By Mike Oliviero
The puck drops on the 2023-24 Tampa Bay Lightning Season today at 5:32pm. You can hear today’s game and every Lightning game all season on 102.5 The Bone. The Lightning come into this season, as any of the 32 teams in the NHL with question marks. For the Lightning this year more than ever, they want to prove that getting dropped in the first round by Toronto was a fluke and attributed to playing an ungodly amount of games in a shortened period through the chase of participating in three straight Stanley Cup Finals, copping two of them – not since the Islanders teams of the 80′s has any team appeared in that many consecutive finals, and those teams did not have to deal with today’s Salary Cap, which has been the Lightning’s biggest opponent as only eight players remain on the Bolts roster from the team that skated with The Cup in Edmonton during that Covid Season.
So for Jon Cooper’s squad – who have appeared in the Eastern Conference Finals a five times (2020 season not included) since 2015 – yes you can call this a dynasty – getting to The Cup is a realistic goal and expectation. Here is where the questions start. We’ll save the biggest for last.
How do the Lightning get past that Round 1 Loss? Toronto is a real nemesis in this setting and still has fire power. But even though they advanced past the first round for the first time in two decades they still did not make it to The Cup. The Lightning’s division got tougher. Buffalo, Detroit, and Ottawa – perennial doormats got better, and the floor of the division has raised up. Toronto is still a strong opponent and should have offensive firepower, but their defense and goaltending are suspect. The Panthers ran hot in the playoffs and their magic wore off in the Cup Final against Vegas. We’ll see how they take that into this season. Boston lost some key pieces (Bergeron, Krejci) and wasted a stellar regular season by losing to the Panthers (Lightning fans can relate) in the Conference Final. The pack is going to be tighter than ever in the Atlantic.
How does the loss of a great locker room guy and fan favorite like Alex Killorn hurt the team chemistry? You hear the saying that for the Lightning the culture “In the room” transfers to success on the ice. Killorn was a GREAT locker room guy, is a top 5 Lightning player in games played (805). He will be missed both on and off the ice. He left for a solid deal on a young Anaheim team that will benefit from his leadership. Since hoisting the first cup the team has lost fan and team favorites Andrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Ryan McDonagh, Pat Maroon, Yanni Gourde (expansion to Seattle), and Blake Coleman, to name a few. Lightning GM Julien BriseBois has had to keep a core (Stamkos, Hedman, Kucherov, Vasy) while getting long term deals at team friendly wages (Sergachev, Cernak, Hagel, and Point). These contracts eat into the Cap which has barely moved over the past four years due to economics from that Covid Season. The leadership under Stammer and Hedman are strong and with the players mentioned but the next question is…
How does Stammer’s contract situation play out? Stammer, truly the face of the franchise expressed frustration at not having his contract extended in the offseason and is in the last year of his deal which by current NHL Standards is underpaid. Projecting that he has a healthy Stammerlke season, he should have the Most Lightning Mosts all time (He’s top or top 2 in just about every statistical category). How does that translate? As fans, they perish the thought of Stamkos skating in another sweater. He has all the skills and tools you want in a team leader, a player in today’s NHL, and a voice in the locker room. Maybe only Ovechkin has a better shot from “the office”, and how he rallied this team and this area by coming back from a severe injury, skating down that hash, and blustering a shot in the Final against Dallas is probably the top 5 moments in Tampa Bay sports history. He is on the Mount Rushmore of Tampa Bay Sports Icons. But with the cap only going up $4 million (possibly) how does this play out? Is it on a team friendly deal? Is it long term? It’s the second biggest question for the Lightning this year which leads to…
Can this team win without Vasy for these first two (?) months? Every Lightning fan’s heart sank when the news came out that the greatest goaltender in the world Andrei Vasilevskiy had surgery to repair a lumbar disc herniation in his back. Anxiety reigned supreme as Vasy has been that constant in net, playing at an elite level, even though he did not seem Vasy like in net the latter part of last season. Word is that the surgery was a success and he is rehabbing and moving around great but that leaves the team without the All World goalie through at least mid December. Let’s say that the return is in end of December (we hope and have our skates crossed) that’s in the neighborhood of 30- 35 games. The team is rested and healthy and is poised for bounce back seasons from Nick Paul and Tanner Jeannot, to go along with the scoring and leadership of Stammer, Kuch, Point, Cirelli, Hedman, and Sergachev. Jonas Johanssen who had a great preseason should see the bulk of the games from the crease. The challenge for the 5 guys in front of him would be to play at the highest level and succeed in an improved division, conference, and league. If they can get to 20 wins before Vasy returns that would be huge. We’ll see how this plays out.
The answers to all these questions and more will be answered today starting at 5:32pm, and in the ensuing games. As always you can catch Lightning hockey on 102.5 The Bone all season Long,
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