Here are three early-season questions for the Lightning as they prepare to begin their 30th anniversary campaign
How Will They Handle the Road-Heavy Start?
Seven of the first nine games will be played on the road. There are two separate six-day trips in the season’s opening three weeks. Adding in departure days – including Monday’s travel day to New York City – the Lightning will be away for 14 of the season’s first 20 days.
There are some advantages to playing lots of road games early. Players are fresh, so fatigue won’t be a factor. The Lightning will knock out one of their longest (distance-wise) trips of the season when they play the three California teams later this month. Early trips allow for team bonding experiences, which can be especially beneficial for the new members of the Lightning.
But there are potential pitfalls as well. Practice time is important in the season’s opening weeks; it becomes harder to work in those practices when the team is hopscotching all over the country. At least on each of their two long October trips, the Lightning get a two-day break, which will be spent in one city. There’s a full practice day scheduled during both of those breaks.
Then there is the importance of beginning the season well. Teams that get off to a quick start greatly increase their odds of making the playoffs. Remember, the eight qualifying teams from the East last year established their playoff position early and held it for the rest of the regular season.
Of course, the Lightning would love to begin the season with nine consecutive wins. But at the minimum, they want to come out of the stretch in decent shape. After those first nine, they’ll play fifteen of their next twenty games at home.
Will There Be a Runner-up Hangover?
There’s no reason to believe that the Lightning won’t be ready to go from the start. As defending Cup champs in each of the past two regular seasons, they had no Championship hangover. They put themselves in a good standings position early on and never looked back.
But there is evidence that such a hangover can exist. Not just for the Cup winner, but also for the runner-up. It can be difficult to give Game Two of the regular season the same level of intensity as Game Two of the Stanley Cup Final. In fact, the past two losing Finalists – the Dallas Stars and Montreal Canadiens – missed the playoffs the following year. The Lightning lost in the 2015 Final and they struggled at the start of the 2015-16 season before recovering during the second half.
It’s true that this Lightning team is not the same one as the 2015-16 group. Nor are they the 2021 Dallas Stars or last year’s Canadiens. Still, given the importance of getting off to a good start, plus their road-heavy opening month, the Lightning will look to hit the ground running.
Who Will Fill In the Blanks?
In a conversation with John Romano of the Tampa Bay Times, Jon Cooper said, “We’re a contender, but we’ve got to fill in some blanks. That’s the great unknown: Who is going to fill in the blanks?”
The turnover from last year’s blue line creates plenty of opportunities. Mikhail Sergachev, who played with Erik Cernak during camp, and Cal Foote, who was paired with Victor Hedman, are expected to take on bigger roles. Phil Myers (third NHL team in three years ) and Haydn Fleury (fourth NHL team in three years) are new to the team and eager for a fresh start. They were defense partners at Monday’s practice.
At forward, there was less movement during the offseason. Ondrej Palat departed and Vlad Namestnikov returned. Cole Koepke and Gabriel Fortier moved up the depth chart. But that was it. Still, even with the relative stability at that position, Jon Cooper did plenty of line shuffling during the preseason. At practice on Monday, Cooper reunited the line of Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Nikita Kucherov, a unit Cooper has used in the past. Nick Paul centered Brandon Hagel and Alex Killorn. Namestnikov was in between Koepke and Ross Colton. Pat Maroon, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Corey Perry, who played together as a line for most of last season, were together again.
These may be the line combinations and defense pairings heading into Tuesday’s opener. But they may not last. With Anthony Cirelli and Zach Bogosian missing the start of the year, in addition to the other offseason departures, the Lightning will have to, as Cooper stated, fill in some blanks. So don’t be surprised if there is further experimentation as the season progresses.
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