Lightning likely to strengthen with Stamkos return

Lightning likely to strengthen with Stamkos return

September 26, 2017 3:03 AM
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The final segment is our search for a 2018 playoff team among those that failed to qualify last season finds us in the Atlantic Division – the easiest team grouping to make a selection from.

They last won the Stanley Cup in the final NHL contest before the 2005-06 lockout. Although they’re almost always in the fight for a division title, it’s hard to believe this club has no new banners to fly from the arena rafters.

I’m talking about the luck-less Tampa Bay Lightning, which celebrates their Silver Anniversary in 2017-18.

Although you may think this pick is way too easy, look at this franchise’s lack of success.

Since hoisting the Cup, there’s been no division crowns and tons of playoff disappointment. Prior to last season’s hiccup, the Bolts have been second-place finishers the previous three years, owning the best regular season mark in hockey (142-82-22), yet losing the Atlantic to Boston (‘14), Montreal (‘15) and Florida (‘16).

Saving graces

Fortunately, Tampa Bay gains the return of captain Steven Stamkos, a two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goals scorer. Led by Stamkos, the Bolts advanced to the 2015 Cup Final, but fell to the Chicago Blackhawks behind Conn Trophy (playoff MVP) Duncan Keith.

A year later, Stamkos played in just a postseason game. Last year, the club failed to qualify out of a weak division.

The internal turmoil on the starting goalie is also over. In a salary cap and age induced move, incumbent goalie Ben Bishop was sent to L.A. (he’s since jumped to Dallas) and youngster Andrei Vasilevskiy took over in the net. The Russian posted 23 victories a year ago, but to those of us in Vegas, he was under .500 (23-17-7 record translates to 23-24 at the window).

The backup is now Peter Budaj, who almost salvaged a Kings playoff berth last season after Jonathan Quick tore his hamstring.

Other moves: Chris Kunitz brings four Stanley Cups during his 13-year NHL career and brings a wealth of veteran leadership to the Lightning locker room.

The Bolts re-acquired defenseman Anton Stralman, who, along with Lightning teammate Victor Hedman, played an integral role in helping Sweden to the gold medal at the 2017 IIHF World Championships.

Sweden won 2-1 over Canada, which was coached by Tampa head coach Jon Cooper. It was the Swedes’ 10th all-time gold medal; the first since 2013.

Opening the door to the postseason include the aging Boston Bruins; Ottawa was hot in the playoffs (but not in the regular season); while Detroit, Florida and Buffalo are a few years away from contending. So if Montreal and resurgent Toronto advance in the Atlantic, the Lightning should comfortably advance.

Note: Tampa Bay, as part of its 25th season of play, will host the NHL All-Star Game in February,