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Lightning return same group after reaching Final

by Corey Long continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout August.

TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning were two victories from winning the Stanley Cup for the second time in their history last season.

Many of the same players will return this season to try to finish the job, including leading scorer and captain Steven Stamkos, who is entering the final season of his five-year contract.

After a postseason run that included a Game 7 win against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final, the Lightning's season ended with a 2-0 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. Shortly after, general manager Steve Yzerman began the process of making slight adjustments to the roster while pledging to keep his focus on signing Stamkos to a new contract. Stamkos can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, 2016.

"I'd like to get Steven Stamkos signed to an extension," Yzerman said June 17. "That's my No. 1 priority. We've got some other restricted free agents, a couple of other contracts and things we've got to do, but [Stamkos is] the No. 1 priority."

Two days after the Blackhawks skated with the Cup at United Center, Stamkos expressed optimism that a new contract to keep him in Tampa for several more seasons would get done.

"I'm a big believer that when the time is right, [the contract will] take care of itself," he said. "I'm not sitting here … waiting for a phone call. It's not on the front of my mind right now … but we'll definitely be getting something worked out, hopefully shortly."

Stamkos, who the Lightning selected with the No. 1 pick at the 2008 NHL Draft, told the Toronto Sun during All-Star Weekend in January that he could envision a contract similar to the eight-year, $84 million one that Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews each signed with the Blackhawks in July 2014.

The 25-year-old center will be paid $5.5 million this season with a salary-cap charge of $7.5 million, according to The Lightning currently are about $960,000 above the NHL's $71.4 million cap for 2015-16; teams can be over the cap by 10 percent before the start of the season.

Stamkos' 43 goals were second in the NHL last season. He had seven goals and 11 assists in 26 playoff games, but the Blackhawks held him without a goal in the Final.

Named captain when Martin St. Louis was traded to the Rangers at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline, Stamkos re-affirmed his commitment to the Lightning after the loss in the Final.

"I want to win a championship with this team and this group," he said. "… I've been here for so long, this is my home now. It's been unbelievable for me to see the transition here, and it starts with [Jeff] Vinik, the owner here."

Tampa Bay wasn't very active in free agency but did sign right wing Erik Condra to a three-year contract. The 28-year-old spent his first five NHL seasons with the Ottawa Senators after being selected by them in the seventh round (No. 211) of the 2006 draft.

Condra, who scored a career-high nine goals in 68 regular-season games last season, likely will step into the role that Brenden Morrow occupied last season. Morrow, 36, became an unrestricted free agent July 1 and remains unsigned.

They also signed forward Tye McGinn to a one-year, two-way contract. McGinn, 24, had two goals and seven points in 51 games with the San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes last season.

Defenseman Luke Witkowski and forwards Jonathan Marchessault and Vladislav Namestnikov were re-signed to one-year, two-way contracts and will have a chance to make the roster out of training camp. Witkowski made his NHL debut last season, playing in 16 regular-season games; Marchessault played in two regular-season and two playoff games; and Namestnikov, the 27th pick of the 2011 draft, had 16 points in 43 regular-season games and one point in 12 playoff games.

Tampa Bay also re-signed 6-foot-7, 220-pound defenseman Andrej Sustr to a two-year contract June 30. Sustr, 24, struggled in his second full NHL season, but the Lightning have high hopes for the undrafted player who joined them in 2013.

Yzerman understands that the Lightning will have a difficult time repeating last season's playoff success, much less taking the final step to win the Stanley Cup. Recent history isn't necessarily on their side, he said.

"It's important that we come out next year ready to go right off the bat," Yzerman said. "You look at L.A., you look at Boston. L.A. won the Cup [in 2014], and Boston won the Presidents' Trophy (for the 2013-14 season). They both had very good seasons [in 2014-15] and missed the playoffs. So the margin for error is very slight. It's important for us to get off to a good start, so I'd start off by saying what we're looking to do next year is try to make the playoffs and then go from there."

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