TAMPA — The biggest question for the Lightning entering this season is how they will rebuild their third line.
The combination of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow was instrumental in Tampa Bay’s back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. Its dedication to playing simple, hard-nosed hockey and resilience chasing the puck at both ends of the ice frustrated opponents and gave Tampa Bay the sandpaper it had lacked. Coach Jon Cooper chose the group to start games to set the tempo, and its grit rubbed off on the three other lines.
“To me, that was the best third line in hockey last year, no question,” said former Lightning goaltender and current ESPN analyst Kevin Weekes. “And you saw how great that third line was for them in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Every shift on the ice, they tilted the ice in their favor. Not only did that tilt it, it was a deep slope.”
Moving forward isn’t as simple as finding three players to work together to fill those roles. In a league in which they will have a bigger target on their back than ever, the Lightning need to reinvent themselves up and down the lineup.
Not only did they lose their entire third line — Gourde went to the Kraken in the expansion draft, Coleman left in free agency and Goodrow was traded — the Lightning traded fourth-line center Tyler Johnson, a key part of the lineup for eight seasons.
“That’s definitely the stuff you put on a bar napkin at night trying to find out what’s going to work,” Cooper said of imagining line combinations. “You do that during the summer. But to get them out and see what kind of chemistry you can have, we’re kind of moving some guys around.
“The guys we lost are gone, and we’re not going to replicate what we had last year. We’ve just got to transform ourselves into what we are and what we can be. … We’re not going to be last year’s team. We’re going to be this (year’s team), and we’re pretty fired up about it.”
That experimentation will likely extend into the season. It wasn’t long ago that Gourde played up and down the lineup while trying to find a home. It was only after Tampa Bay made a pair of trade-deadline deals in 2020 to acquire Coleman and Goodrow to add grit and experimented with putting the three together that they formed chemistry during the postseason.
During this preseason, the Lightning have experimented with an all-veteran line of Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Pat Maroon. Maroon and Perry, who was signed in the offseason in free agency, are good friends and played together in Anaheim. Bellemare, also a free-agent signee this year, seems to acclimate well anywhere. The three have done a lot of things together that the Gourde line did: They have been aggressive on the forecheck, played well down low, battled for pucks and created chaos in front of the net.
Cooper hasn’t committed to that line. And is it wise to stockpile so many veterans on one line?
The Lightning believe Ross Colton is ready to take another step forward coming off a promising rookie season, so they want him to center a line. He has also been paired with Perry in the preseason, and Colton could learn a lot lining up alongside the 16-year veteran, as he did last season next to Maroon. Colton and Mathieu Joseph, 24 and entering his fourth season, could be on the same line, so having a veteran influence there would help.
Ultimately, the best thing the Lightning have on their side is familiarity on their top two lines, which have pairings that won’t be separated. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point have the best chemistry of any teammates, so they’ll play together, as will Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn, who have created a great two-way game playing beside each other.
Steven Stamkos briefly skated with Colton and Perry, and though no line with Stamkos on it could be considered a checking line, it looked like it could work. Ondrej Palat seems like a lock to remain on the first line with Kucherov and Point — few remember that Palat was the team’s second- leading scorer last regular season — but Palat also has a lot of sandpaper to his game. He as third among forwards in hits to Goodrow and Coleman last season.
Imagine the grit a Palat-Cirelli-Killorn line could bring. It sure sounds like a trio that could set a tone like the Gourde line. But then who replaces Palat on the top line? Sometimes you don’t mess with what works, and the top line works really well together.
The Lightning had hoped one of their promising young forwards — Boris Katchouk, Taylor Raddysh, Simon Ryfors or Alex Barre-Boulet — would force his way into the lineup, but that hadn’t materialized midway through the preseason.
“There’s a lot of alchemy that goes into this,” Weekes said. “How does that get developed over the course of the year? You know what your locks are, but how (Cooper) and the coaching staff juggle this, there’s a lot of different variables, and that’s why you just come back the same way and run it back the exact same way.”
In hoisting the Stanley Cup two straight seasons, the Lightning played with the confidence that if they executed their game, they’d win. They could beat teams because they had a deep lineup capable of hurting opponents at both ends of the ice.
Now they have to change things up a bit.
“It’s no different than the Bucs, even though they have everybody back,” Weekes said. “Everybody’s watching, and you have so much on film. And everyone’s spending so much time trying to figure out, ‘How do we beat these guys?’ Smart teams are in the lab. What are you cooking up? What do you see? What patterns are there? What are the consistent themes we see in how they attack off the rush?
“The smart people are looking for those patterns and tendencies and trying to find ways to exploit them, because (the Lightning) are the standard. So they’ve got to come out with some unique differences.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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