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Lightning out to prove they can play with NHL elite

by Staff Writer / Tampa Bay Lightning

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

In a challenging season that saw captain Martin St. Louis traded, star center Steven Stamkos shelved with a broken leg and coach Jon Cooper entering his first full year behind the bench, plenty went right for the Tampa Bay Lightning. A number of young players, particularly goaltender Ben Bishop, emerged as legitimate contributors, and the team made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in three years.

Much of that progress was overshadowed by a first-round sweep at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. But with veteran help added over the summer and more top prospects on the way, the Lightning have some lofty expectations for 2014-15.

"I'm very excited for the season to start. I think we have a great team on paper. I think we proved last year that we're a really good team," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "Last year was a very productive season for us. Not a lot of people thought we would make the playoffs. We got home-ice advantage. Obviously the playoffs was a tough one, but I think we proved last year that we belonged up there. That's what we want to keep doing."

Tampa Bay's lack of big-game experience became apparent in the sweep against Montreal and was addressed during the summer with a number of veteran additions. Defenseman Jason Garrison was acquired in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks, and the Lightning signed forwards Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow, defenseman Anton Stralman and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov as free agents. Those five players add 301 games of career playoff experience to a young lineup.

That kind of veteran presence, combined with a return to good health for Stamkos and Bishop's emergence as a potential franchise goaltender, could help elevate the Lightning to the NHL's upper echelon. If things bounce right for the Lightning, they have a good chance of winning a playoff series for the first time since their run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2011.

"We made the playoffs, but it was a tough way we went out," Cooper told the Lightning website. "We have to fix that. Not sitting here saying, 'It's a given we're going to make the playoffs.' We have to keep that mentality we had about getting into the playoffs and if we're fortunate enough to get there and we keep improving as a team, how are we going to improve on what happened last year? I don't think the players are going to come in resting on their laurels. I think they're probably going to come in a little ticked off about the way things ended."

FORWARDS

Dealing St. Louis at the NHL Trade Deadline to the New York Rangers and losing Stamkos for four months with a broken right tibia (though he still had 25 goals in 37 games) forced Tampa Bay's young forward prospects to develop quickly. They certainly answered the call: Four Lightning forwards made their NHL debut last season and rookies Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat were finalists for the Calder Trophy.

Veterans Teddy Purcell, Nate Thompson and B.J. Crombeen were traded during the summer, effectively handing over even greater responsibility to a core that also includes Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov.

But Tampa Bay's best young forward could still be waiting in the wings.

Ranked first in NHL.com's list of the League's top 60 prospects, Jonathan Drouin was the third player taken in the 2013 NHL Draft and has been arguably junior hockey's most dynamic player during the past two seasons. After playing for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season, Drouin could be the latest Calder finalist in Tampa Bay after he recovers from a fractured right thumb sustained early in training camp.

"Some eyebrows were raised last year because Jonathan Drouin didn't make our team," Cooper said. "At the time, we felt he wasn't ready to be a National Hockey League player and we didn't want to rush him along. He's a career investment. This is not a one-year investment. I think Jonathan Drouin's expectations should be to make the Tampa Bay Lightning, become an everyday player and become better as a player. With his skill set and talent level, I think all that stuff is going to take care of itself."

One of Tampa Bay's biggest offseason moves didn't gain nearly enough attention. Ryan Callahan, acquired in the trade that sent St. Louis to the Rangers, signed a six-year extension with the Lightning this summer. Having played only 20 regular-season games with Tampa Bay, the former Rangers captain is expected to make his imprint on the Lightning this season after finding some chemistry with second-line center Valtteri Filppula.

Depth players such as Morrow, Boyle and J.T. Brown help round out a formidable group of forwards.

DEFENSEMEN

Though Bishop, Johnson and Palat all earned praise for the steps they made in their respective careers, the biggest story in Tampa Bay may have been Hedman making the leap and becoming an elite NHL defenseman. His 55 points ranked fourth among defensemen and he stepped up to assume a greater leadership role on the team.

After having a rotating cast of partners for much of last season, he may have the perfect complement in Stralman.

