Risk Factors: Tampa Bay Lightning edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Tampa Bay Lightning

1. Tampa Bay is betting heavily that Ben Bishop won’t regress.

What would the 2013-14 Lightning have been without Bishop? The same team that missed the playoffs in 2013 and 2011-12. In other words, the squad that got swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round while Bishop was hurt.

Bishop was the difference for the Lightning last season, posting a 2.23 GAA and .924 save percentage in 63 games to earn a Vezina Trophy nomination. But can he do it again? Going into 2013-14, he was 26 years old with just 45 games worth of NHL experience under his belt. He’s rapidly gone from a goalie struggling to establish himself in the NHL to someone viewed as one of the league’s elite and the obvious question is: Will he regress? Are we in for a situation like Mike Smith’s, where he doesn’t completely fall off the map, but can’t come close to living up to his breakout campaign?

The Lightning have made an effort to hedge their bets. They got Evgeni Nabokov to serve as his backup and upgraded their defense by acquiring Jason Garrison from Vancouver and signing Anton Stralman. Even still, they need Bishop being the guy in Tampa Bay. With a year remaining on his contract, the Lightning already renewed their commitment by signing him to a two-year, $11.9 million contract.

They can’t afford for Bishop to be merely average or worse.

2. The Lightning’s offense after Steven Stamkos is awfully inexperienced.

Yes, there are clearly other veterans on the roster, but the Lightning are still betting heavily on a number of forwards with limited track records. Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov, and Jonathan Drouin might all end up getting regular minutes with the Lightning in 2014-15. On a lot of nights, two of those six could be serving as Stamkos’ linemates.

There’s talent there, but for a team looking to win now that’s a lot of relatively raw forwards to deal with. Tampa Bay has been among the league’s offensive leaders for the last few years, but without Martin St. Louis they need their other forwards to rally around Stamkos.

They had that last season when Palat and Johnson combined for 47 goals and 109 points to each earn a Calder Trophy nomination. Kucherov chipped in as well in limited playing time during his first campaign, but the thing about sophomores is sometimes they slump.

Perhaps rookies Namestnikov and Drouin can help out too, but they can’t be relied upon yet despite their considerable upside.

3. Will the hype get to them?

There are plenty of people predicting that they’ll reach the Stanley Cup Final despite their run of three straight campaigns without a playoff win.

It’s not hard to see why analysts would be optimistic about the Lightning though. Their defense has been substantially upgraded, they brought in established veterans Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow to play in support roles, and while their young core is a short-term risk, it’s exciting to think about what might happen if they continue their steady progression.

At this point though, the hype itself might prove to be a risk. Certainly it’s been something coach Jon Cooper has been trying to combat.

“I’ve never seen a team, on paper, win the Stanley Cup,” Cooper said in July. “We have to have the same work ethic we had last year, and I’m sure people are going to look at us with a little different expectation now that we’re a playoff team. But you want that challenge. We’re excited about that. But lets temper the expectations a little bit, and you look at how really inexperienced we are up front.”

In August, Cooper told NHL.com to “make us seem like just a nice, humble, go-lucky Tampa Bay Lightning. Not like we’re going to come out and kick everybody’s [behind].”

The burden of expectations can be great, especially for a team with so many young players in key roles. It can also have a snowballing effect if the team doesn’t come out of the gate hot like many are anticipating.

Teams frequently engage in a war of words for that coveted underdog spot, but Tampa Bay no longer has the luxury of possessing it.