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MCKEEN’S 2023-24 NHL YEARBOOK – TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING – Team Preview – Player Profiles

Review: For the first time since 2018-2019, the Lightning did not reach the Stanley Cup Final, losing in the first round to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tampa Bay had 98 points and was better than average in terms of possession, controlling 51.7% of score-and-venue-adjusted shot attempts and 52.2% of expected goals, but better than average also revealed signs of vulnerability. Even so, the Lightning averaged 3.45 goals per game, which ranked eighth, and they allowed 3.10 goals against per game, which ranked 14th. None of this indicates massive problems, but it does reflect a team that might not be at the same level as when they were making annual trips to the Stanley Cup Final.

What’s Changed? Keeping the Stanley Cup core gets increasingly difficult over time and the Lightning have been forced to make roster decisions based on salary cap commitments. This summer, that meant watching Alex Killorn, Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare leave as free agents while trading Ross Colton and Pat Maroon. Trying to fill those holes inexpensively, Tampa Bay brought in Conor Sheary, Josh Archibald, Luke Glendening, and Logan Brown, which would seem to be a downgrade, but it might also open the door for some prospects to challenge for regular roles, something that has not happened a lot with the Lightning in recent seasons. On defense, veteran Calvin de Haan adds solid depth to a unit that has much more continuity.

What would success look like? After reaching three straight Stanley Cup Finals, winning two, the Lightning are hardly going to settle for something less than a Cup Finals appearance, even if that is increasingly less likely. They still have elite talent, and the core pieces of those Stanley Cup teams. However, every loss of supporting players like Killorn, Colton, and Ondrej Palat the previous summer makes it that much harder for the Lightning to stay on top. The stars are the ones that drive results, but Cup winners have a strong supporting cast and it’s fair to wonder if the Lightning even warrant legitimate Stanley Cup hopes given the quality of their current supporting cast.

What could go wrong? While Tampa Bay appears to have too much talent to flop entirely, with a lot of key players on the north side of 30, there is the possibility that injuries could loom large for Tampa Bay. Certainly, any injury to goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy would be a concern because the Lightning continue the shop the bargain bin for backup goaltenders, landing on Jonas Johansson this season, but if injuries hit Nikita Kucherov, or Steven Stamkos, or Victor Hedman – core players who are all over 30 – that could present a significant challenge. These are first-world hockey problems, worrying about what might happen if more than one of your superstars gets injured.

Top Breakout Candidate: The Lightning do not have unproven players in prime positions so any breakout expectations should be tempered. However, winger Michael Eyssimont is worth watching. He split last season between Winnipeg, San Jose, and Tampa Bay, managing 15 points in 54 games, but he also had 107 hits and 124 shots on goal. That physical play is likely going to earn Eyssimont a regular spot in Tampa Bay’s top nine, but if he starts scoring on more than four percent of his shots, he could really start to provide some value. The opportunity is there for Eyssimont to not only secure a full-time NHL job, but for him to play a substantial role.


Nikita Kucherov

Coming off his third career season with more than 100 points, Kucherov is a premier scoring winger, an elite setup man in every respect. His creativity and vision are special, and he plays with a confidence that allows him to make plays that are only possible at the very top end of the league. He also plays with a nastiness that gives him a competitive edge. Since 2017-2018, Kucherov has 495 points in 359 games, his 1.38 points per game ranking second behind only Connor McDavid. He has scored 160 points in 142 career playoff games, so he does not shrink away when the games matter most. As great as Kucherov is, his 11.1% shooting percentage last season was his lowest since his rookie season in 2013-2014 and his defensive play is not exactly going to earn him Selke Trophy votes. When he is firing on all cylinders, though, Kucherov is too much for most defenders to handle. For example, from November 17th through December 17th last season, he tallied 24 points (5 G, 19 A) in just 14 games. While Connor McDavid has to be the favorite to lead the league in scoring in 2023-2024, Kucherov is as worthy of consideration as any other contender for the Art Ross Trophy.

