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Don’t brush off the Panthers anymore, and more hot NHL topics

How’s the Atlantic Division shaping out? Who’s most improved? And what do we love about Seattle’s new NHL team?
Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (72) makes a stick-save on a shot by the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period of a preseason game on Sept. 28. Lightning's Anthony Cirelli (71) looks for a rebound. [CHRIS O'MEARA | AP]
Published Oct. 1

Lightning beat writer Diana C. Nearhos addresses some of the pertinent topics for the upcoming season.

Atlantic Division

Same old, same old

The Panthers should be much improved. They add Sergei Bobrovsky in net in free agency, and they hired three-time Stanley Cup winner Joel Quenneville behind the bench. Returning are the always-dangerous Jonathan Huberdeau and Alexander Barkov. But (big but) the Panthers still have to contend with the Lightning, Bruins and Maple Leafs for the division’s playoff spots. Did Florida improve enough? If not, that means the Panthers (and Canadiens) are back looking for a wild-card spot.

What will happen with Columbus?

The Blue Jackets took their shot last season. They went all in on rentals at the trade deadline, adding Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, who then both left in free agency. They essentially rented their own players Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, who were in the last years of their deals and walked in the offseason. Good pieces do remain, among them Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Alexandre Texier. John Tortorella is still a good coach. But given what Columbus lost, it’ll be tough to regain the momentum it had.

In this Jan. 8, 2019, file photo, Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella stands behind players during the first period of a game against Tampa Bay. [CHRIS O'MEARA | AP]

NHL 3-on-3

Best offseason moves: 1. Devils 2. Rangers 3. Stars

Teams by defense: 1. Sharks 2. Maple Leafs 3. Flames

Players I’m sorry to see go: 1. Ryan Callahan 2. Roberto Luongo 3. Brooks Orpik

MORE LIGHTNING: What can the Lightning learn from Virginia men’s basketball?

Lightning 3-on-3

Concerns: 1. Playoff scoring 2. Over-reliance on Andrei Vasilevskiy 3. Too many penalties

Strengths: 1. Regular-season scoring 3. Goaltending 3. Special teams

Things to see in Sweden: 1. Vasa Museum 2. Strandvagen 3. Drottningholm Palace

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) deflects a goal from Florida Panthers during the second period of a preseason NHL hockey game on Sept. 24 in Sunrise. [BRYNN ANDERSON | AP]

Watch him where he landed

Robin Lehner: The goalie had a major year with the Islanders last season and earned praise for speaking out about his mental health issues. Leaving New York in free agency, he’s in position to take over the crease with the Blackhawks.

Joel Quenneville: Should he have been fired in Chicago? Debatable. Taking over the Panthers, he has one heck of a top line with Jonathan Huberdeau, Alexander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov, and a great goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky.

Matt Duchene: The forward asked to be traded from the Avalanche, looking for a winner, and went to the Senators in time for them to sink. Then he was a rental with the Blue Jackets. In free agency, he joined the winning Predators.

MORE LIGHTNING: Carter Verhaeghe makes Lightning opening-night roster

NHL individual predictions

Hart (MVP): Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche

Norris (best defenseman): Erik Karlsson, Sharks

Vezina (best goalie): Andrei Vasilevskiy, Lightning

Calder (best rookie): Cale Makar, Avalanche

Jack Adams (best coach): Joel Quenneville, Panthers

San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson (65) plays against the Vegas Golden Knights during an NHL preseason game Sept. 29. [JOHN LOCHER | AP]

Random NHL thoughts

1. I wish I could see the game like Nikita Kucherov

He may not be the fastest or the most skilled (though he’s in the debate on the latter), but Kucherov has the best vision in the NHL. I’d love to see what he sees coming up the ice. He sees three steps ahead of everyone else and anticipates for it. Can we get a GoPro inside his head?

2. What are you doing, Auston Matthews?

From a person standpoint, what the actual heck? Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews is facing a charge of disorderly conduct, accused of dropping his pants and grabbing his rear end through his underwear when confronted by a female security guard after he and a group of friends tried to get into her car while she sat in it doing paperwork at 2 a.m. Matthews and friends called the incident at a Scottsdale, Ariz., condo complex in May a prank, a police report says. If you can’t see why this is threatening and unacceptable, I can’t help you. From a hockey player and potential team captain standpoint, Matthews didn’t admit to the Maple Leafs this had happened until media reports came out last week. Not screaming good decision making here.

Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) is defended by Montreal Canadiens center Jesperi Kotkaniemi (15) during the second period of a preseason game Sept. 25 in Toronto. [CHRISTOPHER KATSAROV | AP]

3. Props to expansion Seattle

The franchise, starting play in 2021-22, has made some great hires, including two notable women. It made Hockey Hall of Fame player Cammi Granato the first female pro scout in the NHL. The captain of the 1998 U.S. Olympic-winning team inspired a generation of female players. And Alexandra Mandrycky was lured from the Wild as Seattle’s hockey analytics specialist. Those who knew Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke during his Lightning tenure aren’t surprised by the moves.

RELATED: Join our Lightning Strikes! Facebook group for conversation, polls, story links and more

Questions facing the Lightning

How do the Lightning follow a historic season?

With reasonable expectations. The Lightning’s core is intact, and the roster has not drastically changed, but don’t expect another season of records and firsts.

Do expect another high-scoring, high-powered season, though. He might not post another 128 points, but Nikita Kucherov won’t fall off. He’ll still be one of the league’s leading scorers, if not the leader again. The Lightning can still be at the top of the league without 62 wins.

This season’s team isn’t being viewed through the lens of its historic 2018-19 regular season. It’s all about the historic postseason collapse.

When will Brayden Point play?

He had hip surgery after last season to repair a nagging injury, so he wasn’t expected to be available immediately even if he hadn’t held out for most of training camp over contract negotiations. General manager Julien BriseBois said that at the time of the surgery, Point was expected back in late October. Point said last week he didn’t have an exact time line for a return but his recovery was on target and he didn’t expect to miss much of the season.

In this April 12, 2019, file photo, Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point (21) is shown during the second period of Game 2 of an NHL Eastern Conference first-round playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. [CHRIS O'MEARA | AP]

RELATED: Brayden Point’s contract will impact the Tampa Bay Lightning’s future

Why didn’t we know about the surgery earlier?

Medical news like this often comes out at the start of training camp, but Point wasn’t here then. He was in contact with the Lightning and their medical staff throughout the summer.

Are the Lightning too dependent on power-play goals?

Maybe, but it’s not a major concern.

The Lightning scored a lot of goals last year (319), more than any team had in two decades. Almost a quarter of those goals came on the power play. That’s a high percentage, but it wasn’t the highest in the league. Four teams scored more of their goals on the power play, including the Bruins, who made it to the Stanley Cup final.

The Lightning had more power plays than all but three teams (the speed they play with draws penalties), so it’d be more concerning if they didn’t have so many power-play goals.

As for being too dependent on those goals, the Lightning was second in the league with 233 even-strength goals.

If the power-play concern comes from the Lightning collapsing in the playoffs, where they got fewer power plays, it might be misplaced. Everything went wrong for the Lightning in the playoffs. They couldn’t keep up their even-strength shot rate of the regular season, which came from not controlling pace the way they had.

There’s no such thing as being too good on the power play. There might be such a thing as being too dependent, but the Lightning aren’t there.

Can the Lightning bounce back from last year’s playoff collapse?

Yes.

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