TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning came close last season to winning the Stanley Cup for the second time in their history, but ultimately fell to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in the Final.
There were not a lot of changes made in the offseason, but here are three X-factors that could determine if the Lightning will hoist the Cup in 2016:
Steven Stamkos' contract situation: The focus on the Lightning's 25-year-old captain will be at an all-time high as he plays out the final season of a five-year contract that pays him $5.5 million for 2015-16, according to war-on-ice.com. As the season approaches, the likelihood of Stamkos hitting free agency July 1 increases, and that has Lightning fans very nervous. To Stamkos' credit, he continues to say all the right things, including reiterating his desire to win the Cup in Tampa.
"The only time I talk about [the contract situation] is when I'm asked about it," Stamkos said. "I think the guys understand that it's a business. They know me as a player, as a leader. It hasn't changed the way I've approached anything. The guys know what they are going to get and what to expect from me, and nothing has changed in that regard."
General manager Steve Yzerman also said that negotiations will be kept quiet and out of the public.
"Every player's contract expires at some point, and you go through the process," he said. "I'm not going to elaborate, I'm not going to give regular updates on it. Talking with Steven and talking with [agent] Donnie Meehan and his colleagues at Newport Sports, we're going to keep this between us and hopefully work toward getting an extension done at some point."
Outside of contract talks, there's been much speculation whether Stamkos will play center or wing, and if he stays at center, there's uncertainty about who will play on the wings after coach Jon Cooper tried several combinations last season.
Increased role for Drouin: After forward Jonathan Drouin returned from a hand injury sustained last season in training camp, he always seemed a step behind whatever plans Cooper had for him. Drouin did some things well in the 70 games he played but was a forgotten man for a good portion of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With a full training camp under his belt, Drouin has already seen his role on the power play increased, and Cooper has paired the 20-year-old with Stamkos for most of training camp. If Drouin shows he can quickly build chemistry with the Lightning captain, it will increase his ice time and likely increase Stamkos' happiness by having a consistent pass-first playmaker next to him on the wing. The two appear to enjoy playing together, and Drouin looks much more confident and explosive this preseason.
Cooper, however, doesn't want anyone jumping to conclusions about the Stamkos-Drouin pairing.
"Just because you're using someone in camp doesn't mean that's how everything is going to play out," Cooper said. "But we do want to see them together, and see if some chemistry starts coming together, and this is the time to do that. While they're on the same line, we like to see what they can do. We hope that a little bit more chemistry comes about with these two, because they're both great talents."
Using the run to the Final to their advantage: The expectations for the Lightning this season are high; anything short of winning the Stanley Cup might be considered a disappointment. However, the players aren't trying to look too far ahead and continue to emphasize how tough the playoffs are to navigate and that returning to the Final will be difficult.
Yzerman, who won the Cup three times as a player with the Detroit Red Wings, said the task remains tough but having the experience should help the players understand how to deal with the challenge.
"There's no guarantee we're getting back to the Finals this year. It's not necessarily 'our turn,'" Yzerman said. "Twenty-nine other teams would disagree that it's 'our turn.' The most important thing the players have to realize is how hard it was last year. And you learn that this is what you do year after year after year. It doesn't get easier, but you get more comfortable with the process."
The Lightning players don't lack confidence and feel like the team as constructed is good enough to finish the job this season.
"I think you definitely get confidence by saying you are in the top two in the League," forward Tyler Johnson said. "That's pretty remarkable to be able to say. But that's not where we want to finish. We want to finish top one. I think coming into this season we're a lot more prepared. There's not as many question marks. There aren't as many 'what if' situations. We know what we have. We know what we have on our team. And now it's just a matter of us translating it on the ice again."
Author: Corey Long | NHL.com Correspondent