Steven Stamkos is one of the top players in the league, so it goes without saying that he’s a big part of the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, he’s far from the only major reason the Lightning are leading the Eastern Conference. In fact, an argument can be made that Stamkos hasn’t even been their best forward this season despite the fact that he’s on pace to score 42 goals.
Right now the Lightning’s best line is one that doesn’t include Stamkos at all: The trio of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov.
“Since that line has been put together, they have done some magical things,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told the Tampa Tribune. “And Johnny and Palat have played together coming up through the minors and into the NHL and been a mainstay together. For Kooch to fall in, it’s almost like he was the missing piece that they needed. They are kind of that great mix of speed, skill, hockey sense, and they are playing the game the right way and being rewarded for it.”
That line includes the Lightning’s scoring leader, Johnson, who has 13 goals and 40 points in 38 contests. Meanwhile Kucherov is just shy of Stamkos’ totals with 17 goals and 37 points in 39 contests. Additionally, while plus/minus ratings have to be taken with a grain of salt, it’s worth noting that Palat, Johnson, and Kucherov all have ratings above plus-20 while Stamkos is at minus-one.
What makes the Lightning’s situation particularly remarkable is that all four of those forwards are 24 years old or younger, so they could be the pillars of their franchise for quite a while. Given the potential that forwards Jonathan Drouin and Vladislav Namestnikov have, the future looks bright for Tampa Bay. Then again, the present has been kind to them too.