A right-handed shot who spends more time focusing on defensive battles than the offensive zone, Stralman appears to be an ideal partner alongside his fellow Swede. That fact hasn't been lost on Hedman, who is excited at the prospect of playing with Stralman after watching his stellar play with the Rangers in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"That would be awesome. I talked to him right before he signed with Tampa. It's good to have him aboard," Hedman said of Stralman. "Just watching [him] in the playoffs last year, you see how good a player he is. He is a great addition and would be a lot of fun to play with."

Garrison's big shot should benefit the power play and his veteran savvy will be a welcome addition to a unit that already has experience with Eric Brewer and Matthew Carle. Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio also took steps last season in establishing themselves as legitimate NHL-caliber defensemen. Andrej Sustr did the same, occasionally playing alongside Hedman, and if the 6-foot-8 Czech can continue his development, Tampa Bay will have impressive depth along the blue line.

GOALIES

Leading a young but talented goaltending group that includes top prospects Kristers Gudlevskis and Andrei Vasilevskiy, Bishop was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy last season and signed a two-year extension with the Lightning this summer. But a lack of experienced goaltending hurt Tampa Bay in the playoffs against Montreal after Bishop's season was ended by wrist and elbow injuries.

The Lightning believe they've solved that issue with the signing of 39-year-old Evgeni Nabokov. His 350 wins rank 18th in NHL history, and he's expected to help give the Lightning a nice cushion in net. Tampa Bay will continue to lean heavily on its No. 1 goaltender, but having a veteran presence backing up Bishop shouldn't hurt.

"There's something about bringing in what we like to call 'serial winners.' If there was one thing we may have been lacking, it was in that department; guys that have played playoff games in the past," Cooper said. "There are so many different factors with Nabby, we thought he was a fit for us. We wanted that game experience. We wanted someone that had played more games than Ben Bishop, somebody that could be a partner with Ben and help him come along."

SUMMER MOVES

Additions: D Anton Stralman (free agent, Rangers), C Brian Boyle (free agent, Rangers), LW Brenden Morrow (free agent, Blues), G Evgeni Nabokov (free agent, Islanders), D Jason Garrison (trade, Canucks).

Subtractions: RW Teddy Purcell (trade, Oilers), D Sami Salo (free agent), C Nate Thompson (trade, Ducks), LW Ryan Malone (compliance buyout, Rangers), RW B.J. Crombeen (trade, Coyotes), D Michael Kostka (free agent, Rangers), C Tom Pyatt (free agent, Geneve-Servette, SWI), D Keith Aulie (free agent, Oilers), D Dmitry Korobov (free agent, Atlant Moscow Oblast, KHL), G Cedrick Desjardins (free agent, Rangers)

Promotion Candidates: LW Jonathan Drouin, D Nikita Nesterov, RW Brett Connolly, C Vladislav Namestnikov, G Kristers Gudlevskis, C Cedric Paquette.

PROJECTED LINEUP

O. Palat – S. Stamkos – T. Johnson

J. Drouin – V. Filppula – R. Callahan

A. Killorn – B. Boyle – N. Kucherov

B. Morrow - C. Paquette - J.T. Brown

Extras: C. Kunyk – R. Panik

V. Hedman – A. Stralman

R. Gudas – M. Carle

E. Brewer – J. Garrison

Extras: M. Barberio – A. Sustr

B. Bishop

E. Nabokov

LIGHTNING AMONG FANTASY TOP 275

The 2014-15 season is drawing closer by the day, so NHL.com has you covered with all the fantasy hockey advice you'll need on draft day.

Below are Tampa Bay Lightning players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.

2. Steven Stamkos, C (Top 50 breakdown)

26. Ben Bishop, G (Top 50 breakdown)

60. Victor Hedman, D (Undervalued)

81. Jonathan Drouin, LW (Sitkoff's sleeper)

126. Ondrej Palat, LW (Overvalued)

146. Valtteri Filppula, C/LW

164. Tyler Johnson, C

171. Ryan Callahan, RW (Bounce-back)

183. Jason Garrison, D

253. Radko Gudas, D (Category specialist)

260. Alex Killorn, C/LW

272. Evgeni Nabokov, G

Author: Tal Pinchevsky | NHL.com Staff Writer

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