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Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman has assembled all the pieces required for the Bolts to make a serious run at Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Since being named GM and Vice President of the Lightning in the summer of 2010, Yzerman has bolstered the Bolts through intelligent drafting and a collection of shrewd acquisitions. After a triumphant offseason, the Lightning are primed to strike in 2014-15. Tampa Bay is now equipped to go toe-to-toe with the Eastern Conference’s heavyweights following last season’s humiliating first-round sweep at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.
On free agent signing day, Yzerman lured two-way defenseman Anton Stralman and penalty-killing ace Brian Boyle to Sunshine State. Both played limited, yet integral roles for the Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers.
Stralman is a top-four blue-liner and a possession monster capable of playing in situations. Seldom used on the power play by Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault, Stralman will have a chance to unleash his hard shot and puck-moving skills in Tampa. Boyle served as a rugged penalty-killer and face-off expert for the Blueshirts. Now, he’ll add to the Lightning’s wealth down the middle by teaming up with Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson and Valtteri Filppula.
Veteran winger Brenden Morrow will add grit, physicality and leadership qualities. Evgeni Nabokov will provide an upgrade at backup goalie. Starting netminder Ben Bishop enjoyed a career-best regular season, posting a 37-14-7 record with a 2.23 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. Bishop was unavailable against the Canadiens in the Conference Quarterfinals and the duo of Anders Lindback and Kristers Gudlevskis proved ineffective. Nabokov’s game has slipped with age, but his experience will come in handy should Bishop miss extended time due injury.
Even before his acclaimed free agent signings, Yzerman pulled the trigger on a one-sided trade that pried all-situation defenseman Jason Garrison from the Vancouver Canucks. Garrison scored seven goals and registered 26 assists for 33 points in 81 games during his lone season in Vancouver. Expect those numbers to take a jump in Tampa due to the talent around him and Garrison is being freed from the defense-first restraints of former Canucks head coach John Tortorella.
Tampa Bay was a strong possession team in 2013-14. According to ExtraSkater.com, the Lightning ranked 10th overall in regular season five-on-five Fenwick percentage at 51.7 percent. Adding possession-dominant defenseman in Stralman and Garrison will boost the Bolts’ puck management prowess.
The Lightning finished the regular season with 101 points despite losing world-class center Steven Stamkos for 45 games due to a broken right tibia. Think about that for a moment. Scary, isn’t it?
A healthy Stamkos surrounded by an array of high-ceiling youngsters and an influx of dependable veterans. All-effort winger Ryan Callahan agreed a six-year extension, and appears comfortable both on and off the ice after spending eight years in the Big Apple.
YOUNG TALENT GALORE
It’s hard to believe that Stamkos is still 24. The Lightning continue to draft young gems and polish them into burgeoning stars. Last season, rookie forwards Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson finished second and third respectively in the Calder Trophy voting.
Juggernaut defenseman Victor Hedman is only 23 years old, and is coming off a career-high 55-point campaign. Hedman’s offensive game has grown in leaps and bounds to compliment his tremendous shutdown ability. He’s established himself as one of the league’s most complete blue-liners due to his imposing size, surprising athleticism and rapidly-developing offensive upside. The sky is the limit for this 6-foot-6 defenseman.
The same can be said about 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Drouin. This special 19-year-old will be given every chance to make Tampa Bay’s opening night roster. Drouin beefed up to fill out his wiry frame. He’s now close to 200 lbs. and better equipped to make the jump to the NHL. The Quebec native oozes playmaking acumen, has an unteachable hockey sense and a magic stick. Scouts believe that his defensive awareness has reached an adequate level.
Another youngster to watch is 21-year-old Russian winger Nikita Kucherov. The 5-foot-11 forward possesses jet-like speed and is able to overcome his smallish frame because of his elusive one-on-one moves.
SUPER-PROSPECT GOALIE WILL ONE DAY REPLACE BISHOP
20-year-old Russian goalie Andrey Vasilevskiy will one day succeed Bishop as Tampa’s starting netminder. This won’t probably happen in 2014 … but he is considered one of the hottest young goaltenders to come along in recent decades. Vasilevskiy was dominant in his first full season in the KHL, posting a 14-8-5 record, a 2.21 GAA and .923 SV percentage. He is expected to begin the 2014-15 season in AHL Syracuse.
Last season, the Lightning snuck up on everyone. This time around, the entire league knows they’re coming. That isn’t going to make stopping the loaded Bolts any easier.