Tag: Nikita Kucherov

Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat

Tampa Bay Lightning ’15-16 Outlook


Tampa Bay’s mantra going into this summer might as well have been “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

It certainly seems that was Lightning GM Steve Yzerman’s philosophy as a trip to the Stanley Cup Final has led to a quiet offseason. At the same time, there is still the potential for organic, internal changes.

Forward Jonathan Drouin might find himself playing a bigger role next season after getting limited minutes in 2014-15 and barely participating in the playoffs. He has a ton of offensive upside as illustrated by his back-to-back 100-plus point seasons with the Halifax Mooseheads. If the 20-year-old forward can build off of his 32-point rookie campaign, then he will be complimenting an already deep offensive core.

At the same time, netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy’s rise last season has changed the dynamic of Tampa Bay’s goaltending. While Ben Bishop is still the team’s starter, Vasilevskiy should start pushing him for ice time. The potential is also there for a goaltending controversy should Bishop endure a sustained cold streak.

We might also see defenseman Slater Koekkoek earn a regular spot with the Lightning after playing in three contests with Tampa Bay in 2014-15. He was the 10th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and might become a significant threat with the puck and factor with the man advantage.

For the most part though, the status quo is expected to remain. Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and Jason Garrison should once again lead Tampa Bay’s blueline. Stamkos remains the centerpiece of the offense while the hope is that the Triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat has another strong campaign.

The Lightning got a lot out of that core last season, which has earned them another chance to pursue a championship together.

Lightning’s biggest question(s): Everything about Stamkos’ contract situation

Steven Stamkos

The Tampa Bay Lightning are successful because they have a deep and talented roster, but at the foundation of that is Steven Stamkos. He’s one of the best players in the league today, which makes the fact that he might actually enter the season without a contract a huge issue.

To say that his situation is the Lightning’s biggest question would be insufficient because there are multiple angles to consider. The most immediate is why he hasn’t already signed.

Extending Stamkos was Lightning GM Steve Yzerman’s clear top priority going into the summer. Stamkos’ agent Don Meehan did caution back in July that there wasn’t “any criteria on timing at this point,” but that was over a month ago. Now the question is if he’s going to enter training camp without a deal and if so, why. At that point it would become a big and constant distraction hanging over the Lightning and the longer he remained unsigned from there, scenarios that at one time were dismissed as implausible will start to look realistic.

For example, can Tampa Bay really afford to let a player of Stamkos’ caliber walk as an unrestricted free agent? If they don’t have a deal in place by the trade deadline, would the Lightning actually move him less than a year removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final? It might seem extreme, but that’s the direction the conservation heads in.

Of course, that’s only one scenario. Stamkos might still sign in August, killing that kind of speculation before it really takes off. However, even if there was a 100% guarantee that Stamkos would re-sign with the Lightning, this situation would still be their biggest question mark because there’s another factor in play: How much will he cost?

Stamkos has earned the right to become one of the league’s top paid players, if not the leader in that regard. However, the Lightning have a quite a few other noteworthy players that will need to be re-signed over the next couple of years, including Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Victor Hedman, and goaltenders Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy. The bigger Stamkos’ contract is, the harder it will be to keep that group intact.

In other words, even if Stamkos re-signing is very probable, if he decides to hold out for the most lucrative possible contract, then his decision could lead to the Lightning losing one or more other important pieces.

Under Pressure: Tyler Johnson

Tyler Johnson

Steven Stamkos might very well enter the season without a contract extension, but even if he has an off campaign, he’s likely in line for a huge payday thanks to his earned reputation and demand. But what would happen if Tyler Johnson, who had 72 points last season, regresses?

The difference between Stamkos and Johnson is that when Stamkos emerged as a superstar, it was in line with expectations, whereas Johnson has consistently had to defy them. Johnson stands at 5-foot-9 and his unimposing frame contributed to him never getting drafted while Stamkos was a first overall selection.

Johnson forced his way up the Lightning’s depth charts though by dominating in the minors and more recently leading the highly effective Triplets line with Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. At this point, Johnson’s made the Lightning look very good for signing him as an free agent prospect back in 2011. In May 2014, he inked a three-year, $10 million extension, which still looks like a big steal.

It’s clear that the 25-year-old forward is capable of producing regardless of his relatively small stature, but his rapid rise has set the bar higher than that. Johnson played like a star in 2014-15 and if he continues to perform at that level, then next summer there will be anticipation and speculation about the monster contract he might get, just as there is with Stamkos right now. He doesn’t have Stamkos’ same lengthy history of success though, so if Johnson struggles to live up to the high standard he set last season, then he’s less likely to get the benefit of the doubt. Consequently, regressing now might cost him millions in potential earnings.