Brayden Point

An established star who has been an integral part of Tampa Bay’s playoff success, Point erupted for the most productive season of his career, scoring 51 goals and 95 points, both of which were career highs. He scored on a career high 21.7% of his shots, while registering a career high 2.87 shots per game, so it is not as though Point is a high-volume shooter, but he has always been a high percentage finisher, scoring on better than 15.0% of his shots in each of the past five seasons. Point has a quick release and makes the most of his role in the bumper position on the Tampa Bay power play, scoring 20 of his 51 goals last season with the man advantage. Playing with Kucherov is obviously a great spot to be for a player who can pull the trigger like Point, and he finished last season with 53 points (28 G, 25 A) in his last 42 games. It is fascinating to see how productive Point has been in the playoffs, with 82 points (40 G, 42 A) in 82 playoff games, and how he has had two seasons with 90-plus points, but then has seasons with point totals in the 50s and 60s. That does suggest some caution when looking ahead for Point, but an 80-point season should be well within his grasp.

Steven Stamkos

At 33 years old, Stamkos continues to churn out points, putting up 84 points (34 G, 50 A) in 81 games last season. He did record 35 points on the power play and his possession numbers during five-on-five play showed signs of slipping. His shot release is one of the most dangerous in the league, but it is reasonable to wonder if there might be some decline on the way given his age and the injuries that he has endured during a career of more than 1,003 games during which he has scored 515 goals. Stamkos had an 11-game point streak in January, during which he had 15 points (7 G, 8 A) and 46 shots on goal. If he would keep generating shots like that, the goals would never stop. However, he is still in a position to contribute big offensive numbers and that means that 35 goals and 80-plus points is within a reasonable range. The supporting cast in Tampa Bay is part of the calculation, too. It would be easier for Stamkos to keep producing at an elite level if he always played with Kucherov and Point, but he spent significant time with Alex Killorn and Nick Paul, and Anthony Cirelli, too.

Brandon Hagel

An energy winger in Chicago who has thrived since arriving in Tampa Bay where he has been playing in a scoring role, Hagel set career highs with 30 goals and 64 points last season, and he makes the most of the great opportunity to play with Kucherov and Point. Hagel has good speed in transition and is not shy about getting to the front of the net when the Lightning have control of the puck in the offensive zone. Considering the way that Kucherov distributes the puck, that is a good idea. Because he is not necessarily the play driver on that number one line, Hagel’s production can fluctuate. In the last 16 games of the regular season, he had 14 points (7 G, 7 A), even though he had a seven-game scoreless streak in the midst of that span of games. Hagel is an interesting player to project because he has scored on 16.1% of his shots in his career, which is rather high, but he has played 211 games, which is not a huge sample. On the other hand, he plays mostly with Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, so that could contribute to creating better chances and higher shooting percentages. He may not match last season’s output, but 25-30 goals and 55-60 points should still be within range for Hagel.

Anthony Cirelli

At his best, Cirelli is a premier defensive center who can contribute on the offensive end, too. He missed the start of the season due to shoulder surgery and had a 20-game stretch during which he managed just four points, but he also had six points (3 G, 3 A) in six playoff games. Even with some ups and downs during the season, the Lightning outscored opponents 35-22 with Cirelli on the ice for five-on-five play.  Cirelli has twice finished in the top five in Selke voting and, when healthy, the 26-year-old is a legitimate contender for the award as the league’s top defensive forward. Strangely enough, given his earned reputation, Cirelli was at least as effective offensively as he was defensively last season, which is not the case when he is giving his peak defensive performance, but starting the season late likely didn’t help matters. Cirelli can reasonably be expected to put up 35-40 points, though there is potential for more. If he is healthy for a full season and play a lot with Stamkos, for example, that might offer better scoring potential.

