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Lightning season preview: Out to rebound from first-round playoff sweep

Counting on Kucherov for strong start with Point sidelined

by Corey Long / Independent Correspondent

The 2019-20 NHL season begins Oct. 2. With training camps open, is taking a look at the five keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lines for all 31 teams. Today, the Tampa Bay Lightning.


Coach: Jon Cooper (eighth season)

Last season: 62-16-4; first place Atlantic Division, lost to Columbus Blue Jackets in Eastern Conference First Round




1. Turning page on last season 

The Lightning tied an NHL record with 62 wins last season and led 3-0 in the first period of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. They lost that game 4-3 and never recovered, getting swept by the second wild card. Until this group shows it can win the Stanley Cup, that series loss could hang over its heads. It will be interesting to see how the Lightning respond.

Video: Blue Jackets sweep Lightning for first series win


2. Point's recovery

When forward Brayden Point signed a three-year, $20.25 million contract, it was disclosed that he had hip surgery in the spring and will miss the start of the season. He is expected to return in late October but will likely miss a six-game road trip that includes games against the Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins. He scored an NHL career-high 92 points last season (41 goals, 51 assists) and is the Lightning's best two-way player, often matching up against the opponent's top scoring line. It bears watching whether Point is able to immediately play at the level expected of him when he returns to the lineup.

Video: Erik Erlendsson breaks down Brayden Point's contract


3. Repeat performance from Kucherov

When Nikita Kucherov was asked what he needs to do better this season, he answered, "Everything." The forward led the NHL with 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists) and was voted the Hart Trophy winner as League MVP. He will be expected to reach 100 points for a third straight season. 

Video: Top 10 plays of 2018-19: Kucherov


4. Improving on defense

Many of the Lightning's defensive deficiencies were masked last season because of the stellar play of Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was voted the Vezina Trophy winner last season as the NHL's best goalie, but they surfaced in the playoffs when Tampa Bay was outscored 19-8 over the four games. Forward Pat Maroon and defenseman Luke Schenn, each acquired in the offseason, could bring a more physical element to the lineup, and new defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk could be a difference-maker if he is healthy and motivated. 

Video: Andrei Vasilevskiy claims the No. 1 spot on the list


5. Stamkos' potential move to wing

In Games 3 and Game 4 against Columbus, Steven Stamkos moved from center to right wing, with Anthony Cirelli at center. That change seemingly has stuck, with Cirelli playing center on a line with Stamkos and Alex Killorn in most practices, scrimmages and preseason games. Stamkos had resisted moving to the wing but seems much more open to giving way to Cirelli. Cooper has downplayed the move, saying he has been looking at all possibilities, but the change would make sense if the Lightning want to be better defensively. Cirelli embraces a 200-foot game and likes the challenge of playing against top lines. 




Making the cut

Carter Verhaeghe, Danick Martel, Gemel Smith and Alexander Volkov are battling for an open spot on the fourth line. Verhaeghe led the American Hockey League with 82 points (34 goals, 48 assists) last season for Syracuse. Martel had two assists in nine games with the Lightning last season. Smith has 20 points (11 goals, nine assists) in 80 NHL games with the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins. Volkov had 93 points (46 points, 47 assists) the past two seasons with Syracuse. 

The Lightning are planning to carry eight defensemen and appear set at the position, but veteran Luke Witkowski could change that. Witkowski, who played for Tampa Bay his first two NHL seasons, signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Lightning after playing the past two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings. He has also been an NHL forward, which is one reason Tampa Bay signed him, and has impressed with his conditioning and improved skating. 


Most intriguing addition

Volkov could open the season in a top-six role while Point recovers.

Video: Volkov finds the back of the net


Biggest potential surprise

Forward Mathieu Joseph was productive as a rookie last season with 26 points (13 goals, 13 assists) in 70 games. Joseph should get more playing time and scoring opportunities in a regular top-nine role this season.


Ready to break through

Cirelli had 39 points (19 goals, 20 assists) playing on the third line last season and could double those numbers playing with Stamkos on the top line. He has played on the power play in the preseason and remains one of the Lightning's best two-way forwards and penalty killers. 


Fantasy sleeper 

Mikhail Sergachev (average draft position: 146.2) could skate on the top pair with Victor Hedman at even strength and should see time on the second power-play unit. He is scheduled to become a restricted free agent in 2020, potentially giving him extra motivation this season. -- Rob Reese



Alex Killorn -- Anthony Cirelli -- Steven Stamkos

Nikita Kucherov -- Brayden Point -- Tyler Johnson

Ondrej Palat -- Yanni Gourde -- Mathieu Joseph 

Pat Maroon -- Cedric Paquette -- Carter Verhaeghe

Victor Hedman -- Mikhail Sergachev

Ryan McDonagh -- Erik Cernak

Braydon Coburn -- Kevin Shattenkirk

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Curtis McElhinney

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