The Tampa Bay Lightning made the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. They came within a win of returning last season and did it without captain Steven Stamkos, who had surgery to repair a blood clot and didn't play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs until Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.
The biggest question entering the offseason was whether general manager Steve Yzerman would be able to keep enough of the team together under the NHL salary cap to contend for the Cup again this season and into the future.
But Stamkos signed an eight-year, $68 million contract instead of testing the market as an unrestricted free agent, and defenseman Victor Hedman followed. Hedman, who could have become an unrestricted free agent July 1, 2017, signed an eight-year, $63 million contract extension. Each could have made much more elsewhere but felt he had something special in Tampa Bay.
Yzerman still has work to do. Though he signed restricted free agent Alex Killorn to a seven-year, $31.15 million contract, he still has to sign restricted free agent forward Nikita Kucherov. Defenseman Andrej Sustr and forwards Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat are scheduled to be restricted free agents after this season.
But the Lightning have the potential to be as good or better this season and beyond. Consider that Drouin, the third pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, played 21 regular-season games for the Lightning last season and is 21 years old. He gave a glimpse of what he could do in the playoffs with five goals and nine assists in 17 games. If he continues to progress, the Lightning could have yet another excellent player.
Here is what the Lightning look like today:
KEY ARRIVALS: Cory Conacher, F: Three years ago, the Lightning traded Conacher and a fourth-round draft pick to the Ottawa Senators for goaltender Ben Bishop. On July 13, they signed Conacher to a one-year, $575,000 contract in free agency in a low-risk, potentially high-reward move. Though Bishop has twice been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy with the Lightning, Conacher has bounced from the Senators to the Buffalo Sabres to the New York Islanders to Switzerland. He needs to re-establish himself in the NHL, and Tampa Bay might be the place to do it. Conacher played for coach Jon Cooper and with Johnson, Killorn and Palat in Norfolk, where they won the Calder Cup in 2012 and he was the American Hockey League most valuable player. He had nine goals and 15 assists in a 35-game stint with the Lightning in 2013. That's what made him a valuable trade chip in the first place. … Todd Richards, assistant coach: Cooper has added experience behind the bench with Richards, who is 204-183-37 as an NHL coach with the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets. … Michael Bournival, F: Signed for Syracuse of the AHL and organizational depth, Bournival has played 89 NHL games, all with the Montreal Canadiens, and has 10 goals and nine assists.
KEY DEPARTURES: Matt Carle, D: The Lightning bought out Carle for salary-cap relief. Carle, who signed a six-year, $33 million contract as a free agent in July 2012, had the highest cap charge on Tampa Bay's defense last season at $5.5 million, but his role diminished to the point where he often was a healthy scratch. Slater Koekkoek, the 10th pick in the 2012 draft, earned an increased role in the playoffs and appears ready for more. ... Jonathan Marchessault, F: The Florida Panthers signed Marchessault to a two-year, $1.5 million contract after he found a foothold in the League last season. He had seven goals and 11 assists in 45 regular-season games and one assist in five playoff games. …Mike Blunden, F: The Senators signed Blunden to a two-year, two-way contract. Blunden had three goals and two assists in 20 regular-season games for the Lightning last season. He played in seven playoff games without a point. … Steve Thomas, assistant coach: After the Lightning did not renew his contract, Thomas joined the St. Louis Blues. Thomas had served as a player development coach and assistant with Tampa Bay, focusing on the forwards.
ON THE CUSP: Adam Erne, F: The 33rd pick in the 2013 draft, Erne showed an ability to score in his final season of junior, with 41 goals and 45 assists in 60 games with Quebec of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2014-15. He had 14 goals and 15 assists in 59 games last season with Syracuse of the AHL. He appears slated for Syracuse again and needs to work on his consistency, but at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, he has the build, style and potential to be a power forward in the League. … Brayden Point, C: A third-round pick (No. 79) in the 2014 draft, Point is set to make the jump from junior to the pros this season. He had 35 goals and 53 assists with Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League last season. He's headed to Syracuse, where he had two goals and two assists in nine games in 2014-15.
WHAT THEY STILL NEED: Cap space. Even though Stamkos and Hedman took discounts to stay, Yzerman will have to make a difficult decision at some point. Bishop has one season left on his contract at a cap charge of $5.95 million. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Bishop's backup and heir apparent, has one season left at a cap charge of $925,000 before a three-year extension kicks in with a cap charge of $3.5 million. Another problem: the power play. Despite all their talent, the Lightning finished 28th on the power play last season (44-for-279, 15.8 percent) and haven't had a true quarterback. Will Drouin help? Can Richards help Cooper?
PETE JENSEN'S FANTASY FOCUS: Stamkos is staying in Tampa Bay, but the best point production of Drouin's NHL career came with the Lightning captain out of the lineup. This becomes a compelling situation because, if Drouin and Stamkos do not stay on the same line, Tampa Bay may be forced to split up the "Triplets" line and put Drouin on the left side with Johnson and Kucherov. Drouin had 14 points (six on the power play) in 17 playoff games and has clear top-50 fantasy potential, but how the Lightning's top-six forward group shapes up will go a long way in whether Drouin can replicate his postseason breakout over a full regular season. It also becomes a much more crowded competition for minutes on the Lightning's first power-play unit with Stamkos returning. Drouin is fair game to be selected among the top 80 overall players, but how he'll mesh with Stamkos will be a huge debate entering fantasy drafts.
Alex Killorn - Steven Stamkos - Jonathan Drouin
Ondrej Palat - Tyler Johnson - Nikita Kucherov
Cedric Paquette - Valtteri Filppula - J.T. Brown
Vladislav Namestnikov - Brian Boyle - Cory Conacher
Victor Hedman - Anton Stralman
Andrej Sustr - Jason Garrison
Slater Koekkoek - Braydon Coburn