Nick Paul

Anchoring Tampa Bay’s third line, Paul scored a career high 17 goals and tied his career high with 32 points. He has good size and plays a physical game in addition to winning 53.7% of his faceoffs. While he is a strong defensive presence, Paul’s offensive game is limited, and that puts a ceiling on what kind of impact he can have overall. At the same time, Paul is exactly the kind of big-body physically strong player that the Lightning want on their third line and has played more than 16 minutes per game for three straight seasons, so he has established himself firmly in this role. Paul got off to a sensational start last season, producing 18 points (11 G, 7 A) in his first 23 games, but he followed that up with eight points (5 G, 3 A) in his next 30 games. His straight-ahead game has definite benefits, but it does contribute to his uninspiring offensive numbers. Paul should continue in the same range as his recent seasons, so somewhere between 30 and 35 points is a reasonable expectation.

Tanner Jeannot

After an impressive rookie season in 2021-2022, when he scored 24 goals, Jeannot was one of the most snakebit players in the league last season, finishing with six goals on 107 shots in 76 games. The Lightning paid a steep price to acquire Jeannot and while he managed just four points (1 G, 3 A) in 20 games for Tampa Bay, he also suffered a high ankle sprain late in the season and tried to play through it. He is as strong as an ox and that powerful base is the cornerstone of his game. The 26-year-old winger has recorded 608 hits in the past two seasons, 90 more than any other forward over that period. Jeannot is probably a decent buy-low option going into 2023-2024, because it would be difficult to struggle to that degree again – he had a 38-game goalless drought! – and he is due for percentages to swing back in his favor. A bounce-back season for Jeannot could still mean as few as 30-35 points, which would be a big jump from the 18 points he had in 76 games in 2022-2023, but maybe with good health, he could climb the depth chart and offer more than that.

Conor Sheary

An undersized winger who filled a secondary scoring role in Washington the past two seasons, Sheary could have an opportunity to play a quality complementary role in Tampa Bay. Playing more than 15 minutes per game, Sheary has put up 80 points (34 G, 46 A) in 153 games across the past two years, but his possession numbers have been on the wrong side of the ledger, too. He somehow finished with 37 points despite a massive slump. In a 29-game span from January 8 through March19, Sheary had three points (1 G, 2 A). There may be an opportunity for Sheary to fit in a top-six role in Tampa Bay, which would provide a path to continued offensive production. With quality forwards in Tampa Bay, Sheary should still be able to find his way into the range of 35 to 40 points.

Michael Eyssimont

By the time the puck drops on the 2023-2024 season, Eyssimont will be 27 years old and will have 55 NHL games under his belt, 54 of which came last season when he played for Winnipeg, San Jose, and Tampa Bay, so he is a late bloomer to be sure. What makes Eyssimont more interesting than the typical 15-point winger is that, in his small sample of NHL games, he has shown that he can generate shots. Among players that appeared in at least 500 five-on-five minutes Eyssimont ranked ninth with 11.06 shots per 60 minutes. He scored on just 4.0% of those shots, but generating the shots in the first place creates the possibility that his production could get a boost merely with better luck around the net. While he does not have notable size, he plays a physical game and recorded 107 hits in 54 games, so he has a way to earn his spot in the lineup. Although Eyssimont does not have a lot of NHL experience, he has a legit chance to stick in Tampa Bay’s top nine. He has 51 points in 67 AHL games over the past two seasons and could have a chance to produce 25-30 points as a full-time NHLer.


Victor Hedman

For the first time since 2015-2016, Hedman was not a finalist for the Norris Trophy, and it was justified because his defensive play had slipped compared to previous years. Hedman was still a positive influence on the Lightning but was not the dominant play driving force that had been. He has such rare physical tools, to be able to skate and handle the puck at his size, that Hedman could very easily return to Norris Trophy form, but it bears watching. He is 32 years old and while he is far from finished, it is possible that there is some decline from the top tier elite status that he has been occupying for so long. 2022-2023 was the first time in Hedman’s career that the Lightning fared better in terms of shot attempts when he was off the ice. It was the second time in the past three seasons that the Lightning were better when judged by expected goals with Hedman off the ice. For all of those questions, it can’t be ignored that Hedman has been an elite defender for a long time, so it would be premature to write him off. Losing power play time to Mikhail Sergachev doesn’t help Hedman’s output, but he remains capable of producing 55-60 points.

