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31 in 31

Inside look at Tampa Bay Lightning

Returning core hopeful of another Stanley Cup run

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 Tampa Bay Lightning will be one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup after returning much of the same roster that made the Eastern Conference Final last season.

 

[Lightning 31 IN 31: 3 Questions | Top prospects | Fantasy breakdown | Behind the Numbers]

 

The Lightning have advanced to the conference final in three of the past four seasons and reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2015. They came within one game of the Cup Final last season, losing to the Washington Capitals in seven games.

"[For the] majority of teams, it takes a long time to get there, and you can't get discouraged by the setbacks," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. "Our goal here is to win more than one, but let's try to win one. It's a difficult thing to do, and you have to stick with it. You get knocked down, you get back up and you learn from it and keep moving on."

In order to keep their Cup window open, the Lightning signed forwards Nikita Kucherov and J.T. Miller and defenseman Ryan McDonagh each to a long-term contract.

Video: 31 in 31: Tampa Bay Lightning 2018-19 season preview

Kucherov signed an eight-year, $76 million contract extension (average annual value $9.5 million) that begins next season. The 25-year-old set an NHL career high with 100 points (39 goals, 61 assists) in 80 games last season and has increased his points each of the past four seasons.

McDonagh and Miller were acquired from the New York Rangers in a trade Feb. 26. McDonagh, 29, signed a seven-year, $47.25 million contract extension (average annual value $6.75 million) that begins next season. Miller, 25, signed a five-year, $26.25 million contract (average annual value $5.25 million) before becoming a free agent. 

"These are players we knew wanted to sign, they are the core of our team and important players on our team," Yzerman said. "Our intention was to get Nikita's next contract done as soon as possible. He's an extremely important player to us."

The emergence of Kucherov has allowed center Steven Stamkos to settle into a playmaking role, and he thrived last season with 86 points (27 goals, NHL career-high 59 assists) in 78 games. Miller had 18 points (10 goals, eight assists) in 19 games with the Lightning playing on their line. 

Brayden Point will center the second line after the 22-year-old had a breakout season with 66 points (32 goals, 34 assists) and established himself as Tampa Bay's top two-way forward. Ondrej Palat will be at one wing with Tyler Johnson or Yanni Gourde playing the other.

The Lightning allowed 234 goals last season, 13th in the NHL. Victor Hedman won the Norris Trophy voted as the NHL's top defenseman last season; the 27-year-old had 63 points (17 goals, 46 assists) and was plus-32 in 77 games.

Video: TBL@WSH, Gm3: Hedman nets Kucherov's great pass

The continued development of Mikhail Sergachev will be key for Tampa Bay. The 20-year-old had 40 points (nine goals, 31 assists) in 79 games in his rookie season and should be in line for increased minutes and a top-four role after playing his best hockey during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"Not only did [Sergachev] make the team, but he had an impact," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "He played on special teams for us. Obviously there is room for a lot of growth for him, but for him to take the steps he did is pretty exceptional."

Andrei Vasilevskiy proved he was capable of being the No. 1 goaltender by tying for the NHL lead with 44 wins (Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets) and eight shutouts (Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators). The 24-year-old had a 2.62 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 64 starts and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.

"He was probably our best player throughout the playoffs," Yzerman said. "He played 60-plus games in the regular season, probably the most he's ever played in a regular season against the best players in the world, and facing more quality scoring chances than we prefer to give up. 

"I don't want to overstate it and put any unfair expectations on him. He's an incredibly hard worker. He's mentally tough. He's really well-driven. He's a tremendous athlete. So he has all the attributes, I believe, to be an elite goaltender for a long time. He'll continue to improve."

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