A new season is upon us. For the Tampa Bay Lightning it begins tonight as they host the Pittsburgh Penguins. Today every team is undefeated. All 32 NHL teams are still mathematically in the hunt for the postseason. That’ll change by American Thanksgiving when the contenders begin to separate from the pretenders.
As the reigning Stanley Cup Champions, the Lightning are the only team that can repeat as champions this season. They will be reminded of that when the 2021 Stanley Cup banner is raised to the Amalie Arena rafters. The other 31 teams will also remind them when the Lightning is on the schedule. If last season was any indication the Lightning core group will forget last season the moment the banner is hung.
Actually this Lightning team can achieve something that hasn’t happened in the salary cap era. A “Three-peat”. Winning three consecutive Cups is rare. Since the original expansion in 1967, only two teams have won three consecutive Cups. Joining the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Islanders could be the proper level of incentive the Lightning need.
Since the Cup win over the Canadiens last Spring, there have been numerous changes to the Lightning roster. Sadly, gone is the third line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. No doubt that trio will be missed. Fans shouldn’t expect three players to play like those recently departed players. Their departure however does present opportunities for other players. Also gone are Tyler Johnson, Luke Schenn and David Savard.
Now that the final roster has been set, we know who the new faces are. New to the Lightning are forwards: Corey Perry, Pierre-Edoard Bellemare, Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk. On defense, there is a new old name. Zach Bogosian re-signed with the team. Lastly, All-Galaxy Goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy has a new understudy - Brian Elliott replacing the recently retired Curtis McElhinney.
As they prepare for the first puck drop of the new season, a review of the division shows that the Lightning are the cream of the crop. Who is going to step up and challenge them? The aging Boston Bruins? The underachieving Toronto Maple Leafs? The much improved Florida Panthers?
To be the king, you have to beat the king. Because the core group of the Lightning remains intact, they don’t seem willing to abdicate. This makes it harder for the challengers to dethrone them. So which team will challenge the Lightning the most?
I think we saw the team that will ruffle the Lightning feathers the most in the division during the preseason. The Panthers coached by Joel Quenneville should be nipping at the Lightning heels throughout the season. Ultimately, the little brother Cats won’t have enough to supplant the bigger brother Lightning during the regular season or playoffs.
Many in the NHL media seem to love Toronto. I get it. They have some of the best forwards in the game. Any team would love to throw Auston Mathews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander on the ice. Yet as we’ve seen in recent postseasons, those guys aren’t enough. In the off-season, the Leafs added more questions than answers to their goaltending and defense.
Every team changes every year and the Boston Bruins are no exception. For most playoff contenders it’s the names that remain that give them a leg up. Again, the Bruins are no exception. Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand make one of the best lines in the league. Any opponent that underestimates this line does so to their own detriment.
Of the remaining teams, only the Montreal Canadiens could sneak their way into the postseason. Though if they do, they will do it without Captain shea Weber. The other teams: Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres are clearly in the pretender pile. Ottawa and Detroit are on the rise but let’s not forget their starting point.
Here’s my prediction for the Atlantic:
The salary cap era has leveled the playing field. We’ve seen that over the last almost 20 years. It has been difficult to maintain a level of excellency season to season. In this time, the Lightning have proved to be the exception. A quick recap of the Jeff Vinik era in Lightning history showing this level of greatness. Two Stanley Cups in three appearances. Six Conference Finals appearances, winning three of those. Their superiority in this league is well documented over the last dozen years.
The thing is this season can catapult this franchise into a stratosphere rarely seen. They have a chance to go back to back to back. A Three-Peat. Some say good things come in threes but the pressure on this 2021-22 roster will be intense. There are a plethora of teams that are looking to dethrone our champions. The issue for those contenders is they lack one thing. The Lightning’s core group. That is where the last two Cups were won.
Vasilevskiy is the best big game goalie in the game. On defense, Victor Hedman is an elite defenseman and arguably still the best in the NHL. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point are two of the best forwards in the game. Kucherov impressed with his stellar postseason last season while missing every regular season game. Aside from being one of the fastest centers in the game, Point has an incredible nose for the net.
Last but not least, their lynchpin - Captain Steven Stamkos. If you have read any of my previous work, you know I am a Stamkos fan. His body of work is Hall of Fame worthy, yet he still maintains a high level of skills. Who on the roster would you rather have on the right dot on the power play?
The core group carries the load but no team wins a Cup without all the players playing their roles. The Lightning check all the boxes here. On defense, Ryan McDonagh is as solid a player as he is a leader. I am convinced Anthony Cirelli is a future Selke Award winner. Steady Alex Killorn and 200 foot playing, Ondrej Palat. But wait! There’s more.
Among the forwards, Ross Colton, Matthieu Joseph, Pat Maroon join the new players to the roster. On defense, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, Jan Rutta, and Cal Foote join Bogosian. As this team has done during the Vinik era, these guys are deep. They are not going to hand back the Cup without a fight.
Battles throughout the 82 game regular season. The boys begin to bond over some of the tough wins and losses. The combat at the start of the playoffs. When the games get real, this team has played balls out. The war the Stanley Cup Final brings. Something tells me our boys are ready.
Something tells me they are ready to make some NHL history. First team to win three consecutive Cups in the Cap era. One of only three teams to win that many consecutive Cups since 1967 (First NHL expansion). These boys, our boys, are on the precipice of history. Something tells me there isn’t a team ready to take what’s theirs.