By the time the Lightning's season ended in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, one of their top-pair defensemen was recovering from a fractured fibula, their starting goalie was shelved with strained ankle ligaments, and their captain had just returned after missing eight weeks due to blood clots. And yet, one more victory against the Penguins would have put them in the Stanley Cup finals for the second straight year.
Here's the scariest part: Not one skater who dressed for Game 7 left over the summer. Instead, center Steven Stamkos, forward Alex Killorn and defenseman Victor Hedman all received whopping extensions, as did netminder-of-the-future Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Injuries at critical times last spring were unfortunate speed bumps (see: Stamkos's blood clots, Bishop's ankle and blueliner Anton Stralman's leg), but there is open road ahead. Winger Nikita Kucherov, who edged out Stamkos for the team scoring lead with 66 points in 2015--16, is only 23, and Hedman, entering his eighth season, should contend for the Norris Trophy. Says Stamkos, "This team we have is built to consistently be in the mix."
ON THE DOORSTEP
Giving the nod to Tampa is not to denigrate the Penguins, who have everyone back from their championship roster except third-pair defenseman Ben Lovejoy. As with the Lightning, there's a young goalie (Matt Murray) ready to support, if not unseat, a proven veteran (Marc-André Fleury). And like Tampa, Pittsburgh has staggering offensive depth: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel skated on three different lines, and will likely continue to do so. Their consistency on the back end is questionable, but coach Mike Sullivan's system offers shelter.
The Capitals remain stuck on the wrong side of the second round, despite romping to a league-best 120 points last season. Minor tweaks to their bottom six should help fortify their scoring depth, but with 10 contracts expiring next summer, the urgency of 2016--17 is clear. One of the potential departees is center Evgeny Kuznetsov, whose 77 points made him Washington's first leading scorer of the Alex Ovechkin era not named ... Alex Ovechkin.
After posting the first 100-point season in franchise history and winning the Atlantic Division with an upstart group of kids and coots, the Panthers aren't surprising anyone this season. Adding puck-moving defensemen Jason Demers and Keith Yandle for a combined $67 million in free agency narrowed the age gap somewhat, but five of Florida's seven highest-paid forwards are still 25 or younger.
ONE PLAYER AWAY
Signing forwards Jason Chimera and P.A. Parenteau were savvy moves for the Islanders, but they don't make up for losing second-and third-leading scorers Kyle Okposo (64 points) and Frans Nielsen (52 points) to free agency. Even with a high shooting percentage (15.8%), Brock Nelson deserves credit for his 1.20 goals per 60 even-strength minutes, third best in the league.
Two straight postseason whiffs have soured many of the Bruins' faithful, but it's unlikely the streak will continue. Perpetual pest Brad Marchand, playing with perennial Selke finalist Patrice Bergeron, broke out last season with 37 goals. The centering Davids (Krejci and Backes) strengthen Boston's middle six. Defensive depth remains suspect, though, so goaltender Tuukka Rask needs to better last season's .915 save percentage, the lowest of his career.
Even if the Canadiens emerge on the short end of the P.K. Subban--Shea Weber deal, having the world's best goalie should keep them in the mix. (Recall, Montreal started 16-4-2 before Carey Price sprained his right MCL last Nov. 25.) Their 25th-ranked power play (16.2%) needs work, and their decision to target Andrew Shaw (six years, $23.4 million) suggests a curious emphasis on grit in today's speed-first world.
WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR
First things first: The Flyers need more than 11 goals from winger Jakub Voracek and 67 points from pivot Claude Giroux. Around them, though, the Flyers are flourishing thanks to GM Ron Hextall's patience. Sean Couturier has developed into a bona fide shutdown center, 23-year-old Shayne Gostisbehere's 17 goals ranked sixth among defensemen, and few succeed around the net like Wayne Simmonds (career-high 32 goals).
After a swift first-round exit ended the hopes borne of consecutive conference finals appearances, it's time to wonder how much longer "King" Henrik Lundqvist can support his Rangers regents. Flipping center Derick Brassard, 29, for Mika Zibanejad, 23, and luring NCAA standout Jimmy Vesey to the Big Apple were positives. But coach Alain Vigneault needs to address New York's possession woes at five-on-five: 47.4% (fifth-worst in the NHL).
Re-signing speedster Darren Helm was big for the Red Wings, as was shedding the contract of 38-year-old Pavel Datsyuk, who retired from the NHL to play in Russia. But Detroit failed to bolster an aging blue line that deploys three defensemen over 30. This will place heavy burdens on goalies Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek.
With the recent trades for Brassard and former Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, the Senators believe they are close. After all, two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson posted the first 80-point season by a defenseman in 10 years. The counterargument: New coach Guy Boucher inherits a lineup ranked 26th or worse in goals against (2.94), power play (15.8%) and penalty kill (75.8%).
WAIT TILL 2020
The Hurricanes dressed six defensemen under 25 last season and swiped 22-year-old winger Teuvo Teravainen from cap-crunched Chicago, so they seem to be trending in the right direction. Yet Carolina lacks the consistent goaltending (conference-worst .902 save percentage) to burst through a crowded playoff pack.
Signing hard-nosed winger Kyle Okposo away from the Islanders on July 1 added grit and experience to the Sabres' top six. Emerging talent Rasmus Ristolainen, 21, has been impressive on the blue line, and Cup-winning coach Dan Bylsma has the pedigree, but Buffalo is still relying on potential instead of production.
Acquiring a top five left wing in Taylor Hall should quickly improve New Jersey's offense (2.22 goals per game, worst in the league), but the cost—shipping blueliner Adam Larsson to Edmonton—leaves the defense lacking talent. Criminally underrated goalie Cory Schneider can only clean up so many messes.
High hopes cratered quickly for the Blue Jackets last year. Defensemen Seth Jones and Ryan Murray and forward Brandon Saad all appeared for the North American under-23 team at the World Cup of Hockey, but no notable additions joined them over the off-season.
The Maple Leafs' centennial season comes with little present-day cause for celebration, but certainly hope for a festive future. Top pick Auston Matthews will be a first-liner from Day One, and the pipeline is pumping with prospects. Coach Mike Babcock finally has the ingredients; this team just needs time to cook.
HOW THEY RANK
"VICTOR HEDMAN IS A HORSE. HE TAKES UP A TON OF ROOM AND CAN SKATE LIKE THE WIND."
BEN BISHOP LIGHTNING GOALIE