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Super 16: Fast, skilled, young Lightning start at top

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

This is the preseason edition of the Super 16. It will return on Oct. 16, nine days after the start of the regular season, and will run every Friday for the duration of the season.

Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos' words at the time he said them, last month during the NHL's Player Media Tour, a week before training camps would get going, seemed like nothing more than an elite player trying to stay humble about his clearly impressive team.

"The goal should just be the same as it was last year, just getting to the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs," Stamkos told NHL.com. "It's so hard now that it's wrong to start thinking we made it to the [Stanley Cup] Final and we'll be right back in that position."

Hard? For the Lightning? Come on.

The Lightning, Eastern Conference champions last season, return almost wholly intact this season, save for Erik Condra replacing Brenden Morrow in the bottom-six forward group. They are fast, skilled, experienced and yet still young with the average age of their expected opening-night lineup 26.5.

Expectations are appropriately high for coach Jon Cooper's team, but examined further, Stamkos' words hold more weight than originally thought. The Lightning might be a favorite in the Eastern Conference, but a study of their first 20 games of the season reveals the road back to the postseason will have its bumps.

Twelve of Tampa Bay's first 20 games are on the road this season. (Photo: Getty Images)

Twelve of Tampa Bay's first 20 games are on the road, including seven of its first 10 and 11 of its first 16. Only eight of its first 20 games are against teams that made the playoffs last season, but seven of those games are on the road, including one at the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions, on Oct. 24.

This isn't to suggest that the Lightning are in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs because of their early-season schedule, but it wouldn't set any kind of precedent if they did.

Since 2005-06, an average of five teams per season miss the postseason after making it the prior season. Last season, seven teams that made the playoffs in 2013-14 were left watching once they finished their 82 games, including the defending Stanley Cup champs (Los Angeles Kings) and Presidents' Trophy winners (Boston Bruins).

In addition, the New Jersey Devils did not make the playoffs in 2013 after going to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. The Devils fumbled despite starting 9-2-3 in their first 15 games in the shortened 2012-13 season.

The Lightning are one of several playoff teams from last season that will have to navigate through a difficult first quarter of the season.

Here are five other playoff teams from last season facing a challenging first 20 games:

Chicago Blackhawks

* 12 games against playoff teams from last season

* Opponents include the Lightning (East champs), New York Rangers (Presidents' Trophy), Anaheim Ducks (Pacific Division champs) and St. Louis Blues (Central Division champs)

* 19th game of season is the first of a six-game road trip

Minnesota Wild

* 12 games against playoff teams from last season

* Four of first five games are on the road

* Two games against the Ducks in October

* Four-game road trip Nov. 12-19

* Home games against Blackhawks and Lightning

St. Louis Blues

* 14 games against playoff teams from last season

* Six-game road trip after playing home opener against Edmonton

* Five of six games on road trip vs. playoff teams from last season

* Games against other three division winners last season (Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Ducks)

* Two games against Blackhawks

Winnipeg Jets

* 13 games against playoff teams from last season

* Open with a four-game Eastern road trip

* Three four-game road trips

* Stretch of eight of nine games on the road Oct. 31-Nov. 16

* Opponents include Rangers, Blues, Lightning, Blackhawks and Canadiens

Montreal Canadiens

* 12 of their first 20 games are against teams that made the playoffs last season

* Eight of their 12 games in October are on the road

Putting a greater emphasis on the challenges these teams could face at the start of the season is the fact that in the past five full seasons (excluding the 2012-13 season), 73.75 percent of the teams that were in a playoff position Nov. 15 wound up making the playoffs.

Most teams will have played at least 18 games by Nov. 15.

DISCLAIMER: Although the Super 16 is NHL.com's weekly power rankings, it focuses more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It's not always going to look like the League standings and likely will take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close, the tiebreaker almost always is this: If they started a seven-game series right now, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information.

1. Tampa Bay Lightning

Top storyline: Stamkos' ongoing contract negotiation/stalemate and how it affects the top player on what should be the top team in the Eastern Conference will dominate the headlines until the situation is resolved.

Keep an eye on: Jonathan Drouin, F

2. Anaheim Ducks

Top storyline: The Ducks' goaltending situation bears watching. They appear ready to go with a 1-2 tandem in goal of Frederik Andersen and Anton Khudobin, leaving John Gibson to start the season in the American Hockey League. Gibson recently signed a three-year contract extension that kicks in next season. Andersen and Khudobin do not have contracts beyond this season.

Keep an eye on: Jiri Sekac, F

3. Washington Capitals

Top storyline: Center Nicklas Backstrom is expected to miss the start of the season while he recovers from hip surgery. Evgeny Kuznetsov will likely be thrust into Backstrom's role at even strength and on the power play in his absence. How Kuznetsov handles it will go a long way toward determining how the Capitals start this season.

