Lightning In For A No-Frills, High-Pressure Season

Bolts come into 2018-19 with a target on their backs and high expectations

At a certain point, a contender’s season becomes very binary. With a team already showing they can play at the highest possible level, there is only one question coming into the season: Is this the year they win the Cup?

That’s where the Tampa Bay Lightning open the 2018-19 season. Their ceiling is clearly a Stanley Cup and a parade through Tampa next June. Their floor is, well, pretty much anything short of that. Much of this same group already made one Cup final in 2015, and has gone seven games in the Eastern Conference Final two times since, including last year.

With all the usual suspects back for 2018-19, and midseason acquisitions Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller back for a full season, Tampa Bay will once again be among the top contenders for the Stanley Cup.

Much of this was true last season, but a couple of factors allowed people to see the bigger picture. Steven Stamkos was just returning from a major injury, and it wasn’t until he proved he was healthy again that the expectations came in. Andrei Vasilevskiy was still a young and relatively unproven goalie, and people needed to see him live up to his potential first. On top of that, the 25th anniversary festivities throughout the season gave last season a sense of nostalgia. Much of it was about franchise identity.

Those questions, and that celebration, have all passed. Now the Tampa Bay Lightning are set to begin an NHL season where it might not be enough to just be one of the best teams in hockey. Success results in a banner that will hang forever. Failure is so unthinkable that it’s not even clear what would happen if the Lightning took a step backward.

The fan’s question coming into the season is not “how good do you think the Bolts will be,” it’s “how many things will they win” this time around instead. Can a Lightning player win the Hart Trophy for the league’s MVP? Can Vasilevskiy get the Vezina he nearly received last season? Will the Lightning win the Cup? These are the questions now, and it adds up to a season with little room for error.

Penalty kill will decide a lot

When the Lightning found themselves down a man in 2017-18, they were extremely vulnerable. That was the weakness the Boston Bruins exploited throughout the regular season and in the first game of the Eastern Conference Semifinal. It was the same weakness that allowed the Washington Capitals to finally overcome the Lightning in a memorable seven game series.

Penalty killing is the most obvious area for improvement when it comes to the Lightning this season. Last time around, they were 28th in the league in PK%, and they surrendered the second-most power play goals in the NHL. This was especially problematic, as the Lightning finished fourth in the NHL in penalty minutes per game.

Improvement in that area is going to be a must if Tampa Bay is to take the next step. The Lightning either need to commit fewer penalties or perform better while down a man.

Much of the PK responsibilities will fall to defensemen. Victor Hedman is one of the best in the league, having won the Norris Trophy for the league’s best blueliner last season. Anton Stralman, entering the final year of his contract, has been a stalwart for Tampa Bay in his time with the Bolts. Moving forward, much will be asked of young defensemen Slater Koekkoek and Mikhail Sergachev. Their improvement over time would go a long way to shoring up Tampa Bay’s penalty kill units.

Since when did windows just automatically close over time?

When somebody opens a window, it doesn’t just slowly close over the course of several hours. Hockey fans are sure to hear talk of the Lightning’s “window of opportunity” closing, but neither windows nor the Lightning work that way.

While the expectation is a deep Cup run, this is not some last chance for the Tampa Bay Lightning and should by no means be billed as such. By extending Nikita Kucherov and making a succession plan at general manager known to the hockey world, Tampa Bay demonstrated that they have no interest in going for broke because they simply don’t need to.

The vast majority of this team will be back next season. Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman should be with the Lightning long enough to greet the Rays when they move down the road, as will Ryan McDonagh. Stamkos is signed through 2024, still far enough in the future that it seems like it should bring to mind images of flying cars.

Andrei Vasilevskiy is signed through 2020 and is likely to be among the team’s next priorities. There are some very good players coming up for free agency soon, including Brayden Point, but it seems as though the salary cap-induced doomsday many had predicted might never actually come.

Yes, the Lightning will have the highest expectations possible this season, but do not mistake them for a desperate hockey team.

Navigating the Atlantic

The Lightning might have improved in the offseason. The Toronto Maple Leafs definitely did. The Montreal Canadiens are unlikely to experience quite so much Murphy’s Law as they did in 2017-18. The Boston Bruins, aging stars aside, are not going anywhere and will add some developing talent throughout the season.

In short, the Atlantic is going to be a tough division to win again in 2018-19. The Lightning will be put to the test throughout the regular season, needing to keep up with Boston and Toronto just to get the ideal playoff positioning.

