It still feels like the season just ended, but with the draft and free agency already behind us, it's time to look forward to the 2016-17 season. We will preview every team in the NHL throughout August and take a look at what the new season may hold.
Team: Tampa Bay Lightning
How they did last season: 46-31-5 (97 points); 2nd place in the Atlantic Division and 6th in the Eastern Conference. A year after losing in the Cup final, the Bolts fell one game short of returning to the championship round for a second straight season.
Notable acquisitions: C Cory Conacher and assistant coach Todd Richards.
Notable departures: D Matt Carle; C Jonathan Marchessault; and assistant coach Steve Thomas.
When they will play the Caps: Dec. 3 in Tampa; Dec. 23 in Washington; and March 18 in Tampa.
Analysis: While the instate rival Florida Panthers opted to make several significant changes this summer, GM Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning took the opposite approach. Yzerman’s focus this offseason has been retaining his own talent.
Yzerman’s biggest move, of course, was signing re-signing Steven Stamkos a couple of days before the team captain was due to hit the open market. Stamkos’ eight-year, $68 million deal carries an $8.5 million average, a team-friendly cap hit. (Remember, there’s no state income tax in Florida, a fact that likely helped Stamkos decide to accept less in salary than fellow superstars Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar and Alex Ovechkin, to name a few.)
In the days after inking Stamkos, Yzerman also locked up Victor Hedman (eight years, $63 million) as well as Andrei Vasilevskiy (three years, 10.5 million) and Alex Killorn (seven years, $31 million). The Stamkos deal will help in future seasons, too, as other key players' contracts come up for renewal.
With Stamkos and others staying put, the Lightning will ice a very familiar lineup 2016-17. And why would they not? It’s pretty much the same core that’s mounted a serious challenge for the Cup the past two seasons.
There is, however, one question hanging over the Lightning with camp about a month away: when will Nikita Kucherov, a restricted free agent who potted 30 goals in the regular season and 11 in the playoffs, re-sign? He’s due a hefty raise from the $700,000 he earned last year; the Bolts have about $6.5 million in cap room, according to www.generalfanager.com, but all of that can’t go to the dynamic 23-year-old goal scorer. (A good comparable for Kucherov is Nashville’s Philip Forsberg, who signed a six year, $36 million extension.)
In the end, Yzerman will find a way to retain Kucherov and defenseman Nikita Nesterov, another RFA who, like Kucherov, will suit up for Russia in next month’s World Cup. Shoehorning them under the cap, though, won’t be easy and it could involve trading an existing cog to make room. So stay tuned.
Season prediction: This team’s window of opportunity has been wide open for two years and it will remain so in 2016-17.
They’ve got dangerous goal scorers in Stamkos and Kucherov. They’ve got an elite blue liner in Hedman. They’ve got emerging talent in Jonathan Drouin, Vladislav Namestnikov and Vasilevskiy, among other talented youngsters. And between Vasilevskiy and Ben Bishop they’re plenty good enough in goal, too.
Qualifying for the playoffs shouldn’t be an issue given the talent on the Bolts’ roster. Instead, the next eight months or so will be about staying healthy, fine tuning the details (like fixing a power play that finished a disappointing 28th last season) and not peaking too early.
The hardest part for Stamkos and Co. will be almost exactly what the Alex Ovechkin and the Caps will be sure to expereince this fall and winter: attempting to stay dialed in while waiting for spring to roll around.
2016-2017 NHL TEAM PREVIEWS
— Carolina Hurricanes (coming Aug. 23)
— Columbus Blue Jackets (coming Aug. 24)
— New Jersey Devils (coming Aug. 25)
— New York Islanders (coming Aug. 26)
— New York Rangers (coming Aug. 27)
— Philadelphia Flyers (coming Aug. 28)
— Pittsburgh Penguins (coming Aug. 29)
— Washington Capitals (coming soon)