Season Preview: Three questions with Lightning blog Raw Charge

We’re previewing the season by asking the experts - other SB Nation blogs!

Moving right along with the Atlantic preview, looking at arguably the best team in the division: the Tampa Bay Lightning. The team reached the Stanley Cup finals in 2015, the conference finals in 2016, and have just extended Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman forever. How do the writers feel about the team?

1. Steve Yzerman had arguably the best end of June, extending  Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. Were you ever worried about losing  Stamkos? What's your current confidence level in your GM, taking into  account the Callahan/Carle deals along with the Stamkos/Hedman/Stralman  deals?

Brett: Despite all of the rumors and exaggerated tales, only Stamkos and his camp knew what his plans were to approaching free agency, which in hindsight was testing the waters only to realize what he wanted was at home all along.

Lightning fans were worried to some degree Stamkos would leave, but at the same time were prepared for such a scenario. Stamkos is a franchise pillar and vital to its success, but considering the 11-4-1 postseason performance conquered without him, it’s fair to say most fans would’ve gracefully accepted it. Dating back to Vincent Lecavalier’s compliance buyout three years ago, a tolerance had already been developed for this sort of thing.

Martin St. Louis’ sudden departure at the 2014 Trade Deadline factored in to the steep price Steve Yzerman was willing to pay to keep Ryan Callahan, but overall he’s done an exceptional job of managing cap space to give Lightning fans plenty of confidence as a general manager. The Bolts will enter their third straight season with 100% of its talented roster still intact while many clubs continue to have a high turnover rate each summer. Yzerman’s diligent, reasonable signings of Stamkos and Victor Hedman alone give fans plenty of reassurance. His conscious cap control dates back prior to four years ago when Matt Carle received a worthy contract for averaging 30+ point seasons.

Alex Killorn’s seven-year, $31 million deal with a no-movement clause despite no 20-goal season to his name, however, is questionable. Especially when Yzerman is still left with the task of locking up Nikita Kucherov long-term, who only trails Stamkos by five points (131) for most on the team since October 2014. Should be an interesting end to the offseason.

2. Tampa seems poised to hit a cap crunch in  the next couple seasons. Of The Triplets (Nikita Kucherov, Tyler  Johnson, Ondrej Palat), which one do you think is most expendable? Or do  you think the team can cut costs somewhere else to keep them all?

John: It’s tough trying to figure out expendability status of this TKO trio. Most NHL fans know of the potency of Nikita Kucherov, who became a scoring force with the Bolts the past two seasons (28 and 30 goals scored in 2014-15 and ‘15-’16 respectively), all with thanks in part to improved communications with the likes of Johnson and Palat among others. Speaking of Johnson and Palat, that tandem has been playing together in the Lightning organization since 2011-12 when they won the Calder Cup with the Norfolk Admirals of the AHL…

Technically, with how the club is focused on player development, all of them are potentially expendable given the right circumstances (read: trade and value of acquisition). But player development is a process and while the Bolts have cogs in the pipeline, experience and success is lacking for many of the cogs out there. With the success Tampa Bay has seen with the Triplets, odds are you’d see others made expendable in favor of retaining Palat, Johnson and Kucherov.

For example, Valtteri Filppula has two full seasons left with the Lightning (AAV of $5 million). Tampa Bay already houses many guys who can play wing or center like Filppula can. Brian Boyle’s contract expires after this season, and while his $2 million cap hit isn’t grand, neither is the cap hit of a multitude of lower line talent who might take up his responsibilities.

Let’s not forget the factor of the NHL Expansion Draft for next summer too. While you can’t guarantee things to play out in such a way that cap relief happens, it’s an aspect to take into consideration. Heck, Johnson and Palat could be exposed (with thanks to a multitude of Tampa Bay players having NMC/No Trade clauses).

For what it’s worth, though, Tyler Johnson is the guy playing a role with the club that has the most depth in the organization (center). Talents like Brayden Point, Matthew Peca, Mitchell Stephens and Tanner Richard are capable of becoming NHL talent in time (with Point, Peca and Richard already playing pro hockey). These guys, along with Vladislav Namestnikov who already plays at the NHL level, could take over center play if Johnson needs to be moved due to cost. Not that we want him gone, but it’s a potential scenario.

waffleboardsave: It’s rare to keep two players with  chemistry together — John Tavares with his multitude of wingers  throughout the years is an example — but an entire line? That’s the  challenge Steve Yzerman faces with the Triplets line of Nikita Kucherov,  Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson. Yzerman spent this offseason signing  other core players to team-friendly contracts, signings so great that  “Yzerman for general manager of the year” is already being written,  tweeted, stamped, etc.

But  the impossibility of keeping that three can’t be ignored. If the line  has to be split up, the question becomes who becomes the sacrificial  lamb? Kucherov is the untouchable. He’s a star. He is clutch. He’s a  playoff machine, leading the team in scoring this past offseason and  coming one point behind the team leader of the 2015 playoffs. He led the  team in scoring in the regular season while reaching 30 goals.

Palat and Johnson were marred with injuries last season. Between the two of them they missed 33 games, so it’s a little difficult to make a  definitive decision if you had to pick between the two. Johnson did not  look like himself for most of the season and his average time on ice  actually decreased this past season from the season before. Palat,  meanwhile, has seen his ice time rise and has regularly seen PK time  with Steven Stamkos. With Stamkos and Vlad Namestnikov signed to new  contracts as centers, and Palat and Jonathan Drouin as the only true  left wingers as the team stands currently, Johnson my choice to let go.

Palat  and Johnson are both playing for their contracts as they become RFAs  after this coming season. Maybe by then the picture will look more  clear. Or, it won’t and Yzerman will have his work cut out for him. But  at the end of the day, it’s not a terrible problem to have for any team.

3.  What do the Bolts have in Nikita Nesterov? People were arguing he was  an underused gem in 2014-15. He was still sparingly used in 2015-16, but  his numbers seemed to suffer as well. Do you think he can earn Jon  Cooper's trust and have a future with the Lightning? (Editor’s note: since this questions was asked, Nesterov was also named to Team Russia for the World Cup of Hockey)

loserpoints: Nikita Nesterov is an interesting case. He plays the type of game that teams used to hate but are starting to appreciate a bit more. With the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup, the phrase “puck moving defender” has permeated hockey writing. Nesterov fits that description and has the ability to transition from defense to offense. He is a willing and capable shooter and has even shown some competency when given an opportunity on the power play.

The Lightning defensive core has an established top four of Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn. Slater Koekkoek looks like a lock to secure a spot in the third pairing to start the season and given that, Nesterov is in competition with Andrej Sustr for playing time. Sustr and Nesterov posted similar numbers last year despite Sustr playing almost 350 more minutes. Both showed moments of potential but both were also plagued by the type of big glaring mistakes in the defensive zone that result in loss of the coaching staff’s trust.

Nesterov and and Sustr represent different styles of defense. Sustr is a giant who can clog passing lanes with positioning and disrupt the opposition’s attack with his reach. Nesterov is a puck mover who can push the puck in transition through the neutral zone. The player who can make consistently smart decisions in the defensive zone and execute effectively will likely be the one who earns that sixth defensive spot. Sustr seemed to be secure as head coach Jon Cooper’s choice in that role by the end of last season but Nesterov has the skill set to compete for playing time. The competition between those two along with Koekkoek will be one of the more interesting story lines heading into camp.

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