The Leafs, now with John Tavares, are going to make the pressure the Lightning are sure to be under look downright pleasant in comparison. Now with a new star added to the roster, hockey’s supposed hometown and the largest city in Canada will be begging for this to be the year the Leafs finally make a deep playoff run or more. Toronto, after all, is in the midst of hockey’s longest title drought, and indeed one of the longest in American sports. The New York Jets and Knicks have won championships more recently than the Maple Leafs. The Tampa Bay Rowdies won the old NASL considerably more recently than the Leafs lifted Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The Cleveland Browns have a more recent title to their franchise’s credit than the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Bruins, meanwhile, proved last season that they can give the Lightning fits. Tampa Bay eventually figured them out, but Boston will be a force to be reckoned with again this season. For the Bruins, improvement is going to depend on some young players emerging as the next generation to aid and eventually replace Boston’s aging stars such as Zdeno Chara. The play of Ryan Donato, a college hockey and Olympic star last season, will go a long way in determining whether the Bruins are going to be deep enough to take on their Atlantic Division foes again.

Other thoughts around the NHL

-For the insomniac who loves hockey, there are a couple of Western Conference teams that might not make it deep into the spring, but will provide a lot of entertainment along the way. The Anaheim Ducks are so loaded with scoring talent that they have some NHL caliber guys on their AHL club just waiting for an opportunity. The Vancouver Canucks will bring young sensation Brock Boeser back, and they have a couple more young players just waiting to get in on the action.

-The Vegas Golden Knights were not some charmed and lucky team that fell backward into a Stanley Cup Final. They are going to be a power again. It’s a well-built roster that is only going to get better as they supplement it.

-It is going to be a brutal season to be a fan of a New York hockey team. The Islanders are without Tavares, which is just hard to picture. The Rangers are transitioning to a new era under a new coach. The Buffalo Sabres just seem snakebitten.

-Everyone sharing their thoughts on Gritty is missing an important point: That thing has legs. It could come and find you.

Point set to make The Leap

In 2017-18, Nikita Kucherov made the leap from a good, young scorer into one of the NHL’s premier offensive forces. Kucherov led the Bolts in scoring last season, spending most of the campaign among the league leaders in goals. Kucherov’s leap forward was one of the biggest factors in what the Lightning were able to become last season. With Steven Stamkos alongside, Kucherov made that first Tampa Bay line as scary as any unit in hockey.

If the Lightning have a candidate to make a similar jump this season, that would be Brayden Point. Point is what a modern NHL coach might design in a dream. He’s in his early twenties, one of the fastest skaters in the NHL, and when he’s on some of the best defensive teams in hockey are left grasping at straws in search of an answer for him.

It was Point who really turned the tide in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Boston last season. The Bruins played game one tough, proving that they could push the Lightning around in a more physical contest. Point went on to demonstrate that you can’t do that if you can’t catch the guy with the puck. The 21 year old was on his game in that series, and he made the Bruins look slow with his play in that series.

Consider that a sign of things to come from the second liner. Stamkos and Kucherov got a boost last season from Kucherov making the leap, and a similar jump from Point would open even more opportunities for them as teams start to plan more for Point, as well as Yanni Gourde and other strong members of other lines.

The emergence of Anthony Cirelli late in the season as another quick skater and scoring threat will also open things up for a Lightning team that, more than ever, will be looking to get out and skate. Good skaters can spread teams thin, opening opportunities for Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, and Gourde as well as for themselves.

There is a sense with the Lightning that these expectations aren’t pressure, they’re ideal conditions. This is a team that likely would not want it any other way, from the top of the organization on down. People have become used to casting Tampa Bay teams as underdogs, as upstart groups breaking franchise expectations, but the Lightning are far from that image.

The Lightning do not wish to be “good for the south” nor are they making Tampa Bay a good hockey market “for the south.” They are trying, in no uncertain terms, to be the NHL’s standard bearer. They want to be the team everyone else has to deal with, in an arena nobody wants to come into needing a win, in a market that starts with them, and to a man they will tell you that these were always their expectations.

Nobody grows up hoping to be the upstart out of nowhere. They want to be The Man, the player everyone knows they have to compete against. This does not look or act like a team that wants other markets to say “good for them” when the Lightning get past them in a playoff series.

The team doesn’t play dirty by any stretch, but they absolutely aim to frustrate a team over the course of a series. It’s a team that doesn’t actively invite much booing, but soaks it up when they hear it on the road. They will smirk and score their way past teams, wanting to be both the envy and the frustration point for everybody else.

If the Lightning truly are a championship-or-bust team, rest assured that they wanted nothing less. On Saturday night, they begin their quest to prove that they are in fact the model team in this league.

Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.