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Keys to success for Tampa Bay in 2017-18

Bryan Burns outlines what it will take for the Lightning to rebound from last season

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

The Tampa Bay Lightning are two days away from dropping the puck on the 2017-18 season.

Friday, the Lightning host the Florida Panthers at AMALIE Arena, the first game in a home-and-home, back-to-back set between the Bolts and the Cats to start 2017-18.

On Tuesday, EA Sports ran its annual simulation of the upcoming NHL season, and the results were all positive for the Lightning as they were picked to win the Stanley Cup over Edmonton in seven games.

But what will it take for the Bolts to even come close to that prediction? Remember, a season ago, hockey pundits across North America tagged the Lightning as a popular pick to win hockey's Holy Grail, but the Lightning fell a point short of even qualifying for the playoffs.

How can Tampa Bay turn things around this season?

We'll take a look at four keys to success for the Lightning in 2017-18.

1. Can Vasy be the man?

Once Andrei Vasilevskiy took over as the full-time starter last season following the trade of Ben Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings, the Russian netminder flourished, going 11-4-2 with a 2.29 goals-against average and .930 save percentage, the fifth-best save percentage in the NHL over that period among goalies with seven or more starts.

After the NHL season, Vasilevskiy continued to show his capability to backstop a team to hardware, leading Team Russia to a bronze medal at the 2017 World Championships. Vasilevskiy recorded three shutouts in nine games and put up an impressive 1.72 GAA and .936 save percentage.

Now, the question is, can Vasilevskiy carry over his success from the end of the 2016-17 season and international competition to a full season with the Lightning?

Video: Vasilevskiy on playing with consistency

How well he adapts to being the No. 1 netminder over an 82-game season, plus playoffs, could end up being the single-biggest factor to the Lightning's success in 2017-18.

If training camp and preseason is any indication, the Lightning should be in good hands.

Vasilevskiy came into camp sharp, focused and ready to learn and improve. He talked about his need to shake off bad outings - his biggest struggle from last season - and the steps he took in the offseason to get better in this area.

In the preseason, Vasilevskiy gave up six goals in three games - a two-goal-per-game average Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has said in the past is key to winning - and won two of his three starts, looking every bit in mid-season form.

2. Are Stamkos and Callahan back?

Of course, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos and alternate captain Ryan Callahan are back on the ice and playing again. Both played in four of the Lightning's seven preseason games.

But are they back?

Stamkos scored nine goals and tallied 20 points in his first 17 games to start 2016-17 before succumbing to a knee injury that ended his season.

Callahan put up 24 goals and 30 assists during the Bolts' Stanley Cup Final season in 2014-15 but has been plagued by injuries off and on since and played only 18 games last season because of two hip surgeries.

Stamkos and Callahan will play in Friday's season opener. But will they be able to return to their pre-injury play?

That remains to be seen, but all indications from preseason seen to point to a decided thumbs up.

Stamkos averaged over a point a game in the preseason, notching five assists in four games, and said he was pleased with how his surgically-repaired right knee (lateral meniscus tear) held up over a three-games-in-five-days stretch to end the exhibition slate.

Callahan showed his trademark controlled reckless style in the preseason, bouncing back and forth between opposing players to deliver hits, laying out on the ice to block shots on the penalty kill and putting up a goal and an assist himself.

If Stamkos and Callahan are indeed back as Lightning fans are hoping based off their preseason performances, the sky really is the limit for this Bolts' squad.

3. Who is this year's Brayden Point?

Last season, rookie center Brayden Point wrestled away a roster spot - when one didn't really seem available -- from more veteran options during training camp and validated the Bolts' faith in him by turning in one of the best rookie seasons in Tampa Bay history when he scored 18 goals and added 22 assists in 68 games.

But now that Point is a known commodity, who will put up higher-than-expected numbers for the Bolts this season?

Vladislav Namestnikov will get a pretty good opportunity. In the days leading up to Opening Night, Namestnikov has been skating on the Lightning's top line alongside Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Last year before Stamkos' injury, that trio was a big-time producer for the Bolts and could be so again this season, Namestnikov benefitting the most from being surrounded by high point producers.

Another player to keep an eye on is Yanni Gourde, who parlayed a magnificent run over the latter half of 2016-17 with the Bolts and a successful Calder Cup run with Syracuse into a two-year, one-way contract with the Lightning during the offseason.

Video: TBL@MTL: Gourde one-times second goal of the game

Gourde has steadily seen his role increase in training camp. A player targeted for the fourth line coming into the season, Gourde moved up to third line center early in camp and, as of Wednesday, was the second line right wing, skating alongside Ondrej Palat and Point.

Gourde has a ton of confidence from the way he played in the NHL last year as well as in the Calder Cup Final, where he was routinely the best player on the ice. Look for him to be a star on the rise this season for the Bolts.

4. Can the defense improve after taking a step back last season

Every season since Cooper took over as head coach, the Lightning have seen their goals-against average steadily drop.

In 2011-12, Tampa Bay ranked dead last in the NHL for GAA (3.39). The following season when Cooper made his NHL coaching debut toward the end of the season on March 29, the Lightning were 26th in the league at 3.06.

Cooper made defense his top priority as head coach, and the Lightning's GAA fell considerably. In 2013-14, it was down to 2.55. During the Stanley Cup season in 2014-15, the team GAA was 2.51.

In 2015-16, the Lightning GAA had improved to 2.41, good for the fifth-best GAA in the league, the Bolts' best ever ranking in this category.

But in 2016-17, the Lightning saw their GAA increase for the first time under Cooper, rising to 2.73 and a middle-of-the-pack 16th in the league.

For the Bolts to return to the postseason, they'll have to get back to that defense-first mentality that defined their back-to-back runs to the Eastern Conference Final.

They have some new players on the blue line to help accomplish this goal.

Jake Dotchin showed over 35 games last season he's ready to be an NHL regular. He skated on the top pair with Victor Hedman in 2016-17 and more than held his own.

Slater Koekkoek signed a one-way deal during the offseason and will be given every opportunity to prove he was worthy of the 10th overall selection in the 2012 NHL Draft.

Dan Girardi was brought in as a free agent during the offseason to be a veteran presence on the blue line and do the little things that go unnoticed to the casual fan. Since making his debut on January 27, 2007, Girardi has blocked more shots (1,691) than any other player in the NHL.

And then there's Mikhail Sergachev.

Sergachev was the return for one of the most interesting trades in Lightning history, when the Bolts sent offensively-gifted Jonathan Drouin to the Montreal Canadiens in return for the highly-touted blueline prospect. Sergachev has the potential to be a bonafide No. 1 defenseman in the league. Lightning fans are salivating at the prospect of a defensive corps anchored by both Hedman and Sergachev.

But is he ready to realize his potential this season? Sergachev is just 19 years old and has only played four NHL games.

The Lightning clearly feel Sergachev could be ready by placing him on the Opening Night roster. He'll have nine games to prove he belongs. Otherwise, the Bolts could send him back to juniors to continue developing his game after his trial period.

Whether he stays or goes, the Lightning have plenty of options on the blue line. And how well those options mesh will go a long way in determining how far Tampa Bay can go this season.

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