Times columnist Tom Jones gives his Two Cents on the upcoming Lightning and NHL season:
Lightning's best player
Who is the Lightning's best player, Nikita Kucherov or Steven Stamkos? Neither.
Victor Hedman is the Lightning's most complete player. He plays more than anyone and controls the flow of the game more than any Tampa Bay player. It's hard to be a great team in the NHL without a true No. 1 defenseman. The Lightning has one in Hedman, and he has hit his prime as an NHL star.
NHL's best player
There might be players with more skill. There are players who can score more, hit more. A few people even suggest that he's not the most talented player on his team. But all around, the best player on the planet continues to be Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby. He's a winner, a leader and the best player of his generation.
Three teams on the rise
1. Dallas Stars: A bunch of offseason moves, most notably signing goalie Ben Bishop, will have Dallas back in contention.
2. Carolina Hurricanes: You could see signs last season that this team was coming on. Scott Darling is big improvement in goal.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning: Seems weird to say it is on the rise, but let's not forget, Tampa Bay did miss the playoffs last season.
Three teams on the decline
1. Washington Capitals: They probably still have enough to make the postseason, but this team is getting further away from, not closer to, winning the Stanley Cup that has eluded the franchise all these years.
2. Vancouver Canucks: Time for the Canucks to think about trading the Sedin twins and starting over.
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3. Detroit Red Wings: They have a swanky new building but are in a down period after their incredible 25-year playoff streak ended last season.
Three players the Lightning needs to play well for it to be successful (aside from the obvious guys)
Of course, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy have to have good seasons. But who else?
1. Ryan Callahan: The Lightning desperately needs the grit, defense and leadership it desperately missed last season when Callahan played only 18 games because of injury.
2. Chris Kunitz: Brian Boyle will be missed, on and off the ice. So in comes a player with four Stanley Cups. Kunitz isn't the consistent 20-goal scorer he used to be, but if he can pot 17 or 18 goals and be a strong voice in the locker room, he'll be a great free agent signing.
Dirk Shadd | Times
3. Peter Budaj: To be a serious playoff contender, a team better get good play from its backup goalie. We're talking perhaps 25 or 30 games. When making the playoffs often comes down to a point or two, every game matters. Fortunately, Budaj can play spot duty or fill in for weeks if needed.
Three players to be concerned about
1. Anton Stralman: The veteran defenseman seemed to take a slight step back last season, and at 31, he's getting to be an age when players start to decline. He's still dependable, but if the Lightning is going to make a run, he needs to get back to the player he was in his first two seasons in Tampa Bay.
2. Steven Stamkos: One of the purest goal scorers the NHL has ever seen. But he's coming off a serious knee injury, and he until he proves he is back, we won't know if he's back.
Douglas R. Clifford | Times
3. Tyler Johnson: It's never a question of work ethic, commitment or skill because Johnson has all in abundance. It's a question of health. It's not easy playing recklessly at his size (5 feet 8, 185 pounds), and he has missed 13 games each of the past two seasons.
Three players you should pay more attention to
1. Jack Eichel, Sabres: He doesn't get much pub because he plays in Buffalo, but he had 24 goals in only 61 games last season. And he's only 20. He will win a scoring title someday.
2. Connor McDavid, Oilers: He is one year away from being the best player in hockey.
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3. Yanni Gourde, Lightning: Can he score 20 this season?
Three bold NHL predictions
1. The NHL is always more interesting when the Rangers are good, but unless Henrik Lundqvist goes crazy, they will miss the playoffs and we'll start to wonder if King Henrik will ever win a Stanley Cup.
2. Many predict that Las Vegas will be better than your typical expansion team. I'm not one of them. The Golden Knights will be awful.
3. Before the trade deadline, John Tavares (Islanders), James Neal (Golden Knights) and Matt Duchene (Avs) will all be traded.
NHL team predictions
Eastern Conference playoffs: Maples Leafs, Lightning, Canadiens, Penguins, Blue Jackets, Capitals, Hurricanes, Senators.
Western Conference playoffs: Wild, Stars, Predators, Oilers, Flames, Ducks, Blues, Blackhawks.
Stanley Cup final: Oilers over the Blue Jackets.
NHL individual predictions
Hart (MVP): Connor McDavid (Oilers)
Norris (best defenseman): Erik Karlsson (Senators)
Vezina (best goalie): Sergei Bobrovsky (Blue Jackets)
Calder (best rookie): Clayton Keller (Coyotes)
Jack Adams (best coach): Todd McLellan (Oilers)
Three coaches most likely to get fired
1. Paul Maurice, Jets
2. Jeff Blashill, Red Wings
3. Bruce Cassidy, Bruins
Three things that popped into my head about the Lightning
1. Defenseman Mikail Sergachev is going to be a great player, but it will take time, and when this season is over, the Drouin-for-Sergachev deal will lean heavily in Montreal's favor. Give it time. It will eventually swing the other way.
2. By year's end, Steven Stamkos will again be considered one of the elite scorers in the game.
3. The Lightning will finish second in the Atlantic Division and easily make the playoffs. But it will be knocked out in the second round.