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Lightning led by healthy, hungry Stamkos

Captain's return from knee injury expected to bolster playoff chances

by Corey Long / NHL.com Correspondent

The Tampa Bay Lightning should be one of the favorites to win the Atlantic Division, if they remain healthy.

In addition to forwards Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan returning from injury, the Lightning acquired defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, the No. 9 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens for forward Jonathan Drouin on June 15. Tampa Bay also added forward Chris Kunitz and defenseman Dan Girardi as free agents to bring more grit and experience to the lineup after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs by one point.

"Trying to come back last year and putting the work in and then seeing the guys get so close and not make it has been an extra motivating factor as well," said Stamkos, who is returning from a torn meniscus in his knee sustained Nov. 15. "It's all coming together, and I can just see, not only for me, but how excited the guys are and how anxious they are to get back, just to prove to ourselves and to everyone that's we're not going to let what happened last year happen again this year."

Here is a look at the five keys for the Lightning, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season:

 

5 KEYS

1. Healthy, hungry Stamkos

Stamkos arrived at training camp healthy and eager to start the season. He had two assists in his first preseason game against the Nashville Predators on Sept. 22.

"It was nice to just go through a game day, I haven't done that in a long time," the 27-year-old said. "Kind of a reward knowing the hard work you put in. You feel a certain way and you know you're just going to get better. Your timing is going to get better. Your crispness out there is going to get better. I was glad with how the first one went."

Video: Steven Stamkos lands at No. 20 on the list

2. Kucherov continues his ascension

Nikita Kucherov emerged as the Lightning's most talented playmaker after setting NHL career-highs with 40 goals and 85 points last season despite playing with multiple line combinations. Kucherov will play right wing on the top line with Stamkos and Vladislav Namestnikov, or possibly Brayden Point. Kucherov should put up big numbers again with Stamkos as his center and could emerge as a legitimate contender for the Hart Trophy.

3. Vasilevskiy takes over

Andrei Vasilevskiy, 23, heads into his first full season as the No. 1 goaltender after he was named the top goalie at the 2017 IIHF World Championship helping Russia win the bronze medal. 

"In practice, it's almost impossible to score on [Vasilevskiy]," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "He's such a competitor and never gives up on plays, so we're in good hands with him."

4. Can Sergachev be super?

Sergachev, 19, is eligible to return to Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League but it's more likely he'll be on the Lightning's opening night roster. Sergachev (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) is the big, strong, puck-moving defenseman Tampa Bay wanted. His skills have earned the attention of his teammates.

"He's got all the attributes: He's strong, he's big, he's got skill, he can skate," coach Jon Cooper said. "Then you look at the program and you look at his age, and you realize players are developing a lot different now than years ago. He's got the whole package."

5. Starting strong, staying strong

Lightning players and coaches agree that getting off to a fast start is paramount, but they also want to avoid an extended slump during the middle of the season. Tampa Bay went 3-8-2 in January, which helped keep them out of the playoffs.

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Biggest lock

Hedman, a Norris Trophy finalist last season after he had 72 points (16 goals, 56 assists), seems to get better as he approaches his prime. The 26-year-old is one of the smoothest, most talented skaters in the NHL and continues to improve every facet of his game. He runs the point on the power play and at 6-foot-6 uses his long reach to protect the net.

Video: Victor Hedman takes the No. 15 spot

Biggest battle

If Sergachev makes the roster, that leaves one open spot at defenseman for Andrej Sustr, Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin. Barring a trade, the Lightning will carry eight defensemen, so two will be scratched most nights. Dotchin is serving a Lightning-issued suspension and has been held out of the preseason. Koekkoek is trying to bounce back from a disappointing season that included a demotion to Syracuse of the American Hockey League.

Most intriguing addition

All eyes will be on Sergachev and how quick his learning curve will be. He will be expected to play 16-18 minutes a game and navigate the grind of an NHL season.

"He's a guy that has openly said he wants to make this team and that's what you want hear from the young guys," Stamkos said. "You want them to have the attitude of wanting to be here. He's shown it."

Biggest potential surprise

Alexander Volkov, a second-round pick (No. 48) in the 2017 NHL Draft, has shown accelerated skills, and it's clear the Lightning believe he has the upside to develop into a top-six forward. It's likely Volkov, 20, starts the season on the top line in Syracuse, but don't be surprised if he has success in the AHL and is added to the Lightning roster at some point.

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Vladislav Namestnikov -- Steven Stamkos -- Nikita Kucherov

Ondrej Palat -- Tyler Johnson -- Brayden Point

Alex Killorn -- Yanni Gourde -- Ryan Callahan

Chris Kunitz -- Gabriel Dumont -- Cedric Paquette

Victor Hedman -- Braydon Coburn

Mikhail Sergachev -- Anton Stralman

Slater Koekkoek -- Dan Girardi

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Peter Budaj

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