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31 in 31

Inside look at Tampa Bay Lightning

Healthy Stamkos, Callahan provide optimism for return to playoffs

by Corey Long / NHL.com Correspondent

NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The return of center Steven Stamkos and forward Ryan Callahan from injury gives the Tampa Bay Lightning reason to feel good about their chances of getting back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season.

The loss of Stamkos and Callahan, combined with inconsistent play midway through last season, was the biggest reason they failed to make the playoffs despite going 8-1-1 in their final 10 games. Tampa Bay (42-30-10, 94 points) finished one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second wild card from the Eastern Conference.

 

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Stamkos is expected to be ready for training camp. The Lightning captain had 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) in 17 games before missing the rest of the season after tearing the lateral meniscus in his right knee Nov. 15. He will play on the top line with forward Nikita Kucherov, who will look to build on his breakout season of 2016-17, when he had 85 points (40 goals, 45 assists) in 74 games.

Callahan has skated with teammates and said he's finally healthy following two hip surgeries in the past 14 months. After he had four points in 18 games last season and 28 (10 goals, 18 assists) in 2015-16, the 32-year-old could get more scoring chances playing on a line with center Brayden Point, who had 40 points (18 goals, 22 assists) in 68 games as a rookie last season.

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During the offseason, the Lightning focused on becoming a tougher team to play against and improving their organizational depth on defense. The first big move was acquiring defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and a conditional second-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft in a trade from the Montreal Canadiens on June 15 for forward Jonathan Drouin and a conditional sixth-round pick in 2018.

Sergachev, the No. 9 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, is a puck-moving defenseman with size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) and speed who eventually could play in a top-four role for Tampa Bay.

"I think we got a young defenseman that's going to be a good player in the League for a long time," general manager Steve Yzerman said. "Whether that's this year or years from now, time will tell. We think he's going to be here for a long time."

In addition to trading for Sergachev, the Lightning signed defenseman Dan Girardi to a two-year, $6 million contract ($3 million average annual value) on July 1 after losing defenseman Jason Garrison to the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft. The New York Rangers bought out the final three seasons of Girardi's six-year contract June 15.

Girardi joins Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman and veterans Braydon Coburn and Anton Stralman on defense. Andrej Sustr, a restricted free agent who re-signed for one year and $1.95 million June 26, will compete against Sergachev, Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek for the final two spots on defense.

Tampa Bay also signed veteran forward Chris Kunitz on July 1. He is a four-time Stanley Cup winner, including back-to-back championships with the Pittsburgh Penguins the past two seasons. Kunitz, who turns 38 on Sept. 26, got a one-year, $2 million contract.

"We needed to be a better defensive hockey team," Yzerman said. "I believe by bringing in Chris Kunitz and Dan Girardi we're a harder team to play against, and I'd expect us to be an improved team defensively."

The Lightning re-signed restricted free agent forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat.

Johnson signed a seven-year, $35 million contract ($5 million AAV) on July 10 after he had 45 points (19 goals, 26 assists) in 66 games last season. He likely will play on a line with Palat, who signed a five-year, $26.5 million contract ($5.3 million AAV) on July 14. Palat, who had 52 points (17 goals, 35 assists) in 75 games in 2016-17, often is mentioned by coach Jon Cooper as one of Tampa Bay's unheralded leaders.

Andrei Vasilevskiy is the clear-cut No. 1 goaltender after going 23-17-7 with a 2.61 goals-against-average and .917 save percentage in 50 games (47 starts) last season, including 12-4-2 in his final 18 starts. He could start 60 games this season.

Backup Peter Budaj was acquired in a trade from the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 26 along with a defenseman prospect and two picks in the 2017 NHL Draft for goaltender Ben Bishop. He went 30-21-3 with a 2.18 GAA, a .915 save percentage and seven shutouts (tied for third in the League) in 60 games (55 starts) last season before signing a two-year contract June 22.

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