TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning will enter the 2015-16 season with high expectations and a lot of familiar faces.
The majority of the roster that lost the Stanley Cup Final in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks will return with a chance to make another deep run in the playoffs.
With a core of young stars and strong depth across the board, there is plenty of reason for optimism about the Lightning.
The Lightning scored 259 goals last season, the most in the NHL. They have a balanced scoring attack with players who can put the puck in the net on all four lines. Ten forwards scored 12 or more goals last season, and nine of them remain on the roster (Brett Connolly scored 12 goals for the Lightning before being moved to the Boston Bruins prior to the March 2 NHL Trade Deadline).
Steven Stamkos led the way with 43 goals and remains one of the League's most prolific goal-scorers and a perennial All-Star. The 25-year-old captain spent much of the season without consistent linemates; Alex Killorn, Ryan Callahan, Jonathan Drouin and others played musical chairs around him. After he struggled early in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Stamkos was moved to the wing, where he and Killorn had success with Valtteri Filppula centering the line. In training camp, Stamkos has been centering a line with Callahan and Drouin, but coach Jon Cooper said Stamkos could be used several ways.
"The one great thing about [Stamkos] is he can play both positions, and that gives us options," Cooper said. "It's great as a coach to be able to have players that can play multiple positions, and [Stamkos] is one of those guys. Does that necessarily sit here and say that [Stamkos] is going to be playing on the wing? No, it's not. Center is his natural position, and we're going to put him in the best spot that's going to help our team and help [him]."
"The Triplets" line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat will stay intact and should continue to be one of the most productive lines in the League. Johnson and Kucherov tied for second on the Lightning with 29 goals, and Palat led them with 47 assists. All three players were better than plus-30.
There's plenty of young depth at forward on the bottom two lines with Cedric Paquette, who flashed his two-way ability during the Final when he was assigned to Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews, and the speedy J.T. Brown. Jonathan Marchessault and Vladislav Namestnikov will also be aiming for more playing time.
Veteran Brian Boyle provides goal-scoring on the third or fourth line, and is the Lightning's top penalty-killer and a leader in the locker room. He will be joined by Tampa Bay's notable free agent signing, Erik Condra, who played for Cooper when he was with the Texarkana Bandits in the North American Hockey League in 2003-04.
"Erik, he's a really smart player, and smart players in this game can give you a lot of options," Cooper said. "He's proven in this league that he can kill penalties. He's a right-handed shot, and we seem to not have a ton of right-handed shots in the past, he's got little younger legs, he's hungry, he's been in this League. You look at those guys that have a lot of intangibles and he's one of those guys."
The Lightning return the top seven defensemen who competed in the playoffs. Victor Hedman established himself as one of the League's top defensemen with a strong postseason. Hedman led the Lightning with 13 assists and a plus-11 rating in the postseason.
"I felt like I took my game to another level," Hedman said. "I want to be a player that plays a lot of minutes and that plays in every situation. I worked hard this summer trying to get better. We can't hang our hats on anything we did last year."
Though Hedman is the elite player, Anton Stralman is the constant presence on the back end who does everything well and always seems to make the right decisions. Stralman, who was targeted by the Lightning in the 2014 free agency period to pair with Hedman, had career highs in goals (nine) and points (39) last season. He is also one of the best possession players in the League; the Lightning had 56 percent of the shot attempts when Stralman was on the ice.
Jason Garrison, Braydon Coburn, Matthew Carle and Andrej Sustr round out the top six. Nikita Nesterov, who got some playing time in the playoffs as a seventh defenseman, Luke Witkowski and Slater Koekkoek, the 10th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, will be competing for the extra spot.
Ben Bishop was healthy the entire 2014-15 regular season and established himself as the No. 1 goaltender. He won 40 games, setting a Lightning record. Bishop, who is 6-foot-7, had three shutouts in the playoffs, including Game 7 shutout wins against the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers. He missed a start in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final because of a groin injury, but said he was happy to finally have an offseason without needing surgery.
"I feel good, ready to go," Bishop said. "It was a good offseason. I was able to get back in the gym after having surgery the [previous] summer. It was nice to not have to deal with anything like that."
Behind Bishop is Andrei Vasilevskiy, who will miss at least the first month of the season after having surgery to remove a blood clot from his left collarbone. The 21-year-old started Game 4 of the Final in Bishop's stead, making 17 saves in a 2-1 loss.
With Vasilevskiy out, the backup job appears to be Kristers Gudlevskis' to lose. The Lightning claimed Kevin Poulin off waivers from the New York Islanders on Sept. 27.
The Lightning's 18.8 power-play percentage last season was good enough to be in the top half of the League (14th), but Cooper believes they should be top 10 or better, and will use training camp and the preseason to try some different combinations. He and new assistant Brad Lauer will work together coaching the unit.
Tampa Bay scored 53 power-play goals, tied for seventh in the League. Drouin has gotten more power-play time in the preseason as Cooper hopes to make more use of his playmaking talents.
The Lightning were tied for seventh in the League with an 83.7 penalty-kill percentage. Boyle will continue to be the primary penalty-killer, with help from Condra.
Cooper was promoted to coach the Lightning on March 25, 2013, after Tampa Bay fired Guy Boucher. Prior to joining the Lightning, Cooper won the Calder Cup in the American Hockey League in 2011-12 with the Norfolk Admirals, as well as championships in the NAHL and United States Hockey League.
He's 101-59-20 in a little more than two seasons with the Lightning; last season, he led them to the most wins (50) and points (108) in their history.
Lauer, a former assistant with the Anaheim Ducks, was hired Aug. 18 to replace George Gwozdecky, who left the Lightning to become coach at Valor Christian High in Colorado. Associate coach Rick Bowness, assistant Steve Thomas and goaltending coach Frantz Jean round out the staff.
Author: Corey Long | NHL.com Correspondent