The Tampa Bay Lightning are one of the early favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2016-17 Stanley Cup Final and have to be considered a real threat to come away with the ultimate prize. Fresh off back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Conference Final and a berth in the 2014-15 Stanley Cup Final, the team has proven they have what it takes to go deep into the postseason. Add in the fact that Steve Yzerman has done a terrific job keeping the core group of this team together for at least one more kick at the can, and the Lightning appear to have as good a chance as anyone to win it all in 2016-17.
Joe Smith covers the Lightning for the Tampa Bay Times and he was kind enough to answer some questions – including a couple of bonus queries – for Pro Hockey Rumors on the subject of the Lighting.
PHR: Given Pittsburgh’s dominating postseason run and the return of its roster mostly intact, is it fair to proclaim the Penguins as the prohibitive favorites in the East? How do the Lightning expect to close the gap between themselves and the Penguins in the battle for Eastern Conference supremacy after not acquiring any impact talent from outside the organization this summer?
SMITH: You have to consider the champion Penguins the favorite until someone beats them. But the gap isn’t that big, considering the Lightning came incredibly close to getting past Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Final. Not closing the Penguins out in Game 6 at home likely haunted Tampa Bay all offseason. But the Lightning has all the tools to be a Stanley Cup contender, as evidence by its back-to-back playoff runs. With a deep offense led by a healthy Steven Stamkos, freed of any contract distractions, and arguably the top one-two tandem in net with Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Lightning should give itself a chance.
PHR: Starting goalie Ben Bishop is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency following the 2016-17 season. Yzerman has previously shown a willingness to let players play out their deals and risk losing them for nothing if he feels the team is a stronger contender with that player in the lineup. Do you see the Lightning following the same script with Bishop or do you anticipate they look to move him at some point in season to address other needs?
TIMES: Yzerman has said there is the option of keeping Bishop all season for another run at the Stanley Cup. “It’s not a bad option,” he says. And it’s entirely possible the Lightning does just that. It’s hard to imagine Tampa Bay having a better chance to win without the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, the best goalie in franchise history. But I wouldn’t rule out Tampa Bay potentially dealing Bishop before the March trade deadline, depending on what the market is. It doesn’t hurt the Lightning to at least see what is out there as opposed to losing Bishop to Las Vegas (or another team as a UFA) for nothing.
PHR: Given Vasilevskiy’s strong postseason play and the recent contract extension he was rewarded with, it’s evident the Lightning are projecting him to be the goaltender of the future. However, what are the odds he displaces Bishop between the pipes this season, regardless of whether or not Bishop is dealt?
TIMES: It does appear Vasilevskiy is the future No. 1, it’s just a matter of when. The fact Vasilevskiy was signed to a three-year, $3.5 million (AAV) extension in July, putting him under contract for four more years, makes him a more affordable option than Bishop, who makes $5.9 million in the final year of his. The only way Vasilevskiy replaces Bishop this season is if Bishop is traded before the March deadline. Now, Vasilevskiy is slotted to get a larger share of starts than last season, potentially 30-plus, so he’ll push Bishop. But barring a significant drop in Bishop’s play, he’s still the No. 1.
PHR: The Lightning have three more key contributors set to become RFAs next season – Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson; are you aware of any attempts by Yzerman to strike early and get a deal or deals done in advance of next summer? Also, with $55MM already committed to next year’s salary cap and just 13 players under contract, is there any worry within the organization that they will have to sacrifice valuable assets in order to move out enough salary to retain those RFAs and flesh out the roster?
TIMES: Haven’t heard of any significant contract talks with those players yet, but it’s still early. Yzerman first had to wrap up last summer’s contracts, including signing Nikita Kucherov just two days before the opener. While Yzerman has done a great job keeping the core together, he’s said that it’s impossible to keep everyone with the salary cap. That’s why it’ll be such a challenge next summer with Johnson, Drouin and Palat all needing new deals, and likely big raises. The Lightning might gain some flexibility if it ends up trading Bishop, or depending on what player it loses in the expansion draft. Veterans like Valtteri Filppula and Jason Garrison are potential trade candidates if Tampa Bay must clear some room.
PHR: Speaking of Drouin, it was an interesting year for the young winger, to say the least. Now that he has withdrawn his trade request and seems content in Tampa, what are your expectations for the former third overall draft pick? He only has eight career NHL goals in 91 regular season games but tallied five in 17 playoff contests this past spring. Will he build upon that and potentially reach or even exceed the 20-goal, 50-point plateau?
TIMES: Would not be surprised if Drouin has a huge year. I’m talking 60-70 points type of season. He seems to have picked up where he left off in a dynamic postseason, and is bound for some big numbers playing on a line with Steven Stamkos. A turning point for Drouin was a breakfast he had with coach Jon Cooper in early April after returning from AHL Syracuse. The two cleared the air, and Drouin is playing like a young star who has the trust and confidence from his head coach. He has more of a shoot-first mentality now, and as a quarterback on one of the power play units, he’ll have plenty of chances to put up points.
PHR: Any sleepers or relative unknowns on the Lightning you think may have a big impact this season?
TIMES: You can start with rookie forward Brayden Point. The 20-year-old prospect surprised many by making the opening night roster, taking advantage of open spots vacated by Ryan Callahan (hip surgery) and Nikita Kucherov (contract holdout). Point earned it with his play in exhibitions, and has fit right in early on this season, racking up his first NHL point in a win over New Jersey.
PHR: Finally, aside from Pittsburgh, which teams in the East represent the biggest obstacles to Tampa?
TIMES: The Panthers, which finished ahead of the Lightning in the Atlantic Division last season, should be a threat again. And you’d think Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals are due to break through its postseason struggles.
Pro Hockey Rumors would like to extend our thanks and gratitude to Joe Smith for taking the time to answer these questions for us. You can find Smith’s bio here and for everything related to the Tampa Bay Lightning, you can follow him on Twitter here.