NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
If the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2013-14 season was about improving from a bottom-feeder into a Stanley Cup Playoff team, this season is about taking the next step. For the Lightning, that means building on a 101-point regular season and becoming a top-tier NHL franchise.
They already have the talent, with goaltender Ben Bishop, defenseman Victor Hedman and a slew of talented forwards built around captain Steven Stamkos, who is still only 24. General manager Steve Yzerman added a number of complementary veteran pieces, and the Lightning seem poised to improve on an impressive 2013-14 regular season that ended with playoff disappointment and a four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference First Round.
"Our goal in the organization is to win the Stanley Cup. We expect to compete for a Stanley Cup every single year. That's what we want to do," coach Jon Cooper told the team website. "In saying that, you have to be sure we're putting things in place to make that happen. I think we've done that."
Here are three things that must happen for Cooper and the Lightning to meet their goal.
1. Young players must continue to develop -- Calder Trophy finalists Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat headlined a group of young players who established themselves last season. With Bishop, defenseman Radko Gudas and forwards Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov also becoming important pieces, the franchise's stockpile of top-end prospects suddenly blossomed into real NHL talent.
With Jonathan Drouin, the No. 1 player on NHL.com's ranking of the League's top 60 prospects, expected to make his NHL debut this season (though not right away after fracturing his right thumb early in training camp), it's vitally important that these players continue their development. Veteran offseason acquisitions Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle, Jason Garrison, Brenden Morrow and Evgeni Nabokov should assist with that, and Johnson and Palat in particular will be expected to improve.
"We expect Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat to be better players than they were last year," Cooper said. "If they are better players than last year, we're going to be a better team."
2. Stamkos and Bishop need to stay healthy -- For all the great things the Lightning did, two major injuries seriously compromised their season. The first was to Stamkos, who missed four months with a broken leg and didn't appear to be 100 percent when he returned late in the season. Bishop's late-season wrist and elbow injuries, which kept him out of the playoffs, may have been more devastating; Tampa Bay's backup goaltenders struggled in the first-round sweep by the Montreal Canadiens.
Bishop and Stamkos must stay healthy if the Lightning hope to build on last season.
Stamkos had a screw removed from his leg during the summer and has proclaimed publicly that he is healthy. However, Bishop has admitted his wrist is not yet fully healed, though he said recently that it's getting better and hopefully will be close to 100 percent by opening night.
3. The penalty kill must improve -- Johnson and Palat's ability on the penalty kill was part of what made them such special first-year players. Johnson even tied Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins for the League lead with five shorthanded goals. But the penalty kill disappointed as a unit, ranking 23rd with an 80.7 percent success rate.
There is hope. The PK improved after Ryan Callahan was acquired from the New York Rangers at the NHL Trade Deadline. With Callahan in the lineup, the Lightning closed the season by killing 52 of their final 62 penalties, a success rate of 83.9 percent.
The offseason signings of Boyle and Stralman should help, although Nate Thompson, one of the team's more reliable penalty-killing forwards, was traded to the Anaheim Ducks. If prospects like Drouin and Kucherov can be added to the power play, it will also allow Johnson and Palat to spend more time focusing on the penalty kill.