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New contract for Stamkos big question facing Lightning

by Corey Long / NHL.com

TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning have their entire core group back after advancing to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, but that doesn't mean they don't have questions entering this season.

The Lightning's top concern is signing captain Steven Stamkos to a new contract; the 2015-16 season is the final one of the five-year contract he signed July 19, 2011, and he can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, 2016.

Here are three questions facing the Lightning:

Will Steven Stamkos sign a new contract? Stamkos has said on more than one occasion that he wants to stay in Tampa, and general manager Steve Yzerman said in June that a new contract for the 25-year-old captain is his top priority.

After losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in the Stanley Cup Final, Stamkos denied reports that he was unhappy with his role under coach Jon Cooper.

"Players, coaching staff, management, owner, I mean, this is one of, if not the, best team I've ever played on, not only talent-wise but how the guys get along and the respect we have for each other," Stamkos said June 17. "I know there's a lot of stuff being written and said. I guess when you get this far in the playoffs, [the media has] to start talking about some other things to come up with a story every day. Everyone's entitled to their opinion. We know what goes on in here. There's definitely no issues like that."

Stamkos said in January that he would like a contract similar to the eight-year, $84 million one that Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews each signed with the Blackhawks last summer. It's up to Yzerman not only to sign Stamkos but to make sure there's enough money left afterward to keep Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and others in Tampa.

It seems highly unlikely the Lightning will let Stamkos play out his contract, and talk of a trade will increase if a new contract isn't finalized before the start of the season. Expect negotiations to heat up during the next few weeks; the Lightning would love to get Stamkos signed before training camp, which starts Sept. 17.

Will Ben Bishop be the No. 1 goalie by the end of the season? Bishop is the Lightning's top goalie going into the season, but he also is one of their most valuable trade assets.

Bishop is signed through the 2016-17 season at a $5.95 million salary-cap charge, according to war-on-ice.com, and would be highly valued on the trade market after his performance during the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs (13-11, 2.18 goals-against average, .921 save percentage). Depending on how negotiations with Stamkos turn out, the Lightning may need to free up money to secure contracts with other players in the future.

Bishop may become expendable if the Lightning see enough early in the season from highly touted prospect Andrei Vasilevskiy, 21, who started Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final with Bishop out because of a groin injury.

Will Jonathan Drouin live up to the hype? It would be safe to say Drouin, 20, had a rookie season to forget. He fractured his right thumb during training camp and missed the entire preseason; it didn't get much better from there.

Drouin, the No. 3 pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, had four goals and 28 assists in 70 regular-season games but never seemed to find a comfortable spot on the ice. He played in six of 26 Lightning playoff games.

The low point of his season may have come in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Montreal Canadiens. With forward Ryan Callahan unavailable because of an emergency appendectomy, Cooper elected to play Jonathan Marchessault, who had played in two regular-season games, as Callahan's replacement. Cooper later explained his choice of Marchessault rather than Drouin by saying he went with the lineup that gave the Lightning the best chance to win.

Drouin's fresh start begins at training camp. He will be given another chance to become the playmaker that Stamkos could use on the first line, but he'll have to show that he's made improvements on and off the ice.

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