For the first time in over a decade, the Tampa Bay Lightning found themselves skating without an elite center last season.
The team parted ways with former captain Vincent Lecavalier during the summer, and played without sniper Steven Stamkos, who suffered a broken leg, for four months.
The adversity proved invaluable to the Lighting, as it revealed the team had significant depth up the middle.
Valtteri Filppula proved to be one of the best free agent signings from the previous summer. Rookie Tyler Johnson transitioned smoothly to the NHL following an MVP season at the AHL level. Nate Thompson continued to be a defensive stalwart. And a mix of veterans, rookies and forwards able to shift from wing to center filled the gap in the middle.
Of course, Tampa Bay is more dangerous with Stamkos in the lineup. But the play of the Lightning’s two-way scoring forwards showed there’s a foundation which is capable of carrying the team when necessary.
Steven Stamkos, 24: Last season was an up-and-down one for Stamkos, who missed significant time due to injury for the first time in his career but bounced back well. The two-time 50-goal scorer opened the season on a tear, with points in all but three of 16 games before suffering a broken leg on November 11 in Boston. He was a little less productive upon his return in March, working through a couple of rare three-game stretches in which he did not register a point. The center also took over as team captain in March after Tampa Bay traded Martin St. Louis to the New York Rangers. Without question, Stamkos is the centerpiece of this franchise moving forward. He moved forward without having a two-time Art Ross Trophy winner on his line, so how he adjusts will be interesting to watch moving forward. It seems ideal he’ll end up with a scoring wingman like Calder Trophy finalist Ondrej Palat or perhaps highly touted rookie Jonathan Drouin. The question is not so much as to whether he’ll continue to be a frequent threat to score at least 50 goals a season, rather how much further can he push toward 55, 60, perhaps even 65?
Valtteri Filppula, 30: Of all the free agent centers in the NHL to sign last offseason, none had a better year than Filppula. The Finn registered 25 goals and 33 assists, finishing second to only Ondrej Palat in team scoring. Though many expected Filppula would jump to Tampa Bay’s top line after Stamkos went down, he continued to anchor the second line with Alex Killorn and Teddy Purcell. Filppula registered 15 multiple-point games and rode a 12-game points streak in March. He never went more than four games without contributing at least one point. In the faceoff circle, he won 52.3 percent of his draws. That mark not only led Tampa Bay, but ranked among the top 30 league-wide of players who took part in over 1,000 faceoffs. Filppula gives Tampa Bay the catalyst for a second scoring line the team has sometimes lacked, while also providing solid defense. His success should open up opportunities for the Bolts’ other lines.
Tyler Johnson, 23: After finishing as the AHL’s leading goal scorer and most valuable player, Johnson put together an NHL campaign worthy of consideration for Calder Trophy honors as the league’s top rookie. Johnson appeared in all 82 games, recording 24 goals, 26 assists and a plus-23 rating. He finished fourth among teammates and third among the league’s rookies. Johnson ended up taking over top-line duties alongside former Bolt Martin St. Louis after Stamkos went down and registered 31 of his 50 points during that stretch. His ability to produce is unquestioned, although with Stamkos healthy again and Filppula expected to command second-line minutes, can Johnson repeat with presumably less ice time?
Nate Thompson, 29: The veteran posted his highest points total (16) in two seasons, but took a step forward in his evolution as a formidable defensive forward. For the first time in his career, Thompson finished in plus territory (plus-3) in plus-minus rating and finished above 50 percent in winning draws for the third time in four seasons. Under contract for the next three seasons, Thompson is the prototypical fourth-line pivot with penalty killing abilities and some offensive upside.
Vladislav Namestnikov, 21: The Russian broke out in his second professional season, ranking third in Syracuse with 48 points. Despite only playing 56 games due to a shoulder injury, Namestnikov managed to improve upon his statistics by double digits across the board. He also made his NHL debut in February, going without a point in four games. Tampa Bay’s first-round (27th overall) pick in 2011, Namestnikov seems ready to make a jump to the NHL, but a solidified depth chart in front is a barrier. The pivot boasts too much offensive talent to be a fourth-liner. He’s likely to be the first receiving a call if injuries impact Tampa Bay. Otherwise, more time in Syracuse seems like the plan heading into next season.
Cedric Paquette, 20: Tampa Bay’s fourth-round selection (101st overall) in 2012, Paquette impressed in his first professional season. He ranked third among Syracuse (AHL) teammates in goals (20) and fourth in points (44) in 70 contests. He made his NHL debut in April, and ended up sticking around for the postseason in which he ended up with a pair of assists in four games. Expect to see Paquette spend a more time in the minors next season, but call ups are not out of the question.
Tom Pyatt, 27 (UFA): Pyatt battled a broken collarbone early in the season, and later struggled to crack a lineup to earn frequent playing time. He’s a reliable fourth-line center, but with Tampa Bay stocked with younger talent, it is hard to see Pyatt re-signing with the Bolts this offseason. Expect him to test free agency.