The Lightning came into the 2021-22 season with sky high expectations thanks to two straight Stanley Cups. There was some concern of a step back because they lost all three pieces of their coveted third line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow, but many still expected the Lightning to be competitive.
And that they were in the regular season. They never really had any noteworthy storylines throughout the season, and no players were hiding away on long-term injured reserve until the playoffs started, so instead it was a season of the team being good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to drain their energy for the playoffs. They added Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel at the deadline to power up and finished third in the division with a 51-23-8 record.
In the first round they faced off against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who gave them their toughest fight in the first three rounds, as they required a Game 6 overtime win and a Game 7 one-goal win to move on. The Florida Panthers made for a significantly easier series for the Bolts, as they swept them in four games. They then found themselves down 0-2 to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final but won four straight to go to their third straight Stanley Cup Final. The championship streak would come to an end, as the Colorado Avalanche proved to easily be the best team they faced in the Final, and while the Lightning put up a fight, it was hard to see the Avs losing the way they played all series.
To make matters worse, the Bolts had to cut ties with some big pieces to get back under the salary cap, trading Ryan McDonagh to the Nashville Predators, and letting Jan Rutta and Ondrej Palat walk to free agency. They brought in some interesting names to replace them in Ian Cole, Vladislav Namestnikov, Haydn Fleury, and Philippe Myers, but that Stanley Cup Final streak might be in jeopardy given the personnel losses.
KEY ADDITIONS & DEPARTURES
Ian Cole, D
Vladislav Namestnikov, C
Haydn Fleury, D
Philippe Myers, D
Ondrej Palat, LW (NJ)
Ryan McDonagh, D (Nsh)
Jan Rutta, D (Pit)
Riley Nash, C (AHL)
The Lightning offense is led by the three-headed monster of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point. They make the big bucks up front, and there’s a reason why. When the three are together, they are a force to be reckoned with, but they also elevate the play of others, meaning that you’ll often find two on the top line and one on the second. The “poor soul” that has to go to the second line still typically gets to play alongside Anthony Cirelli, one of the best defensive forwards in the game, a potential Selke Trophy winner in the future. He’ll miss the first few months of the regular season due to shoulder surgery, but when he returns, it’s a forward quartet that’s tough to beat.
The pieces that surround them are where it gets more interesting, especially as they’ve slowly been losing their usual candidates as cap casualties. Palat was the big name up front this season, and he provided a tenacity to that combo of Kucherov and Point/Stamkos that will be very hard to replace. Alex Killorn will likely fall into that role on the second line, and Paul’s play in the playoffs might earn him a chance there. The Bolts also paid a heavy price to bring in Hagel, so they might hope that he can get a spot and prove he was worth the cost, or this could be Ross Colton’s big break to make some noise in the top six.
Another stealth candidate could be Namestnikov, who may not be a prototypical top-six forward at this stage of his career, but he did see his best seasons in his first tenure with Tampa as the third man to Stamkos and Kucherov’s brilliance, so he might be an easy fill in there just purely out of past chemistry.
Beyond that, the Bolts have a nifty group of veterans to round out the likely forward depth for the team in Corey Perry, Patrick Maroon, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. They proved to be a solid replacement for the Coleman-Gourde-Goodrow line last season, and while Tampa’s depth has improved enough that they might not be a full unit, all three have proven that they still have gas left in the tank at their age and will be valuable pieces further up the lineup as injuries accumulate throughout the season.
You can’t talk about the Lightning’s defense without first talking about Victor Hedman. He’s one of the best two or three defensemen in the league, and it shows in both his play and the recognition he gets around the league, as he’s been a finalist for the Norris trophy for the past six seasons, winning his first and currently only time in 2017-18. He’s also been a consistent point producer in the NHL, with a career high 85 points in 2021-22, and is just as good defensively, making him one of the most important pieces of the team.
Beyond him, there is only some of the Cup-winning defense corps left standing with McDonagh and Rutta gone. The two that remain are here for the long haul, with Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak locked up to eight year extensions in the offseason. Sergachev has proven to be a strong offensive option on the blueline, although his defensive ability could still use a bit of work, something that will be needed as he transitions into tougher minutes. Cernak is an excellent defensive defenseman and can always be counted on to shut down the opposition, but his style of play also has an expiration date. Cal Foote also returns, although he’s previously played in smaller roles with the team, so it’ll be interesting to see where he ends up as the season progresses.