That’s to say nothing of the fact that his decline would be a significant blow to the Lightning’s scoring depth, which was at the center of their success last season. Tampa Bay needs him to continue to be the next Martin St. Louis. And the thing about St. Louis is that once he broke out with his 70-point campaign in 2002-03, he consistently played like a star for the remainder of his tenure with the Lightning.

It’s Tampa Bay Lightning day at PHT

Tyler Johnson, Steven Stamkos

The Tampa Bay Lightning fell two wins short of the summit. At least they boast the sort of young legs that can hoist them back to similar heights, though, right?

Jonathan Toews was impressed with the push-back from Tampa Bay in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, even if he delivered that message in the form of a backhanded compliment. Negative types would say 2014-15 was a year of almost – nearly winning the division, coming that close to a Cup win – but most would agree that last year a big success.

The question is: will the Lightning look back at that run as the time they learned how to win the big game?

Time hasn’t always been kind to teams who fall in Stanley Cup Final rounds, although the Lightning have the makings of a team that could be here to say, perhaps running parallel to the Penguins (who lost in 2008 before winning it all in 2009).

Most obviously, the Lightning have the same coach and the same core players.

Off-season recap

Of course, one can look at that bounty of prime-age assets and think that the Lightning can make this last for ages.

Unless you’re a huge Brenden Morrow fan, the main cast members from the 2014-15 Bolts are returning for the sequel. The biggest changes are expected to be from internal growth: Jonathan Drouin may take a bigger role, Andrei Vasilevskiy could push Ben Bishop for starts and others hope to become full-time NHL players.

The biggest consideration comes when you ponder contracts that end after 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Most obviously, Steven Stamkos is in the last year of his contract, a fact that will likely make for distracting headlines.

One piece of “The Triplets” – Nikita Kucherov – will be an RFA after 2015-16. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat will carry that same RFA status after 2017-18, and one would expect big upgrades from their matching $3.33 million cap hits. Even the goalie duo of Bishop and Vasilevskiy only hold two-year deals.

A quiet summer makes sense for the Lightning, yet it’s a bit foreboding, as many would prefer to see “Stamkos signs seven-year mega-deal” in this slot. Yzerman still has time to swing deals like those both before, during and after 2015-16, but looming cap challenges are the elephant in the room.

That’s a bummer for the future, yet the Lightning seem well-stocked for the shorter term.

Lightning’s Yzerman handed GM of the Year Award

2015 NHL Awards - Show
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The Tampa Bay Lightning fell just short of the Stanley Cup, but they took great strides this season and for his role in it, Steve Yzerman has won the GM of the Year Award.

Yzerman was fortunate enough to inherit Steven Stamkos, but he’s backed the superstar with a strong supporting cast that includes Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat. The general manager also acquired Ben Bishop and drafted Andrei Vasilevskiy to help solidify the Lightning’s goaltending situation.

The GM of the Year Award is voted on by the league’s 30 general managers as well as a panel of NHL executives and media personnel. It seems Yzerman has earned the respect of his peers because 24 of those ballots included his name in the top three. With 80 points, the Lightning GM cleanly topped Glen Sather and Bob Murray, who finished in second and third place respectively.

Here are the voting results for the award, cutting off at the top 10:

Pts. (1st-2nd-3rd)
1. Steve Yzerman, TBL 80 (9-10-5)
2. Glen Sather, NYR 49 (7-3-5)
3. Bob Murray, ANA 36 (3-6-3)
4. Bryan Murray, OTT 32 (5-1-4)
5. Garth Snow, NYI 28 (3-3-4)
6. David Poile, NSH 24 (2-4-2)
7. Kevin Cheveldayoff, WPG 19 (2-2-3)
8. Chuck Fletcher, MIN 19 (1-3-5)
9. Brad Treliving, CGY 15 (3-0-0)
10. Stan Bowman, CHI 13 (1-2-2)

The GM of the Year Award is still pretty new, but here are the past winners:

Year Winner Team
2015 Steve Yzerman Tampa Bay
2014 Bob Murray Anaheim
2013 Ray Shero Pittsburgh
2012 Doug Armstrong St. Louis
2011 Mike Gillis Vancouver
2010 Don Maloney Phoenix