The Tampa Bay Lightning faced several questions entering the 2013-14 season. And that was before their star, center Steven Stamkos, missed four months with a broken tibia and captain Martin St. Louis was traded to the New York Rangers at the NHL Trade Deadline. Despite those challenges, the Lightning kept winning thanks to breakout seasons from players including goaltender Ben Bishop, defenseman Victor Hedman, and rookie forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat.
With a number of veterans added this summer through trades and free agency, here are five questions the Lightning must answer in 2014-15:
1. Will Bishop show last season wasn't a fluke? -- Bishop was one of the League's true breakout players last season, establishing career bests with 37 wins, a 2.23 goals-against average, a .924 save percentage and five shutouts. He missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs with an arm injury, but was rewarded for his efforts when he was named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
After signing a two-year extension earlier this month, it's now time for Bishop to show 2013-14 wasn't an aberration and he is indeed a franchise goalie.
"He was arguably the MVP of our team last year. We really leaned on our goaltender heavily," coach Jon Cooper told NHL.com. "I truly believe he's coming into his prime. With his work ethic and the way he approached the game as the year went on last year, I'm fully confident he'll be a rock back there for us."
2. Can Tampa Bay's young players continue to develop? -- Several young players emerged last season and helped the Lightning post the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Johnson and Palat were named finalists for the Calder Trophy, and other young players like defenseman Radko Gudas and forwards Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn and J.T. Brown solidified their roster spots.
The development of Tampa Bay's young players should be aided by the veterans added in the offseason. Defenseman Jason Garrison was acquired from the Vancouver Canucks before the Lightning signed defenseman Anton Stralman, forwards Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow, and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov.
"They've been around the League a long time. They know what it takes to win," associate coach Rick Bowness said. "You bring along veterans who have had success in the League, that's going to continue their growth."
3. Is Jonathan Drouin ready for the NHL? -- Any discussion of Tampa Bay's prospect pool begins with Drouin, who the Lightning selected with the third pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. Drouin was named the 2013 CCM player of the year in junior hockey and dominated again last season with the Halifax Mooseheads, finishing third in Quebec Major Junior Hockey League scoring despite missing 22 games with injuries.
"I know he had some injuries last season, which curtailed his conditioning, but I know he's in much better shape," Bowness said of Drouin. "We're all hoping that he's ready to step in and help us take the next step. We'll see how his development goes. He would be the top prospect going into camp that we feel is ready to step in to play and contribute."
4. Who will Stamkos' linemates be? --
Center - TBL
GOALS: 25 | ASST: 15 | PTS: 40
SOG: 124 | +/-: 9
In a season that saw him miss more than half of his team's games with a broken tibia and his longtime linemate, St. Louis, traded, Stamkos had a rotating cast on his wings. Playing alongside everyone from Ryan Callahan
to Johnson to Killorn, the star center still put up "Stamkosian" numbers, at one point scoring nine goals and 13 points during a nine-game span in March.
But Tampa Bay's captain could benefit from gaining the kind of chemistry he enjoyed with St. Louis.
"Great players need great players to play with," Bowness said. "That's why we'll have a training camp and we'll find who the best two guys are suited to play with Stamkos."
5. Can the Lightning make it count in the playoffs? -- Outside of their run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2011, the Lightning haven't won a playoff series since hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2004. After being swept last season by the Montreal Canadiens, this team is expected to take the next step in the postseason.
"We know the standard that is set, what's expected. We set a really high bar for ourselves and I'm really excited about that," Cooper said. "It's so hard to make the playoffs in this League. We know what it takes now. If we want to not only make the playoffs but try to advance, we know the work that has to be put in."
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