Excitement surrounds the Tampa Bay Lightning, as a solid group of young players looks to improve following the team's brief playoff appearance last year. The list of young Bolts who could take the next step in their development includes a handful of players who might see significant improvement in 2014-15.
Last season, the Lightning had two players named finalists for the Calder Trophy. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat accelerated their growth in a big way last season and etched their names in Lightning lore.
Johnson and Palat netted 50 and 59 points respectively during the 2013-14 campaign. Johnson's 24 goals is a Lightning-rookie record. Palat posted a Lightning-record eight-game point streak in late December and early January.
Their solid efforts came after Johnson appeared in 14 games for the Lightning in 2012-13, recording six points. Palat had five points in his 14 games at the NHL level that year.
Both up-and-coming stars took a big step last season. They will be looking to pass the solid improvements on to other members of the roster this season. There are a few players who could be among the most improved for the Lightning next year.
Starting on the blue line, Radko Gudas steps to the forefront for the 2014-15 season.
Gudas made a nice jump in production last season, putting up 22 points in 73 games after a five-point season the year before. The production was welcomed, but Gudas had some holes in his game.
The young Czech defenseman found himself in some precarious situations during the 2013-14 season. Fans commonly saw him committing untimely penalties and being out of position.
Gudas' third season in the NHL could pay dividends for the Lightning. His physical effort will be relied upon consistently to protect the offensive power and speed.
Expect Gudas to make a significant improvement next season, even if it doesn't show up on the scoreboard. The Lightning should have enough offense elsewhere.
Lost in the shuffle a bit last season, Alex Killorn could be ready for his breakout season.
As a consistent top-six forward, it's tough to be overshadowed, but the performances of Johnson and Palat managed to do that.
Quietly, Killorn improved in nearly every facet of the game. He improved his two-way game and consistency in 2013-14. From his rookie campaign in 2012-13, he improved his plus/minus by 14 points, added 10 more goals and 12 more assists and upped his physical play.
At 24, he is a more mature player than some of the other young guns for the Bolts. His 6'2", 205-pound frame makes him a big body to reckon with. Having the opportunity to watch forwards like Ryan Callahan and Valtteri Filppula should help him become more physical and assertive.
Killorn has all the tools. It's time to put it all together and take the next step.
Nikita Kucherov is a wild card for the Lightning. In his first NHL season, Kucherov scored just 18 points in 52 games. He fired 102 shots on goal during that span and converted at an 8.8 percent clip.
The young winger may be the Lightning's best one-on-one offensive player (Filppula is in that conversation). He skates well and has shown he has quite a few moves in the offensive zone. The scouting report from The Hockey News says that he "oozes offensive acumen."
If Kucherov can find more consistency next season, the Bolts might have another high-scoring threat. With Johnson, Palat, Stamkos and Filppula already leading the charge, Kucherov could be that wild card who sets this team up at the top of the Eastern Conference pecking order.