The Tampa Bay Lightning are looking for another successful season. After almost winning the coveted Stanley Cup the last couple seasons, the team hopes to add a second trophy alongside their 2004 Cup.
The Lightning made it to the 2015 finals, but lost to the Chicago Blackhawks by a series score of 4-2. Last season, the team lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who went on to win Lord Stanley, in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Final.
“The Penguins had better third and fourth lines,” said associate coach Rick Bowness of the defeat.
Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman spent his summer focusing on current talent rather than gathering new players.
Captain and center Steven Stamkos re-signed with the organization days before hitting unrestricted free agency. Stamkos inked a $68 million, 8-year deal which guarantees him $8.5 million each season.
Head coach Jon Cooper said he “wasn’t surprised” with Stamkos wanting to stay in Tampa Bay.
“In my heart, there wasn’t one ounce of me that thought anybody was leaving,” Cooper told NHL.com.
Yzerman also brought back defensemen Victor Hedman to an 8-year deal, his worth $63 million.
Bowness said that Hedman “wants to be the best he can be every night” and he puts a lot of pressure on himself. Perhaps that is why the Swede is staying with the team he’s helped get so close to the Cup.
“It’s more [of] a matter of keeping him calm. He cares so much about the game,” Bowness added. “There’s respect for his desire [to be the best].”
Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and center Alex Killorn locked into new multi-year deals, too.
On Sept. 26, defenseman Nikita Nesterov re-signed with the team in a one year, $725,000 deal. After Nesterov’s deal, only one restricted free agent remains. re-signing leaves one restricted free agent, Nikita Kucherov.
Nikita Kucherov is in talks with Yzerman for a larger payday. The right winger made $700,000 last year. Analysts say he is worth about $6 million per season. However, the Lightning’s salary cap only has about $5-5.5 million remaining.
Yzerman said he is “very hopeful” that the goal scorer will re-sign and is willing to “push harder” in their negotiations.
Returning to the team is center Cory Conacher. He was traded from Tampa to the Ottawa Senators in 2013 in exchange for goaltender Ben Bishop. After a stint playing in Europe, Conacher hopes to improve “a little bit of everything” with the Lightning this season.
“I want to be an impact player,” he said. “I want to contribute on the scoreboard and be a puck possession guy.”
Bowness described Conacher as “highly skilled, well-liked” and someone who “can move into different roles.”
“He gives us good depth. How much he plays depends on Cooper and him.”
Kucherov and Stamkos are known for putting points on the board. If Kucherov re-signs, the duo will certainly help the team get to the top of the division once again.
Stamkos underwent surgery for a blood clot in his collarbone in April, which took him out for two months. He returned in Game 7 against the Penguins and is still healthy for the upcoming season.
Also returning injury-free is Bishop. He enters the last season of his contract healthy after suffering strained ankle ligaments and a shin sprain.
Unfortunately for the Bolts, ring winger Ryan Callahan is still on the injury reserve list. Callahan is out indefinitely with a labral hip tear. He wore a grey no-contact jersey during the Sept. 27 morning skate. He is expected to return to the lineup in mid-November.
Tampa Bay took on the Carolina Hurricanes in its first preseason game on Sept. 27. The Bolts were down 3-0 in the third period until newbies gave the team a much needed offensive surge.
Brayden Point and Boko Imama each put points on the board.
This season, Bowness said the team needs “…more shots on [the] net, more retrievers to get the puck back.”
“We get closer every year,” he said.
The Lightning will hold its regular season opener against the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday Oct. 9. Tampa Bay earned a final record of 3-2 in the preseason.