Despite losing their best player for four months with a broken tibia, trading their captain at the NHL Trade Deadline and dressing nine different rookies, the Tampa Bay Lightning emerged as one of the great surprises of the 2013-14 season.
But the Cinderella story ended abruptly. Goaltender Ben Bishop sustained an arm injury with three games remaining in the regular season and was forced out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Without their No. 1 goalie and with little veteran help, the Lightning were swept in the Eastern Conference First Round by the Montreal Canadiens.
After a busy summer, Tampa Bay is looking to make a deeper push this season.
General manager Steve Yzerman addressed the lack of veterans by acquiring defenseman Jason Garrison from the Vancouver Canucks and signing defenseman Anton Stralman, as well as forwards Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. He also made a major commitment to Ryan Callahan, who Tampa Bay acquired for captain Martin St. Louis on March 5, signing the former New York Rangers captain to a six-year, $34.8 million contract.
"We feel we filled the spots that we needed improvement on," associate coach Rick Bowness said. "Adding another right-handed defenseman was important to us, getting Stralman was huge. Jason Garrison plays both sides and gives us that big heavy shot on the power play. We added some size in Boyle and some good leadership in Brenden Morrow and a solid veteran in Nabokov. All those moves are geared toward making us a better team. There are a lot of teams in our conference who have improved. We have to keep improving as we move forward."
The Lightning could also add Jonathan Drouin, the third pick in the 2013 NHL Draft who is widely considered the best forward prospect in the world. Add 6-foot-8 Andrej Sustr and 2012 first-round pick Slater Koekkoek among the young defensemen looking to make the jump, and Tampa Bay could be in a good place come training camp.
Naturally, it all revolves around center Steven Stamkos, who still ranked in the top 50 among NHL goal scorers despite missing more than half the season and having his top linemate traded at the deadline.
"Right when he came back, I know it was a little tough for him. He hadn't played hockey for a couple of months and his leg wasn't even completely healed and he played great," said forward Alex Killorn, who skated off and on with Stamkos after his return from injury. "Even himself, he thought he had a little bit more to give. Once he got comfortable, he really took off."
After another summer spent engaging in his high-impact training regimen, a healthy Stamkos is ready to start his first full season as Tampa Bay's captain. That's encouraging news for the Lightning and a dangerous prospect for the rest of the NHL.
"We're going to see a different Steven Stamkos than we saw when he came back from that injury," Bowness said.
Despite being overlooked by the Swedish Olympic team, defenseman Victor Hedman also enjoyed a breakout 2013-14 season, earning career highs with 13 goals, 42 assists and 55 points. He could get even better, considering the Lightning may have picked up the perfect defensive partner for Hedman in countryman Stralman. Hedman finished last year skating with the inexperienced Sustr, but having a veteran right-handed shot by his side could work wonders.
Of course, it could all be one big disappointment if the Lightning don't gain some traction come playoff time. With the development of their young talent and the moves made by Yzerman to provide veteran leadership and roster depth, the time could be now in Tampa Bay.
But once training camp begins, the Lightning won't be overly concerned about playoff expectations.
"It was just 12 months ago that people said we have no chance to be in the playoffs," coach Jon Cooper said. "We have a lot of confidence in ourselves, but there's no sense in talking about anything that's going to go into the playoffs until you've clinched that spot. For us, we want to make sure we don't take a step backwards this year, that we take a step forward."
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
2013-14 record: 46-27-9, 101 pts, second in Atlantic Division, third in Eastern Conference
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Lost 4-0 to Montreal Canadiens in Eastern Conference First Round
Top 2014 NHL Draft picks: D Anthony Deangelo (No. 19).
Follow Tal Pichevsky on Twitter: @TalPinch
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