Keep an eye on: Andre Burakovsky, F

4. Chicago Blackhawks

Top storyline: The Blackhawks are working several new players into the lineup, including Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Ryan Garbutt and Trevor Daley. It will be interesting to watch how quickly, if at all, chemistry develops when the games start to matter.

Keep an eye on: Teuvo Teravainen, F

5. New York Rangers

Top storyline: They have to replace the production they got from retired right wing Martin St. Louis last season (52 points in 74 games). J.T. Miller is a favorite to replace St. Louis in the top-six forward group, but the Rangers have other options, such as moving Kevin Hayes to wing. Hayes is currently slotted to be the third-line center.

Keep an eye on: J.T. Miller, F

6. Pittsburgh Penguins

Top storyline: Phil Kessel was the most notable player to change teams during the offseason, and now it's up to coach Mike Johnston to figure out where he fits best. Kessel likely will start the season on Sidney Crosby's line, but it would behoove Johnston to make sure Kessel plays and develops chemistry with Evgeni Malkin too.

Keep an eye on: Olli Maatta, D

7. Minnesota Wild

Top storyline: Goalie Devan Dubnyk signed a six-year contract during the offseason, a contract he was given based on a half-season of work for the Wild. It was a great half-season (27-9-2, 1.78 goals-against average, .936 save percentage), but now it'll be interesting to see how Dubnyk handles the pressure of living up to a big contract instead of having to play for one.

Keep an eye on: Jason Zucker, F

8. Montreal Canadiens

Top storyline: Alex Galchenyuk's move from left wing to center might be the most scrutinized topic in Montreal for the first month of the season, if not longer. He was drafted as a center but played primarily on the wing for his first three seasons. He is entering this season as a full-time center.

Keep an eye on: Alexander Semin, F

9. Los Angeles Kings

Top storyline: Similar to the Lightning with Stamkos, the Kings would like to get center Anze Kopitar signed to a long-term contract extension. Kopitar can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. The odds of that happening are slim, but Kopitar's contract will be a hot topic until something is done, so the sooner the better.

Keep an eye on: Tanner Pearson, F

10. Nashville Predators

Top storyline: The Predators want to have three viable scoring lines, which puts an emphasis on the maturation of the third line. Cody Hodgson is expected to center it, but he's on his third team and hasn't come close to living up to the billing he had as the 2008 first-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks. Craig Smith, who has scored at least 23 goals in each of the past two seasons, could be the right wing, especially if Calle Jarnkrok becomes a top-six forward. Smith signed a five-year contract on July 20. Viktor Arvidsson could be the left wing. His 55 points last season led the Milwaukee Admirals, Nashville's American Hockey League affiliate. The Predators need production from the third line.

Keep an eye on: Calle Jarnkrok, F

11. Dallas Stars

Top storyline: Keeping the puck out of the net was a big problem for the Stars last season. It's why they didn't make the playoffs despite finishing second in the NHL with 257 goals. They also allowed 257. That's why as important as the goaltending duo of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi will be, improvement on defense is necessary. Johnny Oduya should help.

Keep an eye on: Valeri Nichushkin, F

12. St. Louis Blues

Top storyline: The Blues are expected to enter the season with a two-goalie system. Jake Allen and Brian Elliott know this song and dance. They did it last season. Now they're doing it again. The questions are who will emerge, and how long will it take? At some point, coach Ken Hitchcock will want a goalie he can ride.

Keep an eye on: Dmitrij Jaskin, F

13. Detroit Red Wings

Top storyline: The Red Wings will be without centers Pavel Datsyuk and Darren Helm to start the season. Datsyuk is likely out until mid-November while recovering from ankle surgery. Helm has a separated shoulder and could be back later this month. The injuries put a bigger emphasis on center Brad Richards starting strong with his new team, Henrik Zetterberg staying healthy, and rookie Dylan Larkin making an immediate impact if he wins a job.

Keep an eye on: Tomas Jurco, F

14. Columbus Blue Jackets

Top storyline: The Blue Jackets got good early returns, if only in games that don't count, from their new top line of Brandon Saad, Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno. They showed chemistry and they scored. Columbus will need that line to get off to a good start in order to allow the rest of its forward lines to fall into place.

Keep an eye on: Ryan Murray, D

15. New York Islanders

Top storyline: The answers to the questions about Kyle Okposo's present and future with the Islanders are still TBD. Okposo, who can be an unrestricted free agent after the season, has played his best on John Tavares' line. However, he's far from a lock to start there with Anders Lee and Ryan Strome also options. How will he play if he's not on Tavares' line? How does that impact how the Islanders feel about him?

Keep an eye on: Brock Nelson, F

16. Calgary Flames

Top storyline: The Flames defense took a hit with TJ Brodie going down because of a broken hand. He is expected to miss the start of the season. Dougie Hamilton is trying to get acclimated with a new team, Mark Giordano is coming off a biceps injury, and Ladislav Smid is also injured. As good as the Flames defense could be, it's not without questions.

Keep an eye on: Dougie Hamilton, D

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