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Core Values: Steven Stamkos at center of rapidly improving Lightning

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In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.

With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.

The Tampa Bay Lightning may just be one of the most exciting teams in hockey heading into the 2014-15 season. After a surprise bounce-back year under coach Jon Cooper in which the Lightning took second place in the Atlantic Division, Tampa bulked up in the offseason through free agency and trades.

It always helps to have one of the league’s most dynamic players, which the Lightning have in star Steven Stamkos. The fact the team was able to accomplish what it did last year without Stamkos for much of the year makes it that much more impressive. Tampa Bay fans should be salivating at the prospects of this new-look roster with a healthy Stamkos.

What makes the Lightning even more interesting as an organization is that it spent the money in free agency last year, but they also have a deep farm system led by one of the top prospects in hockey right now, Jonathan Drouin. The number of young players that made an impact last season also improves the overall outlook for the team.

The team needed to address defense and after the work Steve Yzerman did this summer by signing Anton Stralman and trading for Jason Garrison, the squad actually looks deep on the back end now.

Because of such a balance of new blood and young players pushing for roster spots, Tampa's core is actually a pretty tough one to pick. There are a lot of players on Tampa’s depth chart that have a case for inclusion. That’s a good sign. This is a team that has depth beyond the core and that’s what is required for postseason success. They should be a lot of fun to watch next year.

Core Values: Tampa Bay Lightning

Players (Age, term remaining on contract): C Steven Stamkos (24, 2 years), D Victor Hedman (23, 3 years), G Ben Bishop (27, 3 years), D Anton Stralman (28, 5 years), C/W Valtteri Filppula (30, 4 years),  RW Ryan Callahan (29, 6 years), LW Ondrej Palat (23, 3 years)

Total cap hit in 2014-15: $32,433,333 (61.4% of salary cap consumed by seven players)

Average age: 26.2

Total point production in 2013-14: 92 goals, 131 assists, 223 points (34.9% of team’s total production) 

About the Core

Steven Stamkos: Every team has star players, but there are very few that can lay claim to a truly elite goal scorer. Aside from Alex Ovechkin, there is probably no more natural a goal scorer than Stamkos. If you throw out Stamkos’ rookie season in which his utilization was questionable, no player in the NHL, not even Ovechkin has a better scoring rate than Stamkos since 2009-10. Over that five-year span, among players with 100 or more games in the league, Stamkos’ 0.63 goals per game stands alone. The best part? Stamkos is only 24 years old with prime years ahead of him. He only has two years left on his contract, though, and rumors are already swirling about where he’ll end up, but expect the Lightning to do everything in their power to keep him. Stamkos is a rare talent that could be one of the great scorers not only of his generation, but any. Stamkos’ career 0.56 goals-per-game puts him 10th in NHL history heading into the season. Though he lost one of the game’s great playmakers when Martin St. Louis was traded last season, Stamkos should still be able to produce. He has 426 points in 410 career games. How he was acquired: 2008 NHL Entry Draft, first round, first overall

Victor Hedman had a remarkable 2013-14 season. Is the best yet to come? (USATSI)

Victor Hedman: Let’s put it this way: Victor Hedman was a freak last year. The team’s top defenseman had 55 points, shattering his previous career high of 26. He led the Lightning with 42 assists, averaged 22:26 a game and poured 170 shots on net. He also posted the highest relative Corsi for percentage at 10.1 percent. Though his usage stats detail that Hedman saw the fast majority of his shifts start in the offensive zone, the fact that the team possessed the puck at a rate 10.1 percent higher with him on the ice is just simply crazy. He won’t turn 24 until midway through the season and is under contract for three more years at an absurdly valuable $4 million per season. Will Hedman produce like he did last year? Perhaps not, but he has the tools to be a top defenseman for this club for a lot of years with his size, mobility and overall hockey sense. Additionally, he has more support this year with the additions of Garrison and Stralman. Cooper didn’t run him into the ground last year and won’t have to in the coming season, but he has a legitimate force on the back end at his disposal in Hedman. How he was acquired: 2009 NHL Entry Draft, first round, second overall

