with 50 points. Not bad for an undrafted free agent.
Despite having the best possession stats among Lightning forwards last season, Teddy Purcell had his least productive season in four years with the Lightning. Over the past four seasons, though, Purcell has scored 194 points, which ranks 57th among NHL forwards, so he can certainly take a spot among Tampa Bay's top six forwards.
Skilled winger Nikita Kucherov had an impressive rookie season, even if his offensive production was relatively modest. He had a low on-ice shooting percentage, but his possession stats were great. After 24 points in 17 AHL games and 87 points in 47 (regular season plus playoff) games in the QMJHL the year before, Kucherov has the pedigree of a scorer.
Injuries have been catching up to LW Ryan Malone, who has missed 116 games in six seasons with the Lightning, and he saw his role drastically reduced last season, playing a career-low 11:47 per game. Busted for DUI and cocaine possession at the end of the regular season, Malone could have the final year of his contract bought out.
A gritty checker who starts a disproportionate percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone, Nate Thompson doesn't produce much offence, though his ice time was down to 12:52 per game last season, his lowest since 2008-2009.
B.J. Crombeen is one of the league's more prolific fighters in the league, with 90 fights in 387 career games, and while he's scored only five goals in the past three seasons, he does get more ice time than the typical one-dimensional pugilist.
A seventh-round pick in 2011, Ondrej Palat had a phenomenal rookie season, handling more responsibility as the year went on, scoring 47 points in his last 45 games. He was fortunate, in terms of percentages, at both ends of the rink, so it's quite possible that Palat could regress next season, but a two-way player with skill should be a big part of the Lightning's plans.
Alex Killorn is a nice complementary piece, a winger with size and skill who can play on a scoring line and put up adequate possession stats in that role, though he slumped in the second half of the year, scoring five goals in the last 34 games.
Statistically, J.T. Brown may be something of Palat's opposite. Brown had solid possession stats as a rookie, but was one of the lowest-percentage finishers in the league last season and his combined on-ice shooting and save percentages (PDO) were at the low end. Even if Brown isn't necessarily going to be a big scorer in the NHL (he has 38 points in 64 AHL games), he is effectively due for better luck in the future.
Similarly, Richard Panik had the lowest PDO among Lightning skaters (minimum 25 games) last season, so he's due for some bounceback, but he also had poor possession stats, so the 23-year-old is still battling for a regular spot in the lineup.
While the Swedish Olympic team didn't see fit to select Victor Hedman last season, he performed at a very high level last season, like a Norris-Trophy-candidate level, setting career-highs in goals (13), assists (42) and points (55) during a season in which the Lightning's most skilled forward missed more than half the year and their second-best offensive threat was traded at the deadline.
Matt Carle is very durable puck-moving blueliner, having not missed a game in the past four seasons, though his relative possession numbers declined sharply after taking on more difficult competition last season.
No defenceman in the league had more combined hits and blocked shots than the 411 registered by Radko Gudas, who also led all defencemen with 152 penalty minutes. He's a battler, but his relative possession stats could use some improvement, especially considering that he started more shifts in the offensive zone.
Now 35-years-old, veteran Eric Brewer had his role decrease last season, playing 17:33 per game, his lowest average time on ice since his rookie year of 1998-1999, but he works in that third-pair role. He's 35 games away from reaching 1,000 for his career.
Though he couldn't earn a regular spot on the Lightning blueline, Mark Barberio was effective when he played. If he could build on that rookie season, then Barberio may be able to fit into the top six next season.
A free agent signing out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha in 2013, Andrej Sustr played more in the NHL during his first pro season. The 6-foot-8 defender could still use further seasoning, but also has a chance to land a spot on the Tampa Bay blueline for next season.
6-foot-6 blueliner Keith Aulie has provided ample evidence that he's not capable of handling regular duty in the NHL. Over the past four seasons, his puck possession numbers are near the worst among NHL defencemen.
If the Lightning lose Sami Salo as a free agent, that's a hole that ought to be addressed. Other free agents, like Anton Stralman, Tom Gilbert or Stephane Robidas would be viable options to come in and play top-four minutes.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
27-year-old Ben Bishop had a phenomenal year in his first season as an NHL starting goaltender, his .934 even-strength save percentage ranking fourth in the league (his .924 overall save percentage also ranked fourth). The issue, of course, is that goaltender performance tends to be highly variable, and goaltenders that exceed previous norms one year are likely to experience regression the next year. If Bishop were to regress to league average, would the Lightning still be a playoff team?