Mikhail Sergachev

With Hedman’s production slipping, Sergachev stepped up and became the quarterback on the first power play unit for Tampa Bay, scoring 27 of his career-high 64 points with the man advantage. At 25 years old, Sergachev is in his prime, and played a career-high 23:49 per game last season. Not only is he a strong skater who can handle the puck and unleash a heavy shot from the point, but he is sturdy and physical. Sergachev was one of 22 defensemen to record more than 125 hits and 125 blocked shots last season. From that group, Darnell Nurse and Moritz Seider were the only ones with more than 40 points and Sergachev was 20 points clear of both. He finished the season with a scoring flourish, producing 22 points (3 G, 19 A) with 45 shots on goal in his last 18 games. If he is going to put up those numbers, he will continue to hold greater responsibility on the Tampa Bay blueline. Since he is in his prime and did not benefit from lofty percentages last season, another 60-point campaign is a reasonable target for Sergachev.

Nick Perbix

A sixth-round pick who played at St. Cloud State, Perbix was not highly touted, and the right-shot defender landed in the NHL as a 24-year-old rookie last season. From the moment he arrived, though, he did not look out of place and delivered quality third-pair minutes. He is a strong passer who moves the puck up the ice and, generally, the Lightning had success with Perbix on the ice, out-shooting and outscoring the opposition during five-on-five play. The next step is to see if he can handle more responsibility, potentially into a top-four role on the Tampa Bay blueline. With more ice time, in a full season, Perbix could see his point production jump to the range of 25 to 30 points, but he has such a limited track record that he might end up on the third pairing and unlikely to even match last season’s production.

Erik Cernak

A 26-year-old thumper on the Tampa Bay defense, Cernak recorded a career-high 209 hits then got knocked out in the first game of the playoffs thanks to a high hit by Maple Leafs winger Michael Bunting. Cernak has limitations with the puck on his stick, but he is a strong skater and plays such a hard, competitive game that he still offers plenty of value in a top-four shutdown role and has consistently played more than 19 minutes per game throughout his career.  One other thing that has been a consistent factor in Cernak’s career is injuries. He played a career-high 70 games last season, so his hard play comes with a price, and while that tends to happen to most physical defensemen, it is not so common for a defenseman in his mid-20s to be sidelined as frequently as Cernak. While he has yet to record a 20-point season in the NHL, Cernak has a chance to get there if he stays healthy. Hits and, to a lesser degree, blocked shots are the counting stats that are going to enhance Cernak’s value.


Andrei Vasilevskiy

The Andrei Vasilevskiy story, by this point in his career, is very much rinse-and-repeat. Vasilevskiy might not be the league’s hottest topic anymore, with shiny new names circulating the Vezina conversation alongside him each year and younger franchises (including one just downstate from Tampa in metro Miami) contending for the cup, but he remains one of the top ten goaltenders year-over-year with no signs of slowing down. It’s not a matter of if he’ll do well, but how well he’ll do; he might not win the Vezina or the Cup, but he’ll make the playoffs and keep his team in games with very little evidence that he’ll do anything to disappoint.

The Lightning almost certainly know that they’ll need to do something about their goaltending situation at some point in the coming years, but they also seem to know that there’s no rush – so they seem content to ride with Vasilevskiy while prospect Hugo Alnefelt develops in the AHL. Their only change this off-season was to move on from a now-underperforming Brian Elliott as the rarely-used number two, instead signing Jonas Johansson as their number two. That could be a sign that Alnefelt is being prepped to get his NHL look, given how poorly Johansson has performed at the NHL level in the past few seasons. But ultimately, there’s not much about Tampa’s upcoming season that warrants discussion beyond reiterating that Vasilevskiy is still their best shot at success; with his dynamic drives and quick hands, the only thing that could slow the starter down is physical fatigue. At some point, he has to hit a wall – but he hasn’t yet, so Tampa seems content to address that problem when it pops up down the road.

Projected starts: 65-70