BRANDON — After falling two wins shy of a historic Stanley Cup three-peat, the Lightning start a new quest for the Cup this week.
While some key pieces of the Lightning’s recent postseason success are gone, the team’s core remains intact. So there’s no reason to believe the Lightning can’t get back to the final.
But there are a few questions entering training camp (first practices are Thursday):
Is Brayden Point back to 100 percent?
Who knows what might have been had the Lightning’s top goal scorer over the previous two postseasons been healthy down the stretch. Point saved the Lightning’s playoff run with a dramatic overtime goal in Game 6 of the first-round series against Toronto, then tore his right quad muscle in the next game. He tried to return in the final for the first two games against Colorado, but didn’t play the rest of the series.
After the season, the Lightning said Point would be completely healed in plenty of time for training camp, but it will be interesting to see if there are any limitations for him. If an informal practice season last Wednesday was any indication, Point appears healthy again. He was skating freely and has the burst that makes him one of fastest players in the game, something he struggled to show when he tried to return in the Cup final.
Who replaces Ryan McDonagh?
The salary cap doesn’t allow the Lightning to keep their entire roster, and there regularly are offseason roster casualties, but the loss of defenseman Ryan McDonagh hits differently. McDonagh was the team’s top penalty killer and shot blocker. His defensive strengths sometimes overshadowed his heady ability to push the puck up the ice and create offense.
He was responsible on both sides of the ice, and two postseasons ago, he arguably was the Lightning’s top all-around player. McDonagh’s lead-by-example approach and level-headedness brought great value to the locker room.
More will be asked of Mikhail Sergachev in filling McDonagh’s left defenseman spot behind Victor Hedman. Sergachev will see tougher matchups defensively and likely take on more of McDonagh’s penalty-killing responsibilities. Veteran newcomer Ian Cole could also contribute on the penalty kill, but eating up the contributions of a player who tallied 22:27 of ice time a game will take a little extra from the entire defenseman corps.
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Who steps up for Ondrej Palat?
The other big hole the Lightning must fill is that of Palat, who landed in New Jersey after the Lightning were unable to re-sign him. Palat scored 27 goals over the past three postseasons, including eight game-winners, but it was his lunch-pail style playing alongside some of the Lightning’s top offensive players that might have marked his strongest contribution.
The Lightning will likely test several players in the top-six role Palat held, and if the team reunites Point and Nikita Kucherov on the top scoring line, they will be hard-pressed to find a player with the kind of chemistry Palat had with them.
Keep an eye on Vladislav Namestnikov, who has been skating with Point and Kucherov in the team’s informal skates. Namestnikov has chemistry with Kucherov and can play all three forward positions. The Lightning could test others there, possibly Brandon Hagel or Nick Paul, the latter of whom played brilliantly with Kucherov in the brief time they shared the ice during the playoffs.
How will the Lightning handle early injuries?
The Lightning will be without two key players — center Anthony Cirelli and defenseman Zach Bogosian, who both had offseason shoulder surgeries — for potentially the first two months of the season. Replacing Cirelli, one of the league’s top, young two-way forwards, will be difficult, especially given that he has become a key part of both special teams units as well. Can Paul or Ross Colton step into a second-line center role?
Bogosian’s absence — along with the offseason departure of Jan Rutta — leaves the right side defense thin. The Lightning extended Phillippe Myers, acquired in the McDonagh trade, another year through 2023-24, so they’re committed to seeing what he can do. The honeymoon is over for former first-rounder Cal Foote, who will need to show he is a regular NHL contributor. Also, expect free-agent signing Haydn Fleury to help overcome the Bogosian injury.
Which prospects could crack the roster?
There aren’t many roster spots available, but Cirelli’s injury could free up an opening night slot for a prospect. A frontrunner is Cole Koepke, who was a member of the Black Aces during the playoffs following a strong season in AHL Syracuse. The Lightning saw tremendous growth from Koepke in his first pro season, as he went from someone searching for his footing to arguably the Crunch’s top player. It will be interesting to see how Koepke can build on that in this camp.
Another prospect to watch is Gabriel Fortier, who showed promise during a 10-game stint with the Lightning last regular season. Dark horse forwards include Alex Barre-Boulet, Simon Ryfors, Grant Mismash and Felix Robert.
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