Our Tampa Bay Lightning 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
What happened to the Tampa Bay Lightning? The team that was tying and nearly setting records for the best regular season in NHL history and the favourite to dominate through the Stanley Cup Playoffs was swept in the first round in a now well-documented series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Was it just dumb luck? Was it a poorly timed slump? Or was there more to it in the build of the team? The probable scenario is a combination of everything, but in terms of looking ahead to the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning squad, the team composition will come into question.
For this team moving forward, they will need better performances from Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. And I’m not talking specifically about offensive production. These two were noticeably shaken through the latter half of the series, even being shown by Kucherov in a dirty hit that led to a suspension. These two are the leaders of the team, and when the going gets tough, they seem to lash out in unhealthy ways. With the team’s performance in the spotlight this summer, the Lightning’s coaching staff needs to work closely with their star forwards to handle adversity better.
The other aspect of the team that was the only real flaw in its composition was the lack of grit and toughness. Although you can reasonably coast through the regular season with a lower level of physicality and a higher focus on skill-based domination, playoff hockey is a different breed. As we saw against Columbus, a team that cannot physically engage will never be able to gain momentum and will have extreme difficulty generating any aspect of an offensive game. The Lightning’s 2018-19 roster, though it is close to, if not, the best in the NHL, had very little in the way of grit, especially in the bottom half of the lineup.
Luckily for the Lightning, the strength of their roster will not be squandered. Their front office, now minus the original mastermind Steve Yzerman, has excelled at needs analysis and addressing roster holes. The new GM, Julien BriseBois, has picked up right where Yzerman left off. The Lightning were not major players in free agency this summer, but they did perform a number of transactions, most of which addressed the need for physicality on the roster. Led by the signing of Patrick Maroon, the team also acquired Gemel Smith, Luke Schenn, and Luke Witkowski. These are four players being brought in whose main purpose will be for the physical aspect of their game. It will allow the Lightning to ice players who can counter the style of play employed by teams like Columbus, and those who will be able to help the team play playoff hockey.
One other hole the team addressed over the summer was in the backup goalie position. Although Louis Domingue did well in the parts of two seasons he spent as Tampa Bay’s backup, Curtis McElhinney (who may be the best backup in the NHL) was brought in to play behind Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The focus of Tampa Bay’s roster moves this summer are perfect examples of a front office staff who gets it. They know how to identify needs and weaknesses on their roster, and they will go out and acquire players who can fill those needs quickly.
In case you weren’t yet convinced of just how good the Lightning’s front office was, you can also factor in the strength of their drafting and development in recent years. A respectable percentage of their roster players are homegrown talent, which is a recipe for success on its own. But, even more noteworthy is the amount of prospects they have still developing who project to make an impact at the NHL level. Headlining this pool are Cal Foote, Boris Katchouk, and Taylor Raddysh, who were big parts of some of Canada’s World Junior Classic rosters in recent years. The Lightning will have plenty of prospects to push their way onto the NHL roster or valuable assets to trade for specific needs when required. Either way, they are set up well for the future.
It never ceases to amaze me when I look at the Lightning’s roster just how offensively potent they are. At centre, their top two options, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, both had 90+ points last season. Steven Stamkos, the team captain, is Tampa Bay’s leading centre, though him and Point are often interchangeable as number one or two. Stamkos is coming off of a year in which he set a career high in points, with 98. He has had most of a couple seasons lost over his career due to injuries, but when he is healthy and on his game, Steven is one of the league’s best snipers. Moving into this season, the Lightning may want a bit more productive physicality out of their captain. He can let his emotions get the best of him in tough situations, but with a few additional players being added to the lineup for their grit, he may learn some different techniques to up the physicality in his game.
Brayden Point quickly rose through the ranks of the league to become a 90-point scorer last season, finishing with 91. His offensive production gives the Lightning a second dangerous line to overpower the opposition. Brayden gets significant time on the main powerplay unit as well, where he scored 20 of his 41 goals last season. One aspect of his game that may get overlooked due to his offensive prowess is the defensive side of his game. Recognizing this, he was 9th in Selke voting last season. Point had positive Corsi and Fenwick numbers as well as a 35 to 25 takeaway to giveaway ratio last season. This gives the Lightning a unique dynamic with their first and second lines, where they may be able to give the easier matchups to their top line if Brayden and the second line are able to shut down the other teams’ best players.
Although it is a slight drop down in the bottom half of the lineup, Anthony Cirelli and Cedric Paquette are still excellent in their roles. Slotting in as the third and fourth line centres respectively, Cirelli and Paquette both give the Lightning offensive options right down to the bottom of their lineup. Cirelli has given the team some reliable, energetic, two-way depth from their third line. Still able to put up 40 points in a season, Cirelli will continue to dominate when on the ice with his speed and defensive stick. Although he may not be able to provide the physicality the Lightning needed, players have been brought in to support that need, meaning Cirelli can continue to play his game.
