Are the New-Look Tampa Bay Lightning Legitimate Stanley Cup Contenders?

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Are the New-Look Tampa Bay Lightning Legitimate Stanley Cup Contenders?
Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

This spring, the Tampa Bay Lightning entered the playoffs with 101 points and home-ice advantage, but an untimely injury to starting goalie Ben Bishop proved the team’s undoing. With no legitimate second option, the Lightning got .884 save percentage goaltending and were dispatched in four straight first-round games by the Montreal Canadiens.  

It would have been easy for the team’s management group to look at its exceptional core of young players (13 of the skaters to dress in the postseason were age 25 or younger) and the injury to Bishop and shrug off that defeat as one of those things that happens sometimes.

Dave Sandford/Getty Images

Instead, general manager Steve Yzerman was exceptionally busy via both the trade market and free agency. The net result is a completely revamped defence that will lean heavily on a pair of significant veteran additions, some change up front and a new backup goalie.

Is the sweeping change enough to turn the Lightning into a Stanley Cup contender?

One of the team’s biggest improvements has very little to do with Yzerman’s offseason moves. Tampa Bay’s young players are going to improve as they get older. The team should also benefit from the inevitable elevation of 2013 third overall pick Jonathan Drouin to the major league level.

Most aging curves show NHL players hitting their peak scoring performance at age 24 or 25. That’s exceptional news for the Lightning.

Key forwards like Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Alex Killorn are still on the upswing, to say nothing of supporting players like Nikita Kucherov, Richard Panik and J.T. Brown. On defence, No. 1 rearguard Victor Hedman should continue to develop, as should Radko Gudas, Andrej Sustr and Mark Barberio. That’s a significant portion of the heart of the team that likely has yet to reach its peak production levels.

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Drouin, too, will be a significant addition. He scored 108 points in just 46 QMJHL games last year; using the average translation factor laid out by Rob Vollman in his book Hockey Abstract, that projects to a 50-point season as a rookie. Drouin actually scored at an even higher clip in the postseason, so 50 points might end up being a low-end projection for a phenomenally talented player.

Less heralded than Drouin but still likely capable of helping is 2010 sixth overall selection Brett Connolly, who has spent the last two seasons mostly in the AHL. Vollman’s AHL translation factor for a player Connolly’s age is 0.53; using his totals from last season, that means 38 points over an 82-game NHL season would be a reasonable estimate of his capabilities. That’s if he can finally make the jump, of course.

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Yzerman’s big additions on defence should help, too. The four young defencemen mentioned earlier, as well as veterans Matt Carle and Eric Brewer, will be joined by Jason Garrison and Anton Stralman. That’s good in general terms but also specifically addresses one of Tampa Bay’s biggest weaknesses last season: its No. 2 defence pairing.

Tyler Dellow of mc79hockey.com has argued convincingly that the second pairing was the Lightning’s biggest problem in 2013-14, and he sees it as an area ripe for big improvement:

Tampa’s going to be a pretty fascinating test case for this stuff next year. If Stralman was responsible for a lot of what we saw in New York – frankly, I’ve got a hard time believing he wasn’t, Tampa’s puck possession should take a huge leap forward. If Stralman can help the Lightning turn Carle’s minutes from minutes in which Tampa gets 49.7% of the shots to minutes where they get, say, 55% of the shots (a lower share than Stralman’s seen his team get the last two years), the team gets 12 goal difference better. Four or five points in the standings. That’s a pretty good return.

Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

Garrison is going to help, too. He had a bit of an off-year last season (along with the rest of the Canucks) but has a pretty strong advanced stats track record over the three seasons prior. On a more basic level, he was able to play 20-plus minutes per night in the tougher Western Conference; he should be able to handle at least the same workload competently in the weaker East.

In net, Bishop is still relatively unproven as an NHL goalie (he was brilliant last season, but it’s the only time in his career that he’s played more than 25 major league games). However, he does have a strong minor league career behind him, and expecting him to come somewhere close to his NHL career save percentage of .920 seems reasonable.

Evgeni Nabokov is probably better than the .905 save percentage he posted in 2013-14 (which is automatically a big upgrade from Anders Lindback’s laughable .898), but he also turns 39 a little later this week, so a steep drop-off wouldn’t be a major shock.

As long as Bishop is healthy and somewhere near his career numbers, the Lightning look like a very good team that's poised to step forward from its 101-point 2013-14 season. With natural progression from its youth and a revamped defence corps, Tampa Bay should be a real threat to win the East in 2014-15.  

 

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.

Statistics courtesy of Extra SkaterHockey-Reference.com and NHL.com.

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