The buzz heard inside Amalie Arena in recent weeks is not from the pair of tesla coils recharging ahead of the 2014-15 season.
In just over three weeks, the Tampa Bay Lightning open the regular season at home against the Florida Panthers. The Bolts first preseason game – against the Nashville Predators at Amalie Arena -- is less than a week away.
After finishing 2013-14 with 46 wins and 101 points, placing second in the Atlantic Division and earning the third seed for the Eastern Conference Playoffs, the seventh postseason appearance in team history, the Lightning enter the upcoming season with rising expectations. A handful of NHL veterans with considerable playoff experience have been added to the Lightning’s talented young crop of players, creating a palpable excitement around Amalie Arena, the Tampa Bay area and beyond.
Training camp for the Lightning begins Thursday.
Here are five story lines that figure to play a prominent role in the Bolts’ success in 2014-15.
1. Can goalie Ben Bishop stay healthy?
A 2005 third-round draft pick by St. Louis, Ben Bishop had a breakout season in 2013-14, setting Lightning franchise records for wins (37), save percentage (.924) and goals-against average (2.23), and he was one of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy given to the NHL’s top goalie.
But Bishop got dinged up during the course of the season. He was placed on injured reserve in early January and missed a handful of games with a right wrist injury that was operated on this summer. Then, a week before the playoffs, Bishop dislocated his elbow in a game against Toronto (April 8), ending his season.
The Lightning signed veteran netminder Evgeni Nabokov, a starter for the New York Islanders the last three seasons, on the opening day of free agency to back up Bishop, and a pair of talented youngsters in Kristers Gudlevskis and Andrei Vasilevskiy add organizational depth. Bishop, though, needs to stay on the ice and replicate the season he had a year ago for the Bolts to make a deep postseason run.
2. Is Jonathan Drouin ready to make the leap?
Forward Jonathan Drouin said he was disappointed not to make the Lightning roster out of training camp a year ago and spent the offseason building muscle and improving conditioning to make his case for a spot on the big league roster.
“Last year didn’t work out the way I wanted it to,” said Drouin, Tampa Bay’s first round pick (third overall) in the 2013 draft. “This year is a different story. I want to be on this club. I’m a step closer than I was last year.”
Drouin certainly didn’t hurt his chances after a stellar season skating for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2013-14. He scored 29 goals and collected 108 points in 46 regular season games for Halifax and was even more productive in the postseason, averaging over 2.5 points a game and registering 13 goals and 41 points in 16 games.
Drouin seems a near certainty to make the Lightning out of training camp. Can he be the breakout star so many are expecting in his first NHL season? Stay tuned.
3. Raising expectations
In finishing as the runner up in the Atlantic Division and earning a top three seed for the Eastern Conference Playoffs, the Lightning took a huge leap in the team’s rising trajectory after a dismal 2012-13 season in which the Bolts were next to last in the division.
The Lightning enter the season as one of a handful of favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. But, with more eyes focused on the Lightning this season, will the team rise to the occasion or wilt under the pressure? Head coach Jon Cooper sees the increase in expectations placed on his team as a positive.
“To be honest, I actually kind of like (the expectations),” Cooper told Lightning director of radio programming Matt Sammon recently on the Lightning Radio Power Play Podcast. “I’d rather be the team that people are expecting to do well. That just means you probably have some pretty good players around.”
4. Avoiding the sophomore slump
No one expected forwards Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson to have quite the impact they did during the 2013-14 season, finishing second and third, respectively, in voting for the Calder Memorial Trophy given to the league’s rookie of the year.
Palat scored 23 goals and had 59 points in 81 games; Johnson contributed 24 goals and 50 points in 82 games. The question is: can they maintain that performance level heading into their second NHL season?
“We expect Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat to be better players than they were last year,” Cooper told Sammon. “And if they are better players than they were last year, we’re going to be a better team.”
The chance of a sophomore slump for both should be minimized by the fact they’ve played under Cooper for three seasons now, first with the Lightning’s former AHL affiliate in Norfolk in 2011-12, then for the Syracuse Crunch during the 2012-13 season before earning a spot on the big league roster in 2013-14. And they’ve been winners at all three spots. Norfolk won the Calder Cup in their one season, Syracuse made it to the Calder Cup Finals in 2012-13 and, well, we all remember the Lightning’s success last season.
5. Can the Lightning improve their penalty kill?
Penalty killing was a consistent problem for Tampa Bay last season. The Lightning finished near the bottom of the NHL, ranking 23rd with a penalty-killing percentage of 80.7%.
Adding veteran defensemen Anton Stralman from the Rangers and Jason Garrison via Vancouver during the offseason should help, as will the addition of 6-foot-7 center Brian Boyle, a hard-nosed, physical player who skated with Stralman and the Rangers last season during their run to the Stanley Cup Final.(The Rangers, by the way, were the third-best penalty killing team in the 2013-14 regular season at 85.3%)
One bit of good news concerning the Lightning’s abysmal penalty kill: they were able to score ten short-handed goals, the third-highest total in the NHL, giving the unit something to build on at least.