Paquette has been a mainstay on the Lightning’s roster for the past 5 seasons. Over that time, he has also been Tampa Bay’s main source of grit and checking. He will at least have support this season, with the addition of Gemel Smith and Patrick Maroon to the forward group. Paquette is also a very versatile forward and can play any position, which is a valuable trait in today’s dynamic game.
An option for a depth centre will be Carter Verhaege, who led the AHL in points last season. He is no longer waiver exempt, and a player of his calibre would more than likely get claimed by a team in need of centre depth, meaning he is either on the roster or trade bait to start the year.
Last season’s MVP and leading scorer, Nikita Kucherov, was most often on a line centred by Brayden Point. Kucherov’s 128 points last season were the most by a single player since Mario Lemieux’s 161 in the 1995-96 season. Kucherov is a fast, intelligent, offensive wizard who excels at playmaking, but his soft hands and vision make him a threat to score from nearly anywhere, especially in close to the net. He too, will need to keep his emotions in check in tough situations, as he has struggled two seasons in a row now with undisciplined play near the end of his team’s playoffs. The other three winger positions in the Lightning’s top six should mimic last season, with Yanni Gourde, Ondrej Palat, and Tyler Johnson spending the bulk of their time there.
A wildcard option for the Lightning on Kucherov’s line will be recent signing Patrick Maroon. His most effective seasons as an NHLer were playing with McDavid and Draisaitl in Edmonton. He has the right mindset to play with elite players, as he knows to utilize their vision and playmaking abilities to find open ice in front of and behind the net, where he excels. Maroon could provide the Kucherov-Point duo with a physical, gritty presence that would help create space for the two speedy forwards to make plays. Maroon’s best qualities are his scoring touch in front of the net (utilizing the playmaking skills of elite players) and carrying the puck down low/behind the net. Although he is not a speedy player or a particularly reliable defensive option, if the team wants to get the most out of their lineup, Maroon on the top line could help.
The projected third line wingers, Alex Killorn and Mathieu Joseph, are formidable options. Both are homegrown players who put up around 40 points on the third line, which is excellent production from that place in the lineup.
Joining Cedric Paquette on the fourth forward line will be Danick Martel and either Patrick Maroon or whichever other winger Maroon pushes down the lineup. The Lightning also have a few prospects in the AHL who can make a play for the NHL this season. Carter Verhaege, Alexander Volkov, and Taylor Raddysh headline this group. All had good seasons in the AHL, and their skillset projects to be NHL calibre. Volkov may have the upper hand on one of these spots, however, due to concerns with Raddysh’s skating not being ready for the NHL.
The Lightning’s defensive group is headlined by one of the league’s best, Victor Hedman. Two of his most common linemates, Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman, are no longer on the roster. In their absence, expect Mikhail Sergachev to spend significant time on the top pairing.
Hedman is essentially a beast on the back-end. He has size, speed, high defensive and offensive IQ, plays physical, and puts up points while playing big minutes for his team. He will be relied on even more this season, as the team lost major parts of their defensive core over the summer.
Sergachev has emerged as a tough defender to play against. Competent with and without the puck, he is still prone to defensive positioning mistakes, but they are often far outweighed by what he can do otherwise. This season will be a big test for him, as he quickly shot up the team’s depth chart.
Ryan McDonagh anchors the team’s second pairing. The defenseman has flourished since coming over from the Rangers and has become a consistent and dependable option for the team in all situations. Eric Cernak spent most of his last season on the second pair with McDonagh, and projects to begin the 2019-20 season back on his side.
Braydon Coburn, the big, punishing defender, will resume his place on the bottom pairing. On his right side is where things get interesting, however. The Lightning signed Kevin Shattenkirk to a cheap ‘prove-it’ type deal after he was bought out by the Rangers over the offseason. He currently slots in on Coburn’s right side as an extra offensive-minded boost and powerplay option. But, if he does not perform well enough, Luke Witkowski or Jan Rutta can take his place. Additionally, Cal Foote, the team’s best defensive prospect, is looking to make his debut this season. Where better to start him off than beside a steady, defensive, veteran presence?
With the signing of Curtis McElhinney, the Lightning may have the league’s top goalie duo. Andrei Vasilevskiy is seen as the league’s best goalie right now, with his insanely quick reflexes and movement speed stymieing the league’s best shooters. McElhinney has earned a reputation as the best backup in the league with his consistent and reliable play on any team he dons the jersey for. The Lightning have nothing to worry about in net, which helps the skaters have the confidence they need to excel.
Tampa Bay Lightning 2019-20 Prediction
1st – 2nd Atlantic Division
Although it is hard to envision any scenario in which the Lightning do not win their division again this season, the Maple Leafs did address a couple of their biggest needs this offseason (depth and defense) and may pose a threat to the Lightning for first place. Given the amount of time it took Tampa Bay to get where they are, and how much the players will be looking to avenge the tragic end of last season, the Lightning will be motivated to continue to push and set performance records again in 2019-20.