Making up the rest of the blueline is a bunch of new additions to the team. The most expensive one was Ian Cole, who is a solid two-way defender but excels best in a sheltered role, as does Haydn Fleury, although he’s more of a defensive defenseman than a two-way defender. Philippe Myers is an intriguing one, as he had plenty of potential on the way into the league, but he hasn’t totally found his game so far in his career. It makes up a group that looks thinner than usual on paper for a Cup contender, but the Lightning have been known to get the best out of their players, so we’ll wait to see if this is actually the case.
It feels like Andrei Vasilevskiy’s been in the league forever, but at just 28, he’s still in his prime, and he’s one of the best goalies in the league – still the best in the eyes of many when it comes to clutch play. Last season was actually his worst as a starter, as he “only” put up a .916 save percentage, but he made up for it with another stellar run in the playoffs.
Brian Elliott returns as the backup for the second season in a row, and while he’s far from the goalie he was in St. Louis a decade ago, he was still solid for Tampa last year, winning more games than he lost. That’s about all you can ask from a veteran backup goalie, and his .912 save percentage was probably what the team expected from him as well.
Jon Cooper is behind the bench again for his 10th full season for the Lightning and 11th in total, and it doesn’t look like he’ll be stopping anytime soon. There was some thought that he’d be fired after the Lightning were shockingly swept in the first round of the 2019 playoffs after a 62-win season, but he got another chance and went on to win two straight Cups with a Cup Final appearance right after that.
There’s a reason why he’s the longest tenured coach by more than two years, and that’s because he has consistently gotten success out of this group, even in seasons where they dealt with injuries. In the past nine seasons, they rank fifth in even strength shot attempt share with 52.4 percent and fourth in expected goal share with 52.73 percent, and they have only missed the playoffs once under Cooper. It’s hard to see a point where Cooper loses his job with this team with the success he’s had with this group.
The Lightning’s prospect pipeline isn’t quite what it used to be, a result of dealing a lot of picks and prospects in the past few seasons to continue to bolster this team for a long playoff run. It’s certainly worth it considering the success that they’ve had, but it doesn’t leave them with a lot of young talent to bring up as they lose pieces in their annual cap crunch.
They did have their first-round pick for the first time in three years, selecting Isaac Howard with the 31st overall pick of the 2022 Draft. He’s easily the team’s top prospect and would by default be the most likely rookie to make the team, but it’s still hard to see where he fits into the team’s forward group. Cole Koepke and Gabriel Fortier have cut their teeth in the AHL and could push to make the team at forward.
1. Will this be the year the core burns out? The Lightning have consistently been one of the best teams in the league for almost a decade now, going from a team destined to win the Cup to the team that couldn’t be stopped for almost three straight playoff runs. But that’s a lot of hockey to play for an aging core, and after losing significant pieces for the last couple offseasons, it’s fair to wonder when this team will reach the breaking point.
2. Who will be the second-line center to start the season? The biggest hole in the lineup to start the season is the second line center slot, as elite shutdown center Cirelli will miss the first two to three months of the year. It’s a steep dropoff after that unless they go with Stamkos and Point as the 1-2 punch, but then that will significantly weaken their winger options. It’s likely Paul takes the spot after a strong playoff run.
3. Did the Lightning bet on the right pieces in the offseason? Every dynasty in the salary cap era reaches a crucial make-or-break point where it has to choose between the easiest decision and the smartest decision. General managers tend to fall in love with a lot of players when they all do well together, so it makes it even trickier to navigate the cap. The Lightning made their choices, moving on from Palat, Rutta, and McDonagh to keep Paul, Cirelli, Sergachev, and Cernak, putting a lot of term into the latter group. Whether or not they picked the right players to stick around will decide if this dynasty continues for another five to 10 years or if it slowly starts to come crashing down.
While the Bolts look a bit worse on paper than they did the past few seasons, it’s hard to see this team not going on another run as long as they have that main core of Kucherov, Stamkos, Point, Hedman, and Vasilevskiy together. Heck, the 2020 and 2022 playoffs proved they can lose one of those pieces for the run and still go far.
But last season did prove there are teams that can beat them. The Leafs made them look human in their first-round series, and then the Avalanche took that step forward in the Final. You can never count out the Lightning for a Stanley Cup, but I think we start to see more teams put up a fight against them this year.