Here’s how the last two seasons have ended for the Tampa Bay Lightning; 2014-15, two wins shy of winning its first Stanley Cup since 2004; 2015-16, one win shy of becoming the first team in seven years to win back-to-back Prince of Wale Trophies.
And here’s the thing – the Bolts are only getting better.
The talk in the East has been about Washington, whether or not its the year the Capitals finally break through and put Alex Ovechkin’s name on the Stanley Cup. Of course, that’s been the dialogue for quite some time now. Then there’s also those who bring up the yearly ‘is this the year a Stanley Cup winner defends its title?’ That’s the conversation around Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, down in the central Florida resides the best team the NHL has to offer.
The Lightning are a team built for the modern NHL. A team the plays at a pace that emulates its name, Tampa goes four lines deep of skill players who use their legs as their greatest weapons in creating pressure and forcing teams to make mistakes. The defense corps is among the elite fluent-skating blue lines, led by behemoth Victor Hedman.
Steven Stamkos leads the charge as he kicks off an eight-year pact to remain in Tampa Bay. He’s complimented by rising superstar Nikita Kucherov up front, along with Tyler Johnson, who comes in poised for a breakout campaign.
Goaltender Ben Bishop is one of the world’s premier puck stoppers, while Andrei Vasilevskiy is as good a second option you’ll find.
Health is the big x-factor going into the season, which kind of goes without saying. But when you consider injuries that have befallen key players on the club over the past couple seasons, including Stamkos, Johnson, Bishop, and Anton Stralman, it becomes a little more magnified.
Regardless, this looks like the team to beat at the early goings.
2- Washington: Some might say 1-A. The Capitals have never been built so well for the playoffs during the Ovechkin era.
3- Anaheim: The window is closing. Expect Bob Murray to deal Cam Fowler or one of his blue-chip defensive prospects to provide help up front.
4- Pittsburgh: No team has repeated since the 1997-98 Red Wings. Reports out of Pittsburgh is that the Penguins really want to be that team to do it.
5- Chicago: 30 goals and 77 points as a rookie, yet Artemi Panarin remains grossly underrated.
6- Montreal: Shea Weber and Andrew Shaw add a lot of what was missing in the Canadiens room last season.
7- Dallas: Jim Nill needs to find a goaltender. But you knew that.
8- San Jose: The young guys on the Sharks were flying under the radar this time last year.
9- Nashville: The most exciting team in the NHL. Mike Fisher caps first year as captain by posing for a picture alongside Gary Bettman.
10- St. Louis: If Jake Allen performs to expectations, this team won’t miss a beat.
11- Florida: The Cats have a rebuilt blue line that emulates its in-state rival.
12- Calgary: The Flames won’t finish 30th in defense this season.
13- N.Y. Rangers: Sleeper Stanley Cup pick.
14- Detroit: A defensively suspect team, but the Red Wings should score at a pretty reasonable clip.
15- Minnesota: Bruce Boudreau wins. I could make a cheesy Donald Trump pun, but I’m not going to.
16- N.Y. Islanders: John Tavares wins the Hart Trophy.
17- Philadelphia: Steve Mason is solid, but the goaltending is still feast-or-famine. Everybody is falling in the Michael Leighton trap with Michal Neuvirth.
18- Boston: They’ll be in the thick of the wildcard race again, but the Bruins remain a good year or two away.
19- Los Angeles: The Kings are an Anze Kopitar away from being Team USA-bad.
20- Winnipeg: Newly-christened as the Jets captain, Blake Wheeler finally gets his due among the NHL’s best.
21- Buffalo: Don’t be surprised if this team makes the playoffs.
22- Edmonton: Connor McDavid leads the league in points.
23- Arizona: Oliver Ekman-Larsson makes a push for the Norris.
24- Carolina: Justin Faulk is a finalist for the Norris.
25- Ottawa: Erik Karlsson wins the Norris (again).
26- New Jersey: Cory Schneider can only do so much.
27- Toronto: Still 2-3 years away.
28- Columbus: Potential surprise team. Blue Jackets dispel the ‘John Tortorella only plays guys who trap and block shots’ theory. Zach Werenski wins Calder Trophy.
29- Colorado: MacKinnon and Duchene the bright spots in Denver.
30- Vancouver: It was clear Alain Vigneault was the problem.