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MHH Previews the Lesser 29: Tampa Bay

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Their head coach: Jon Cooper. If you could ever imagine man with the looks of an accountant being in charge of a hockey club, Jon Cooper is your boy. In a bad segway, the accountability he holds his team to is very high. The Bolts lost the Stanley Cup Final in six games in 2015, and exited last postseason in Game 7 against the eventual Cup-winner in their arena last spring. You know you’re doing something right if, A) you’re making it that deep into the playoffs in consecutive seasons, and B) the only team capable of beating you late in a series is the team that goes on to win the Stanley Cup. Cooper has been excellent as the Lightning’s behind the bench leader and Steve Yzerman made an ultra great decision in hiring him to come to central Florida.

Their captain: Steven Stamkos, who is somewhat surprisingly still here. I thought he was a lock to go to Toronto or Detroit during free agency since this team was able to make it to a Game 7 in the conference final without him. My logic was that if the roster you do have in place can get that far without one of the most expensive players in hockey, there’s no real need to retain him when you could get some other luxurious free agent additions instead. As fate would have it, the Lightning locked him down for eight years and he’s getting $68 million during that time. Don’t get me wrong, Stamkos is a hell of a player and about as dangerous offensively as anyone else. I’d just be interested in seeing what they could have done this year and next year with that money spread out to other players and see what this team looks like then.

Their 15-16 season: All hope looked lost when Stamkos went down with a nasty injury at the end of the regular season, but the Lightning were able to overcome Stamkos’ absence and maintain their solid regular season with series wins in five games each over Detroit and Brooklyn. Pittsburgh got em in seven, and it was another tough way for the Lightning to go out having come so close again, but it’s hard to be unhappy with that sort of success if you’re a fan of theirs.

How did they do against the Avs? Split decision. Colorado won an ugly game at Amalie in October in the midst of the team losing pretty much every other game. Then the Lightning came into Pepsi Center in January and shellacked the Avs to the tune of 4-0 shutout.

When do they play the Avs this season? In Tampa on October 20th and in Denver on February 19th.

Will they be good? Definitely. I’m pegging them for a second consecutive Eastern Conference Final loss now that my Cup prediction in the Capitals has become clear. Because let’s be clear, this is an extremely well-built team that will be good for a long time. There are so many good players on this team that I’m not even going to list them off, just look at the screenshot below of their roster from Wikipedia. I don’t see any weaknesses there. It would not surprise me at all if they won the Cup this year. And the year after that, and then the year following that.

3 Questions with their SB Nation blog, Raw Charge:

-The most notable thing Tampa did this offseason was re-sign Stamkos. I personally thought he was Toronto-bound. Are you surprised he stayed with the Lightning, and how big of a plus is it for the Lightning to have him locked up? As unpopular as the view may be, I personally never had any real fear of Stamkos leaving. Maybe I was being slightly stubborn. Maybe my fandom was getting in the way, but I honestly had faith in Stevie Y and had faith in Stammer. The media was loving every second of Stammergeddon 2.0. He was going to go to Toronto. He was going to be Auston Matthews mentor. He was going to send the economy upward and Toronto was never going to have another rainy day. Excuse my satire but I just never bought into that. I understand Toronto was his home and everybody was looking for a "Lebron James returning to Cleveland" story however this was just much less glamorous and more thought out. Tampa became his home. He enjoys the winters here. He loves the community and the people. You could see it in his post game interviews. You could see it in his eyes. Stammer wanted to stay. He is one of the main reasons (if not the reason) Tampa Bay has been able to turn into Hockey Bay. When he decided to put on a jersey and play in the ECF game 7, many people took that as he was preparing to go to Toronto in the offseason and now was the chance to play with his team one last time. To me that move wasn't much different than when he broke his nose in the game 7 of the ECF in 2011 and came back to finish the game. He wanted to be out there not only for himself but for the team and the fans. And one last glaring point, I don't think Stamkos wants to be apart of another rebuild. I understand things in Toronto are on the up climb yet how many years will it take for them to be serious cup contenders. He has already been apart of rebuilds here in Tampa and wants to completely finish what he started and win a cup. If at the end of his 8 year contract he wants to move to Toronto, play two years and retire, that would be fine by me. At that point he would have already put his time in for the city of Tampa.

-The last 2 seasons, you all have been 2 and 5 wins away from getting Lord Stanley back for the first time since 2004. What’s it gonna take to get over the hump? It sounds cliché, but avoiding injuries. And more specifically Ben Bishop staying healthy in net, that is if he’s still in a Lightning uniform come March.

For the past three seasons Bishop has helped carry the Bolts, rightfully earning two Veznia Trophy nominations. Unfortunately, due to no fault of his own, his postseason has been cut short each time and it’s repeatedly hurt the Lightning. A late-season wrist injury sidelined him in the 2014 playoffs (resulting in a first round sweep against Montreal), a torn groin only allowed him to make it to Game 6 in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, and Bish hasn’t stood between the pipes since exiting with a leg injury in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final against Pittsburgh in May.

It’s no coincidence the Lightning haven’t been able to get the job done without their All-Star netminder. Of course, the Bolts still require a full, healthy roster to be the last team standing like any other club would, but one has to wonder how the last three postseasons could have played out if Bishop had remained injury-free.

As he enters the final year of his contract and with backup goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy on the rise, Tampa Bay has a decision to make with next June’s NHL Expansion Draft. Shop Bishop between now and the trade deadline to avoid losing him for nothing, or hold on to him and gear up for another crack at hockey’s ultimate prize with the hope he’ll finally avoid injury this (likely last) time? Time will tell.

-When I look around the league, if someone asked me which team I think will be a championship contender for the longest stretch of time, my answer would be Tampa Bay. I imagine you’d agree. How’s it been done exactly? Wait, wait…  How has it been done exactly? I’m expected to give the blueprint away? Surely you jest! Besides, if I knew exactly how it’s been done, I’m in the wrong line of work writing about it (…and there are so many NHL franchises that could use my services).

In all seriousness, it started with stability and dedication in ownership. While the question is about the future with the club, it started in 2010 with Jeff Vinik coming in as franchise owner with the goal of making Tampa Bay a “world class organization”. That standard has been in play since and four of six seasons since Vinik took over have been playoff-caliber hockey.

At the hockey level, it would seem Steve Yzerman as general manager has been the center-point for the Lightning’s success long-term. The draft and player

development have been a factor to form longevity, with team contention not just being squarely at the NHL level. The organization saw its AHL club (then the Norfolk Admirals) win the Calder Cup, and that team had several noteworthy people who are now at the NHL level (Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Cory Conacher, Alex Killorn and head coach Jon Cooper among others). It’s reflected a need and a want for Tampa Bay to have depth that contends; a revamping of the Syracuse Crunch (our current AHL affiliate) this summer reflects this.

So, basically, dedication by the club to the team’s ability (and not in one-shot fashion like so many clubs get caught in) is how the Lightning have gotten to where they are now.

Thanks to Bethelhub, Brett Frieman, and John Fontana for taking the time to answer!