TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 16: ITampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) and Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) celebrate after the NHL game between the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning on November 16, 2017 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Since missing the playoffs to finish their 2017 season, the Tampa Bay Lightening have convincingly become the best team in the NHL. But to take it one step further, you could even say they have been the best team of the entire 2017 year. The Lightning barely missed the playoffs at the end of the 2016-17 season and had they made squeaked into the playoffs, may have made a run to the Stanley Cup Finals. The team was playing at an incredibly high level and would’ve made it in had they finished the year with one more victory.

Since then, general manager Steve Yzerman has done a bit of retooling and once again has turned the Lightning into a dominant team in the Eastern Conference. Though the changes made to the Lightning since the beginning of the 2016-17 season have been few, they have been necessary. Out are Jonathan Drouin and goaltender Ben Bishop, while in stepped rookie Mikhail Sergachev, and veterans Dan Girardi and Chris Kunitz. The changes never suggested a systematic change but rather a jolt of adrenaline that brought their offence to another level in 2017. The Lightning currently have a league best 50pts – seven points clear in the Atlantic Division – and top the NHL in both goals per game (3.79) and powerplay efficiency (28.1%).

Since the beginning of the calendar year, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been the team no one has wanted to face. If they continue into 2018 the way they played 2017, the Lightning will find themselves in their second cup final in four years, and will most likely take home hockey’s biggest prize at it’s conclusion.

The Tampa Bay Lightning: 2017’s Team of the Year

Missing The Playoffs Did Not Matter

When a team misses the playoffs in any sport it is disappointing. It’s maybe even more demoralizing in hockey considering over half the teams in the league make it in. The Lightning missed the playoffs for the first time in four season in 2017 despite making it to back-to-back conference finals in 2015 and 2016. This came after a monstrous late season push where the Lightening went 15-5-2 to close out their campaign and fell just one point short of a playoff spot.

However, the 2017 campaign proved to be one of valuable experience to the Lightening. No one lost their job, and the core pieces remained intact at the trade deadline and the draft. 2017 gave valuable experience to some of the younger kids in Tampa Bay’s lineup in lieu of Steven Stamkos‘s season long injury. Players like Vladislav Namestnikov and Brayden Point, begin to contribute on a greater level as the season went on, and have now become key cogs in Tampa’s electric scoring offence. This extends to the blue line where Victor Hedman had his most impressive campaign of his eight year career — posting 72 points and finishing third in Norris Trophy voting.

The only player on the Lightening who took a step backwards last season was Bishop. Bishop was moved at the deadline to Los Angeles after having one of his worst ever season’s as a starter, opening the door for an in house to replacement to step in.

Speaking of….

Vasilevskiy Is A Star

Andrei Vasilevskiy has been the Lightening’s long term plan between the pipes since he was drafted 19th overall by Tampa in 2012. His only roadblock was the 6’7″, Vezina contending monster standing in his way. Bishop had always been good to the Lightening but his contract expired after the 2017 season concluded. Coach John Cooper thought Vasilevskiy was finally ready to take over as a full time starter and Lightening brass no longer had any stock left in Bishop.

Vasilevskiy showed he had promise when he helped Russia capture a medal in three straight years at the IIHF World Juniors Champions and a gold at the IIHF Hockey Champions in 2014, but not even Cooper thought that he could play at such a high level in the NHL at such a young age.

At 23, Vasilevskiy is already making a run for his first Vezina Trophy. Through 27 starts this season, the lightening goaltender has posted a .932 SV%, 2.18 GAA, is tied for second in league shutouts, all while leading the league wins. There is nothing left to ask of Vasilevskiy besides to keep up the way he’s playing and what is so crazy, is that he is still getting improving at such a young age. Goalies don’t typically find their footing until they hit the ages of around 26-28, but Vasilevskiy has the poise of a star. His patience and reaction time mixed in with his incredible lateral movement make him one of the toughest goalies to beat in close, on the breakaway or across the crease.

Vasilevskiy is already pushing his way into the NHL’s elite class of goaltenders and if he keeps playing at this rate all season, he could easily find himself in the top-5 discussion at years end.

Stamkos is Healthy

Since Stamkos stepped into the NHL in 2009 he has always been one of the fastest and most elite snipers in the game. His problem has been keeping himself on the ice. In two of Stamkos’s last four season’s he has missed 45 or more games. Once in 2013-14 when he suffered a broken leg after colliding with a goalpost, and again last season after suffering a tear in his right meniscus. He also almost missed the entire 2016 playoffs with a blood clot near his right collarbone.

The Lightning have been forced into learning how to play without their captain, but it is no secret they are stronger with him in the lineup. In two of the three seasons in which Stamkos has missed significant time, the Lightning have no playoff wins. This year they have already gathered 24 regular season wins in just 33 games. He also makes his teammates better. Tampa Bay’s first line has largely consisted of Stamkos, Namestnikov and Nikita Kucherov where the young Namestnikov’s number have hit a spike to begin the year. Through the 33 games, Namestnikov has already tied his career high in goals, is six behind his career high in points, has scored eight times with the man advantage all while averaging over 18 minutes of ice time a night. The Lightening are very good together, but Stamkos’s presence takes to Lightning to another level.

Stamkos and Kucherov are currently dominating the scoring race, but Stamkos has honed his playmaking skills while maintaining his signature shot thus far in 2017. He has already contributed 32 assists in 33 games – only 14 shy of his career high – and has added nine goals with the man advantage. So he is on pace to score the second most powerplay goals of his career…what more can you ask for from this guy?

Scoring Depth

As important as the big dogs like Stamkos, Kucherov, and Hedman are to the Lightning, their late season serge last season, and hot start this season, are largely impart to their incredible team depth. Tampa holds one of the the league’s deepest rosters, whether it be upfront, on the backend or in net. But the area where their depth excels at most, has been finding the back of the net.

The Lightning are currently a scoring machine at both even strength and with the man advantage but their offence comes from everywhere. In 2017 so far, Tampa Bay has nine different players with over 20 points — Nashville is the only other team with more than six. Of these nine players, two are defensemen, and two are rookies.

However, the most notable of all of the role players may be the rookie Sergachev. Acquired for Drouin over the summer, Sergachev has played at an extremely high level in his first year of NHL action. The 19 year-old has 23 points in his first 33 games – more than Charlie McAvoy, Nico HischierKyle Connor – and has worked magic as part of a defensive pairing with Anton Stralman. Sergachev is quickly making a living trailing the rush and burying chances around the top of the circle while not overaggressively pinching too low.

Another crazy thing about those nine players is that none are over the age of 27. The NHL has become a young mans league, but there is so much collective experience in the Lightning locker room from years past, they don’t seem to need players past their primes to come in and only be a voice. This core of players is elite and will be for at least a couple more years.

Conclusion

Tampa Bay have become one of the league’s most model franchises over the past half-decade and have looked better than ever over the past 12 months. Missing the playoffs may have hurt the Lightning last year but 15 of the 16 teams go home unhappy after the Stanley Cup is lifted.

For Tampa to get back to the finals again and this time finish the job, they simply have to play their game and stay away from injuries. When healthy, the Lightning are the best team on paper in the NHL.

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