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30 in 30: Reasons for optimism, questions facing Lightning

by Corey Long / Tampa Bay Lightning

NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the biggest reasons for optimism and the biggest questions facing the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have come close to winning the Stanley Cup the past two seasons. They lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Cup Final in six games in 2015 and to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games in the Eastern Conference Final last season.

There has been little roster change in Tampa the past three years, but the subtle moves that have been made have the Lightning hopeful they can finish the job and hoist the Cup.

Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:

1. Steven Stamkos is back

Stamkos repeatedly said he didn't want to leave the Lightning, who drafted him No. 1 at the 2008 NHL Draft. He said that winning championships was more important than signing for more money. Stamkos proved his word was his bond on June 29 when he signed an eight-year, $68 million contract that provided the Lightning the financial flexibility to take care of their other core members. With the contract situation resolved, Stamkos, 26, can focus on bringing the Cup to Tampa.

2. No distractions surrounding Jonathan Drouin

It took a demotion, a public trade request and a suspension, but the light turned on for the talented forward late last season, and the future looks bright for the No. 3 pick of the 2013 draft. Drouin had five goals and nine assists in 17 Stanley Cup Playoff games. He made his biggest plays in clutch moments too; Drouin had three assists in a 3-2 win against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 4 of the first round and scored the Lightning's only goal in Game 7 of the conference final.

3. Tyler Johnson should rebound

Johnson struggled with injuries last season and saw his production dip to 14 goals and 24 assists after having a breakout season in 2014-15 (29 goals, 43 assists). But once the playoffs started, Johnson found his scoring touch and had seven goals and 10 assists in 17 games. Johnson wasn't invited to play for Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey 2016, so he should be motivated to prove this season that he remains one of the better offensive players in the League.

4. Nikita Kucherov's no one-hit wonder

Kucherov proved last season that his breakout performance in 2014-15 (29 goals, 36 assists) was just the beginning. Kucherov scored 30 goals for the first time in his NHL career, had 36 assists and led the Lightning with 66 points. His 11 goals and 19 points in the playoffs led Tampa.

"[Kucherov is] one of those guys for our team -- every team's got one of those guys at some point -- it just seems the bigger the moment, the bigger they rise to the occasion," coach Jon Cooper said during the conference final.

Here are three key questions facing the Lightning:

1. Who will be the No. 1 goalie?

Andrei Vasilevskiy looked like the Lightning's goalie of the future when he relieved Ben Bishop after the latter sustained a leg injury in Game 1 of the conference final. Vasilevskiy, 22, had a .925 save percentage against the Penguins, who averaged 38.4 shots per game in the series. But Bishop, who is in the final year of his contract, is an All-Star goalie and two-time Vezina Trophy finalist. Bishop has started at least 60 games in each of the past three seasons but likely will have to give up some playing time to Vasilevskiy, who signed a three-year contract extension in July.

2. Is Slater Koekkoek ready for a full-time role?

Koekkoek, the No. 10 pick in the 2012 draft, made a strong impression during the playoffs and saw extended playing time. His performance sent veteran Matt Carle to the bench during the conference final, and the Lightning bought out the final two years of Carle's contract after the season. Koekkoek will have every chance in training camp to show he's ready to be a mainstay in the NHL.

3. Who will replace Ryan Callahan while he is recovering from hip surgery?

Callahan had surgery to repair a labral tear in his right hip in June and was expected to miss five months, putting his potential return in mid-November. Callahan is an alternate captain and arguably the Lightning's best two-way forward. They would love to see a strong training camp from Adam Erne, who has the size (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) to emulate some of Callahan's gritty play, and could add toughness to the lineup.

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