Despite finishing the 2016-17 season with 94 points and missing the playoffs, the Tampa Bay Lightning are the favorite of many to win the Atlantic Division and possibly even the Eastern Conference. Why? It’s not because they added Dan Girardi, Chris Kunitz, and Michael Leighton this off-season. No, the real reason for the resurgence of hope in Tampa is of course the return of captain Steven Stamkos. The Bolts’ superstar is set to return to the team after missing nearly all of last season, and the first step is his preseason debut tonight at home against the Predators. Stamkos told the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith that, more than anything, he’s feeling curious about his first game action since November 15, 2016, eager to see how he feels and how he plays. Lightning fans are eager as well; their season rides on the health and performance of Stamkos. When Stamkos returned from a broke leg in 2014, he tells Smith that he felt he was playing “the best hockey of my career”. However, the serious knee injury that sidelined him for much of 2017 could take a bit longer to work back from. Only time will tell how one of the best players in the game returns from his latest injury, but there is no doubt that the spotlight will be on him, starting tonight.
- Smith also issued an update today on Anton Stralman, the Lightning defenseman whose undisclosed injury had kept him from even practicing this week and had some worried about the start of the season. That is, until today. Previously, Stralman had only been seen skating at practice in a red, non-contact jersey and was not taking part in drills, but Smith reports that he was back it today, cleared for contact and participating fully. Stralman told Smith that he expects to be back t full strength for the season opener, easing the fears of the fan base.
- Another team with a pair of potential difference-makers currently sidelined are the Buffalo Sabres. The Buffalo News’ John Vogl reports that big off-season trade acquisition Marco Scandella was back at practice today after sitting out the last few days. Still recovering from hip surgery, Scandella said that he is preparing for the season mentally, even if he’s taking it easy physically. The Sabres plan to use Scandella on the top pair this season, and while they would love for him to be at 100% come October 5th, his long-term health and durability is of greater concern.
- Unfortunately, Vogl’s article didn’t have as much optimism about young scorer Alexander Nylander. The team’s 2016 first-round pick has yet to take the ice in training camp after suffering a lower body injury in the Sabres’ prospect camp. Nylander’s status is up in the air, but it seems highly unlikely that he will be ready for the season if he is still watching practices from the stands. New head coach Phil Housley acknowledged that the team is letting Nylander move slowly with his recovering, but admitted that there is no definite time table for his return.
- The NHL is trying to cut down on injuries this season and to achieve that goal they are ramping up the enforcement of penalties. That presents a substantial problem for the Winnipeg Jets, who have taken more penalties than any team in the league over the past four seasons and haven’t been very good on the penalty kill either. In a stroke of genius, the team hosted former NHL referee Paul Devorski in camp today, who provided some in-depth instruction on how to void penalties, especially those like slashing that have been given special emphasis by the league this season.