TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning were close to winning the Stanley Cup for the second time in their history last season, but a combination of injuries, exhaustion and the dynasty of the Chicago Blackhawks kept them from their ultimate goal.
With strong goaltending, a skilled young core and effective leadership in the front office, there are plenty of reasons to be excited for 2015-16, especially if captain Steven Stamkos signs a contract extension before the season gets underway Oct. 8 against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Here are four reasons for the Lightning to be optimistic:
Playoff experience: The Lightning answered a lot of questions in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Goalie Ben Bishop proved he could handle the pressure of a must-win game, earning a shutout in Game 7 victories against the Detroit Red Wings in the Eastern Conference First Round and the New York Rangers in the conference final. "The Triplets" line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat proved that its outstanding performance in the regular season wasn't a mirage.
The Lightning showed the grit and mental toughness to survive and thrive in the postseason.
"To go 26 games and to play at that level with that intensity night after night is a really hard thing," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. "There's so much good that comes out of this. The experience will make them better hockey players and it's so valuable. Our expectation is to get back in this situation again, and get it done."
Victor Hedman: The 24-year-old defenseman cashed in on his potential last season, and now the expectations for the smooth-skating, 6-foot-6 Swede have been raised. Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith took home the Conn Smythe Trophy, but Hedman unquestionably made the leap into the discussion of elite NHL defensemen. When paired with the steady Anton Stralman, Hedman's skills on each end of the ice are allowed to shine. His ability to join in on the rush and his role as power-play quarterback further highlight his value. The next step should include multiple All-Star Game appearances and annual candidacy for the Norris Trophy.
The Triplets: The chemistry that Johnson, Kucherov and Palat have on the ice was on full display in the playoffs. They make exciting plays and are always trying to create scoring opportunities. At times, it seems as though each one knows what the other is thinking. As Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle said during the conference final, "Standing still against those guys will get you in trouble." Johnson scored 29 goals last season, and Kucherov had 28. Palat's 47 assists led Tampa Bay, and "The Triplets" had the three best ratings on the Lightning (Kucherov, plus-38; Johnson, plus-33; Palat, plus-31).
The front office: Yzerman and owner Jeff Vinik are fully committed to winning the Stanley Cup. Yzerman, the NHL's reigning General Manager of the Year, hasn't been afraid to make tough decisions, such as trading former captain Martin St. Louis to the Rangers for Ryan Callahan in 2014. And with the question of Stamkos' contract extension lingering, it's likely more tough decisions will need to be made in the upcoming months.
Yzerman has built a roster and developmental system that is in position to win now and remain highly competitive in the future with a fresh crop of young talent in the pipeline. That young group is led by Jonathan Drouin, the Lightning's first-round pick (No. 3) at the 2013 NHL Draft. Drouin had four goals and 28 assists in 70 games last season.
"For Jonathan, being in the NHL, being around the pros, he still played a fair number of games and he got a little bit of ice time in the playoffs, it's all good experience for him," Yzerman said. "He'll be better next year because his attitude is I'm going to make it no matter what and I'm going to be a good player no matter what. He's got the right attitude."