What's Next: Tampa Bay Lightning

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Welcome to our 2022-23 Preview series. In each article we’ll be focusing in on a different team, reviewing how they did last season, what their summer has been like, and what their outlook is for the 2022-23 campaign.
We’ve already covered the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, so let's continue our look at the Atlantic Division today by examining the Tampa Bay Lightning.

2021-22 Season in Review

Going into the campaign, the Tampa Bay Lightning had finished with a points percentage over .650 for each of the last four seasons and were the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champions. They had Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal, who had been nominated or won the Vezina Trophy in each of the last four seasons, Victor Hedman headlining their defense following his run of five straight years where he either won the Norris Trophy or was a finalist for it, and a forward core that would once again be led by a pair of stars in Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

In other words, the Lightning entered the season as the team to beat. They had top-tier players in every category, were deep, experienced, and while their core wasn’t the youngest, they certainly were still in their prime. The X-Factor was the burden of their own success. Could they stay hungry? Would fatigue eventually catch up to them after two lengthy playoff runs? Could they really become the first team since the 1980s New York Islanders to three-peat?

In the end, the Lightning perhaps looked a little more mortal than they had in the past but were still dominate. Tampa Bay posted a 51-23-8 record, which was only good enough for third place in the extremely top-heavy Atlantic Division, but their playoff berth was still never in doubt. Tampa Bay was 12-4-3 by Nov. 26, 21-6-4 by Dec. 28, and 37-12-6 by Mar. 6. They did have rough patches and had to overcome injuries along the way. Even still, nothing ever slowed them down to the point of panic.

That’s largely because the group of proven winners came through again. Andrei Vasilevskiy had another strong campaign, posting a 39-18-5 record, 2.49 GAA, and .916 save percentage in 63 starts. It was the fifth straight season that he led the league in wins and clearly he didn’t do it just because of the group in front of him.

Though make no mistake, that group helped him a lot along the way. Kucherov unfortunately ran into injury problems for the second straight year, this time limiting him to 47 regular season games, but Stamkos had one of his best regular seasons of his career, scoring 42 goals and 106 points in 81 contests. Hedman similarly had a campaign to remember, finishing with 20 goals and 85 points in 82 games. Tampa Bay had solid offensive depth too, with four different players reaching the 25-goal milestone and nine scoring at least 15 markers.

Tampa Bay tied Edmonton for seventh in goals per game with 3.48 and were the sixth stingiest team, allowing just 2.78 goals per game.

In the playoffs, Tampa Bay continued to look mortal, but effective. Tampa Bay battled hard against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round and that series ended up going seven games. They ultimately narrowly won the series, but they lost Brayden Point. He had 28 goals and 58 points in 66 regular season games. On top of that, he had scored 14 goals in each of the Lightning’s championship playoff runs. His absence would be felt, but not immediately.

First the Lightning would embarrass the Panthers. Florida had been an offensive juggernaut the likes of which we’ve rarely seen, but they managed just three goals in four games against Vasilevskiy. Speaking of the Lightning goaltender, the Eastern Conference Final against the Rangers was advertised as Vasilevskiy versus Igor Shesterkin. The established star goaltender versus the next big thing. Early on, it looked like this might be where the Lightning’s story ended. Tampa Bay lost Game 1 6-2 and the Rangers followed that up with a 3-2 victory in Game 2. Tampa Bay was now down 2-0 in a series for the first time since they were swept by Columbus in 2019.

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This time would be different though. After looking like the weaker goaltender in the first two games, Vasilevskiy shut the door in Games 3-6, allowing just five goals over those four contests and thanks to that, Tampa Bay reached the final for the third straight year.

In those finals though, the Lightning finally met their match. Colorado earned a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 1 and gave up that series lead. Tampa Bay had its moments, most notably their 6-2 victory in Game 3, but ultimately Colorado played like the natural successor to the Lightning and ended Tampa Bay’s run, leaving Lightning fans with the question: Would that series be marked the beginning of the end for this era of the team?

How has their summer gone?

If nothing else, it marked the final game for some players who were a major part of the Lightning’s success. The reality of the salary cap forced the Tampa Bay Lightning to trade defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who averaged over 22 minutes in each of Tampa Bay’s last three playoff runs, to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Philippe Myers and Grant Mismash. Myers is a depth defenseman and Grant Mismash is an okay forward prospect. Neither figures to play a significant role with Tampa Bay next season, but Tampa Bay couldn’t afford McDonagh’s $6.75 million cap hit any longer, so they had to make this move.

The Lightning’s cap situation also forced them to watch from the sidelines as Ondrej Palat signed a five-year, $30 million contract with the New Jersey Devils. Although Palat wasn’t the best part of the Lightning’s forward core, he had been noteworthy for his ability to step up in the playoffs. Over the Lightning’s last three postseason runs, Palat had 27 goals and 52 points in 71 games. So don’t underestimate what that loss means to Tampa Bay.

The summer hasn’t just been able Tampa Bay losing players though. They inked Mikhail Sergachev to an eight-year, $68 million extension, Erik Cernak to an eight-year, $41.6 million contract, and Anthony Cirelli to an eight-year, $50 million deal. All three of those agreements won’t begin until 2023-24, but clearly GM Julien BriseBois is looking ahead with an eye towards keeping as much of his current core intact for as long as he can.

Tampa Bay also inked Nick Paul to a seven-year, $22.05 million contract after acquiring him from Ottawa at the deadline to help during their 2022 playoff run.

2022-23 Outlook

The loss of Palat and McDonagh make this team weaker. It’s hard to get around that. They are still a contender though. They do still feature much of the same core that won the Cup in 2020 and 2021. They are still mostly in their prime with Stamkos and Hedman being two of the team’s senior members at 32 and 31 respectively.

So the Lightning are still a threat, but if they want to win another championship, they’re going to need quite a bit to go right. They need Sergachev and Cernak to live up to those upcoming contracts and help fill the void left by McDonagh. They need to stay fairly healthy because the margin for error has been lowered now that Palat is gone. Unfortunately, on that front they’re already in trouble because Cirelli had shoulder surgery and is expected to miss the start of the campaign. They also need to fight off the fatigue that comes with having three shortened summers in a row.

And BriseBois needs to continue to find ways to navigate the cap because their issues on that front still aren’t over, especially after the long-term deals he handed out this summer. Looking ahead to 2023-24, Tampa Bay has just under $68 million committed to Kucherov, Point, Stamkos, Paul, Hedman, Sergachev, Cernak, Vasilevskiy, and Cirelli. Even accounting for the likelihood of the cap rising, that a ton of space to have occupied by nine players that season. That might mean that the summer of 2023 will see departures as well, further weakening the team.

To be clear, the situation in Tampa isn’t doom and gloom. They’re still the envy of most of the league. They still are a safe bet to make the playoffs and have a serious run once they get there. But the standard has been winning a championship and, in that regard, they’re no longer the favorite.