The first full season for Jon Cooper as an NHL coach was a huge success.
Despite losing one superstar, Steven Stamkos, for an extended period because of a broken leg, and another, Martin St. Louis, for good after a trade request, the Lightning returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in seven seasons.
An injury to breakout star goaltender Ben Bishop cut Tampa Bay's postseason time short, but general manager Steve Yzerman made a couple of moves to strengthen the defense and the organization's bundle of young talent is beginning to blossom. If Bishop can prove last season was no fluke, Tampa Bay could be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Here is the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Lightning:
Stamkos might not have St. Louis around anymore, but the arrival of top prospect Jonathan Drouin could make up for it. Drouin could have started his NHL career last season, but after some time to get refocused at the junior level, he torched the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and is one of the early Calder Trophy favorites.
Drouin could fit next to Stamkos right away. Stamkos played some with the team's Calder Trophy candidates from last season, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson. Each seems likely to find a role in the top six again.
Ryan Callahan signed a hefty contract and likely will play on the one of the top two lines as well. That probably means pushing several young, intriguing players down the lineup. Any one of Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov, Brett Connolly or Richard Panik, even Vladislav Namestnikov or Adam Erne, could be in a sizable competition for NHL roster spots during training camp.
Brian Boyle was added to anchor the third line, and with Nate Thompson gone it is possible Connolly could play in the middle of the fourth line. Brenden Morrow also is aboard to provide veteran intangibles, but he also needs to prove he still can contribute at a high level because there will be plenty of young players in camp eager to move past him on the depth chart.
Victor Hedman made the jump to "in the Norris Trophy discussion" last season. Anton Stralman had a great postseason with the New York Rangers and is an analytics darling. That seems like a good place to start.
This group, with Stralman and Jason Garrison arriving, is significantly deeper than it was last season. Radko Gudas might be the best young battering ram at the position in the League. Andrej Sustr is huge and played some with Hedman last season, but might not have a regular spot in the lineup.
One of the most impressive developments of 2013-14 was the Lightning actually got better at possessing the puck after Stamkos was hurt. Typically when a team loses its best offensive player an NHL coach will restrict the rest of the players with a more conservative system to tighten up defensively and try to win low-scoring games. Cooper trusted his players and they rewarded him.
If this group of defensemen can help the Lightning protect the puck more and get it to those young, speedy forwards, Tampa Bay could be among the League leaders in goals.
Two different teams, the St. Louis Blues and Ottawa Senators, deemed Bishop expendable before he landed with Tampa Bay. The Lightning gave him a chance to play regularly early and he never looked back, crafting a Vezina-finalist season.
Bishop was great last season, but more impressive might be the team's depth at the position. Evgeni Nabokov was added on a one-year deal to back him up, and also to give a pair of prospects a chance to further develop without spending most nights opening the door at the bench.
Andrei Vasilevskiy might be the best prospect in the world in net. All Kristers Gudlevskis did at the 2014 Sochi Olympics was stop 55 of 57 shots against Canada in a 2-1 loss. Bishop now has the contract of a No. 1 starter, but he's going to have to perform to keep the job in the coming seasons.
Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter: @cmasisak22
2014-15 FANTASY PREVIEW: LIGHTNING
Undervalued: Victor Hedman -- Erik Karlsson led NHL defensemen with 74 points last season. Duncan Keith (61) and Shea Weber (56) followed. After those three household names was Hedman with 55 points. Hedman, 23, has seen his point-per-game numbers rise from 0.38 in 2011-12, to 0.45 in 2012-13, to 0.73 last season. A big reason for such success was his increased role on the power play. Hedman averaged a career-high 2:29 of ice time per game on the man-advantage and turned that into a career-best 14 power-play points. He was one of six defensemen to have at least 50 points and 50 penalty minutes last season. Though the addition of Jason Garrison could diminish Hedman's power-play role slightly, there's no mistaking he is a top-15 fantasy defenseman with room to grow.
Overvalued: Ondrej Palat -- When Steven Stamkos was sidelined by injury, Palat and fellow rookie forward Tyler Johnson stepped up their games. Each played on the top line alongside former Lightning captain Martin St. Louis and thrived. However, Palat is the more likely to regress of the two Calder Trophy finalists. He had 23 goals, 59 points and a plus-32, but this season Palat is expected to play on the second line and not with Steven Stamkos. Though skating on a potential line with Valtteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan isn't too bad, it's not like playing with St. Louis or Stamkos. Add in the fact Palat received 1:37 of power-play time per game last season, had 20 penalty minutes, and averaged 2.04 shots on goal per game, and you're looking at a mediocre fantasy player. He's worth drafting, but don't expect the kind of production he provided last season.
Sleeper: Jonathan Drouin -- Many people expected Drouin to make the Lightning going into last season, but management decided another year in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League would help him develop. After consecutive 100-plus-point seasons for the Halifax Mooseheads, Drouin has nothing left to prove at any level other than the NHL. The 19-year-old should make the team at the start of the 2014-15 season, and that makes him a very intriguing fantasy player. If he ends up a top-six forward, he has the potential to score 30 goals and 60 points as early as this season and will be a favorite to win the Calder Trophy. Draft him before round 10 if you want to secure his name on your team.
Follow Matt Cubeta on Twitter: @NHLQubes
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Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer
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