Ben Bishop:  So how did the Lightning survive last season without Stamkos for so long? Good goaltending is a big reason. Bishop was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, his first as a his team’s primary starter in his fifth NHL season. The 28-year-old netminder will be hard-pressed to reproduce a season like he just had last year. In fact, expecting him to match his numbers from last year would be asking too much. He had a .924 save percentage, 2.23 goals-against average, five shutouts and put up a 37-14-7 record. It was so out of the blue, but it did earn Bishop a two-year extension with a year still remaining on his current contract. Considering how the Lightning fared after Bishop went down with an injury last year, the club clearly believes in him to be the guy and if this team is going to compete for a Stanley Cup over the next few years, Bishop has to put up big numbers over the next few years. He has a career .920 save percentage in 108 career NHL games. If Bishop can keep his save percentage right around there, the Lightning look like a real contender as early as next season. How he was acquired: Traded from the Ottawa Senators for Cory Conacher and a fourth-round pick

Anton Stralman: After earning his first big-money contract in the NHL, Stralman will have to be a core defenseman for the Lightning. He’ll get top-four minutes, possibly top-pairing minutes and if he plays at all like he did over the last few seasons with the New York Rangers, the Lightning will be vastly better on defense. As good as Hedman’s possession numbers were last season, Stralman’s were better in tougher defensive situations. He had an 11.2 relative Corsi last season, with a 56.5 Corsi for percentage overall. Stralman is on a five-year deal and is actually pretty affordable at $4.5 million per year. Providing sturdy defense and allowing the more offensive guys on the blue line like Hedman, Matt Carle and Jason Garrison a little more freedom will make Stralman worth every penny. He’s not flashy, he’s just effective and every team needs effective, reliable support players.  How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014

Valtteri Filppula: One of the first realtively big free-agent additions of the Steve Yzerman Era, the Lightning GM went with comfort and familiarity by signing Filppula. What he’s getting is a solid veteran performance. Filppula was an expensive add, but he made an impact with 58 points in 75 games to finish third on the team. He also scored a career-best 25 goals last season. The fact that Filppula has also been part of a successful Stanley Cup run while with the Detroit Red Wings, is an added bonus. Having that kind of experience on the roster could come in handy as this team progresses. After years of being a support player in Detroit, Filppula is more established and probably more central to Tampa’s plans going forward. On a team that is going to feature a lot of young forwards over the next few years, Filppula’s experience and effectiveness should be especially helpful. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 5, 2013

Ryan Callahan: So often measured and deliberate in his moves, Yzerman surprised many a hockey pundit when the club re-signed Callahan to a six-year, $34.8 million. That kind of faith and money from the organization, as well as recent comments from head coach Jon Cooper so effusive in his praise of the veteran forward shows just how much the organization believes Callahan means and will mean to the team. He is a heart-and-soul type player and the reason the deal is so surprising is that Callahan has just one 50-plus point season to his name. That was in 2011-12, though he scored at a similar rate during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 as well. Last season, Callahan had 36 points in 65 games between the Rangers and Lightning. The deal may become heavy over the next few years, but Callahan does provide a physical presence which is not as prevalent on the Lightning. He’s a gifted shot-blocker and penalty-killer as well. To justify the deal, he’s going to have to find a way to get his production back up to the two seasons previous to last. Often lauded for his leadership abilities, the former Rangers captain at the very least brings that and a strong veteran presence. Is that worth $5.8 million a season? Callahan will have to answer that with his play next year and beyond. How he was acquired: Traded from the New York Rangers with a first-round pick and conditional picks for Martin St. Louis and a conditional second-round pick

Ondrej Palat: Over the last season-plus, Palat has emphatically introduced himself to the NHL. After a 14-game stint in 2012-13, Palat broke out in 81 games in 2013-14 with the Lightning. He scored 23 goals and finished second on the team with 59 points, which earned him second place in Calder Trophy voting. What makes Palat so fascinating was how he was utilized as a 22-year-old rookie last year. Never sheltered from anything, Palat played just over 18 minutes a night. He was involved in the team’s power play and penalty kill and posted positive possession rates. What the future holds for him will be interesting, but Palat made such a statement in his first season that he earned a three-year extension from the club. Repeating his performance from last year would go a long way on the deeper Lightning in 2014-15. A late-season injury robbed him of half of the club’s first-round series against the Canadiens last year, but when he returned, he managed to put up three points in the three games he played. The optimism heading into the season should be high for guys like Palat and fellow Calder finalist Tyler Johnson. Palat is included as a core player both because of what he did last year, but also as a representative of the growing youth movement in Tampa that includes Palat, Johnson, Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Kucherov, Richard Panik, J.T. Brown, Alex Killorn and Radko Gudas. It’s such a promising group all around and Palat is right at the head of the class right now. How he was acquired: 2011 NHL Entry Draft, seventh round, 208th overall

Who’s next in line

The super-skilled Jonathan Drouin should be ready to take his show to the NHL. (USATSI)

As alluded to a few times, the Lightning have a growing base of younger players in the NHL and just below that should be making a nice long-term impact on the organization. At the top of the list is top prospect and likely rookie winger for next season, Jonathan Drouin.

