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Season preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

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Season preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

To get you ready for the 2015-16 season, we will be previewing all 30 NHL in 30 days, division by division. Check the bottom of the page for a schedule of each preview.

Today’s team: Tampa Bay Lightning

2014-15 record: 50-24-8, 2nd in the Atlantic

How they finished: Lost in six games to Chicago in the Stanley Cup Finals

Coach: Jon Cooper (4th season)

Notable additions: RW Erik Condra

Notable subtractions: D Mark Barberio, LW Brenden Morrow

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Schedule against the Capitals: Fri. Nov. 27 at Washington, Sat. Dec. 12 at Tampa Bay, Fri. Dec. 18 at Washington

Outlook: The playoffs served as a coming out party for the young Lightning as they came within two wins of winning the Stanley Cup. Everyone knows about Steven Stamkos, but now you know about the triplets--Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat--and Ben Bishop looked fantastic in the playoffs with a .921 save percentage and 2.18 GAA. Tampa Bay quickly erased the memory of their sweep at the hands of Montreal in the first round just the year before.

But for a team as young and as talented as the Lightning are, the window may already be closing for this squad. The reason is money.

Johnson and Palat are under contract for only two more years as is young defenseman Victor Hedman and both goalies Bishop and Andrei Vasilevski. Kucherov and Stamkos are entering the final year of their contracts.

Tampa will not be able to re-sign all of them.

So while last season the ascension of a very young, exceptionally talented Tampa Bay, this team as it is currently constructed may be gone by next year and it may start with Stamkos.

The main goal for general manager Steve Yzerman this offseason was re-sign Stamkos and now we find ourselves in late August and Stamkos remains without a new contract.

You had one job....

Perhaps the team sees Stamkos as expendable or less important compared to the rest of the core--not signing him frees up a lot of money for the triplets--or perhaps his asking price is far too high and would mean dismantling the team. Or maybe there's no issue at all and both sides are close to getting a deal done. The point is that these are the questions that the team will be hearing from now until the situation is resolved.

Still, looking at the roster, you have to like what you see and the fact that the biggest issue for Tampa is off the ice is a good indication of how strong this team is on it.

Expectations: It's not a surprise that the Lightning did very little in the offseason because there was very little they needed to do. Just by returning with their roster largely intact, Tampa is already one of the frontrunners to win the East. They also are not blind to their pending cap issues and know they may only be able to keep this team together for one or two years. Expect the Lightning to be aggressive on the trade market to address any issue that they may have over the course of the season in a push to go all the way this year.

As the defending conference champs, Tampa is the team to beat in the East. It's hard to see how they won't be one of the top Cup contenders this season.

MORE CAPS: Ovechkin vows NHL players will be in 2018 Olympics

See more team previews:

Pacific Division 
Anaheim Ducks 
Arizona Coyotes 
Calgary Flames 
Edmonton Oilers 
Los Angeles Kings
San Jose Sharks 
Vancouver Canucks

Central Division 
Chicago Blackhawks
Colorado Avalanche
Dallas Stars
Minnesota Wild
Nashville Predators
St. Louis Blues
Winnipeg Jets

Atlantic Division 
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Detroit Red Wings
Florida Panthers
Montreal Canadiens
Ottawa Senators
Toronto Maple Leafs 8/22

Metropolitan Division 
Carolina Hurricanes 8/23 
Columbus Blue Jackets 8/24 
New Jersey Devils 8/25 
New York Islanders 8/26 
New York Rangers 8/27 
Philadelphia Flyers 8/28 
Pittsburgh Penguins 8/29 
Washington Capitals 8/30

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Capitals are sticking with Chandler Stephenson on the top line… for now

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USA TODAY Sports

Capitals are sticking with Chandler Stephenson on the top line… for now

With Tom Wilson still serving a 20-game suspension, Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden has the difficult task of finding a wing to complement his top line of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. For the first four games of the season, that player was Brett Connolly.

On Saturday, however, he changed things up and went with Chandler Stephenson instead.

Just 18 seconds into the game, Stephenson made his head coach look very smart as he finished off a 2-on-1 with Kuznetsov to score his first goal of the season.

“Obviously, the start was great,” Reirden said after the game.

Stephenson is an incredibly fast skater and the extra speed seemed to add another dimension to that line that opponents had to contend with, and it led to both of the Caps’ goals on the night.

In addition to Stephenson’s goal, Ovechkin drew a tripping penalty in the second period, and Washington scored on the resulting power play.

“Those guys are a lot of fun to play with,” Stephenson said. “They just know where to be and can find each other. I've just got to get the puck to them and just go to the net with your stick on the ice, and they'll find you.”

The top line’s success was a matter of finding instant chemistry as Stephenson had very little time to adjust. The Caps were off on Friday following back-to-back games, and Reirden did not make the switch of putting Stephenson on the top until Saturday’s morning skate.

Putting a new top line together with little time to practice does not seem like an ideal scenario, but according to Kuznetsov, the level of familiarity between all the players made the adjustment quick and easy.

“It doesn't matter with who you play,” he said. “In this locker room, we can communicate with anybody. We don't have a first line, we don't have a fourth line. We try and roll all lines.”

Reirden seemed pleased with the new trio after the game saying, “They did a number of good things during the game as well, so they I thought accomplished a lot. I thought [Stephenson] brought the speed on the forecheck and was able to at least go after their defense a little bit and force some turnovers that Kuznetsov and [Ovechkin] were able to at least get some opportunities from. So I think that's important to have him in that situation.”

Reirden was happy enough with the top line’s performance to keep them together. The team is off Monday, but Stephenson remained on the top line during Sunday’s practice.

But so long as Wilson remains out, finding the right match for the top line will remain a work in progress.

Said Reirden, “We’ll continue to try to put together our four lines that give us the best chance.”

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NHL Power Rankings: Not every night is a big-time game for the Capitals

NHL Power Rankings: Not every night is a big-time game for the Capitals

There was a lot of excitement to start the season for the Caps. First, there was the home-opener and the banner raising against the Boston Bruins. Then there was a trip to Pittsburgh to take on the rival Penguins. After that, it was a Stanley Cup Final rematch against the Vegas Golden Knights.

And all of that was followed up with a trip to Newark.

CHECK OUT THIS WEEK’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

With all due respect to New Jersey, given the slate the Caps faced to start the season, it was no real surprise to see the team struggle to get up for Thursday’s game against the Devils, a game in which the Caps were blown out 6-0. Of all the games Washington faced to start the season, the trip to New Jersey was definitely the least exciting.

But not every game is going to be a big rivalry matchup or a playoff rematch. With every team gunning for the Caps, they better make sure they can get themselves ready for the grind of an 82-game season that won’t always feature a big-time matchup.

A trip to Newark may not be flashy or exciting, but it still counts as two points.

The Caps dropped the game in New Jersey and lost a tight contest against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Where do they stand now after two straight losses?

FIND OUT HERE IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS

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