The wildcard when it comes to the Tampa Bay goaltending situation is top prospect Andrei Vasilevski, the 19-year-old who has thrived in international play and posted a .923 save percentage in 28 KHL games last season. If Vasilevski doesn't start in the NHL, then Latvian prospect Kristers Gudlevskis could get a crack at the job.
||29-79-108, +50, 46 GP
||Ufa Salavat Yulayev (KHL)
||2.21 GAA, .923 SV%, 28 GP
||19-29-48, -1, 56 GP
||15-38-53, +44, 62 GP
||21-36-57, -6, 66 GP
||21-41-62, -3, 48 GP
||20-24-44, even, 70 GP
||2.68 GAA, .901 SV%, 34 GP
||4-12-16, -2, 54 GP
||3-23-26, -12, 71 GP
||25-45-70, +17, 54 GP
||Minnesota (Big 10)
||1.97 GAA, .932 SV%, 38 GP
The third pick in last summer's draft, Jonathan Drouin has been destroying the competition in the QMJHL over the past couple seasons. In 128 (regular season plus playoff games), he's scored 95 goals and 289 points (2.26 points per game). He's surely going to be a part of the Lightning lineup next season and if he plays in a top line role, he should be the Calder Trophy favourite.
Drafted 19th overall in 2012, Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of, if not the, premier goaltending prospects, having played well at every level and responding to every new challenge. The decision for the Lightning next season will be whether it makes more sense for Vasilevski to handle a starter's workload in the AHL or start his North American career as a backup to Bishop.
A skilled forward plucked with the 27th pick in 2011, Vladislav Namestnikov plays both ends of the rink and should be knocking on the door for an NHL job, though it's not easy to make this club as a centre and there are already a lot of first and second-year forwards on the roster.
Picked 10th in 2012, Slater Koekkoek was healthy and had a tremendous season in Windsor. As he refines his defensive game, he should be quick to challenge for a spot on a Tampa Bay blueline that doesn't have many difference-makers.
Taken sixth overall in 2010, Brett Connolly has managed six goals and 17 points in 84 career NHL games, while struggling in puck possession. He has 120 points in 137 AHL games and is still only 22-years-old, so there is hope that he can be a productive NHL winger, though it isn't an easy lineup to crack in Tampa Bay.
A second-round pick last summer, Adam Erne is a physical winger who can contribute offensively and he chipped in four points in eight AHL games at the end of the season.
A gritty forward who played well in Tampa Bay's brief playoff appearance last season, Cedric Paquette made a good impression in his first pro campaign and should have a legitimate chance to crack the lineup next year.
Kristers Gudlevskis opened eyes with his performance for Latvia against Canada in the Olympics and got into three (regular season plus playoff) games for the Lightning, stopping 54 of 58 shots. the 21-year-old was a fifth-round pick last summer and could probably use more seasoning, but could find the crease crowded with Vasilevski joining the team.
Picked in the fifth round in 2011, Nikita Nesterov made a smooth enough transition in his first North American pro season. He's not big, but can move the puck and that should earn him a chance if he continues to make progress.
Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2012, Dmitry Korobov is a 25-year-old who plays a physical defensive game, but was woefully overmatched in three games with the Lightning last season.
Some possible value as a sixth-round pick last summer, Henri Ikonen plays a reliable two-way game and had a nice year in Kingston before jumping to the AHL for six games late in the year.
A sixth-round pick in 2011, Adam Wilcox has been stellar in two years with the University of Minnesota, posting a .927 save percentage in 77 games over two years.
Lightning advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater
19th - Josh Ho Sang, Ivan Barbashev, Roland McKeown.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Lightning have approximately $50.6M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 15 players.
Check out my possible Lightning lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top six forward, one top pair defenceman, backup goaltender.
What I said the Lightning needed last year: One top six forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman.
They added: Ondrej Palat, Valtteri Filppula, Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, Andrej Sustr, Mark Barberio.
Ryan Malone, Richard Panik, Brett Connolly.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.