Considered one of the most dynamically skilled talents outside of the NHL, Drouin posted 213 points over his last two junior seasons with the Halifax Mooseheads. Last year, he improved his scoring total and showed that he was not just a product of teammate Nathan MacKinnon, who was the No. 1 overall pick in 2013, the year before. With 79 assists, Drouin set up anyone and everyone on the Mooseheads. Now he’ll have a chance to set up the likes of Stamkos. Of all the rookies coming into the league next season, Drouin may be the most exciting after the highlight reel he created over the last two seasons.

The Lightning also have a lot to look forward to from Tyler Johnson, who put together a remarkable season last year and helped soften the blow of losing Stamkos last season. Johnson finished fifth on the team with 50 points and had 24 goals. He could play in any situation and often did. Undrafted out of juniors, Johnson has proven to be an especially great find by the Lightning.

The list really could go on and on, really. There’s Alex Killorn, who had 41 points in his second full NHL season, bolstering Tampa’s secondary scoring. Radko Gudas has proven to be a physical, aggressive and effective defenseman at just 23 years old. Nikita Kucherov, 21, looks to be a promising scorer himself having dominated the AHL last season before being called up to the NHL. Andrej Sustr saw significant time in the NHL last season and is a high-upside defenseman with great size and improving skills. Same goes for Mark Barberio.

The team will also hope for more from former No. 6 pick Brett Connolly who had 57 points in the AHL last season but hasn’t yet found a way to make an NHL impact yet. Considering how deep their prospect pool has become over the last three years or so, the fact that they can get by without a high pick Connolly at the NHL level at this point is pretty incredible.

Another especially promising prospect for the Lightning is goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The big netminder starred for Russia at the World Juniors and was a starting goaltender in the KHL last season at just 19 years old. He posted a .923 save percentage with Salavat Yulayev in the regular season. He was even better in the playoffs with a .934 mark in 18 appearances. Outside of John Gibson, the former 19th overall pick is the most exciting young goaltender in hockey.

It really is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to prospects and young players already making an impact at the next level.

Overview

Looking at how the Lightning are constructed, they are going to have a chance to put together a pretty convincing season. Their success may hinge a little more heavily on Bishop putting together another standout season, but there should be less pressure on him with a better blue line in front of him.

The Lightning needed to get some more experience and they accomplished that over the summer. By adding Stralman, Garrison, Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow over the summer, the team adds to the veteran base already in place, led by Stamkos, Callahan Filppula, Hedman, Carle and Eric Brewer.

The depth of this team is probably the real highlight. Having gotten major contributions from young guys like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Richard Panik and Radko Gudas was a bonus. Keeping Stamkos and Bishop healthy for the entirety of the year is likely going to lead to good things if the young guys keep pushing forward.

It’s hard to go out on the limb and say the Lightning have a Stanley Cup contender this season. There are a lot of variables like the fact that the teams in the West are so good, the Bruins are still going to be really tough to get past in the East and there’s still enough inexperience on the Lightning roster to cause some playoffs concern.

But this is a team that appears to be on a Stanley Cup track. As we know, there are no guarantees no matter how good a roster you assemble, but Yzerman is clearly building something in Tampa and there’s vision. The fact that they were unafraid to spend money also shows a commitment from ownership to be a cap team.

Most of the contracts to core players go beyond three years. Assuming the team is able to re-sign Stamkos (who will cost them the moon, approximately), there’s little doubt this can be a Stanley Cup contender within three years. It’s really close to one right now and Tampa actually may end up being one of the class teams in the East this year.

As the younger guys improve and gain experience, they’ll be more prepared for deeper playoff runs and more consistent success. Considering this is a team only a year removed from being a basement dweller, the work that has been done to turn this group around has been rather remarkable. For the Lightning, it’s all coming together.

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