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Photo Credit: Kim Klement - USA TODAY Sports

Photo Credit: Kim Klement – USA TODAY Sports

The 2014-2015 season has come to a close and Tampa Bay Lightning fans saw the bitter disappointing end to it. On Monday night the Bolts lost to the Chicago Blackhawks 2-0 to close out the Stanley Cup Finals in Game 6. It’s a tough one for Tampa Bay fans to swallow when it seemed that their hometown team had dominated most of the series. If you ask most people who watched the whole series, they will tell you that the Lightning dominated games one through four despite splitting them 2-2. Tampa Bay ends the season with their first three game losing streak, but despite the disappointment and the ‘what if’s’, there are plenty of reasons for the Lightning and their fans to be excited about the future.

Young Team With Experience

The Tampa Bay Lightning are among the youngest teams in the NHL, the 4th youngest this season to be exact. Of the 24 players who logged playoff minutes this postseason, 15 of them are aged 25 or under. They went into this postseason with not much experience, only Valtteri Filppula has hoisted the Cup. A first round sweep last season by the Montreal Canadiens certainly didn’t help that either.

This season they took out three consecutive Original 6 teams (something that has never been done before) on their way to a Stanley Cup Finals birth that went an exciting six games (neither team led by more than one goal in the first five games). Through the playoff run the Bolts experienced multiple elimination games and grabbed some big road victories inside some of the NHL’s most storied venues. This experience is something that a young team can learn from and build off of in the coming seasons.

Contracts

What should make you most excited as a fan is that all of the key contributors and role players are returning next season barring any trades. The Bolts only have four contracts expiring this season, the two biggest being 24 year old defensemen Andrej Sustr, who is set to become a restricted free agent and 36 year old winger Brenden Morrow, an unrestricted free agent. Andrej Sustr could be a potentially big loss if they can’t re-sign him, he’s a young defensemen who logged a lot of minutes in the postseason and was a big role player in the Lightning defense, but there is a lot of defensive talent on the roster that could easily make up for such a loss. The following season will see a lot of contracts expire, however five out of the 8 that expire next season will be restricted.

Goalies

Over the last two seasons Ben Bishop has established himself as one of the premier net minders in the NHL. Bishop led the post season in wins (13) and in shutouts (3, two of which came in game 7s) despite dealing with a torn groin for just about all of the final series. He posted a 2.32 goals against average and a .916 save percentage during the regular season while tallying 40 wins in 62 games. Even when Bishop exited game 2 of the Finals with an injury, 20 year old Ondrej Vasilevskiy came in and slammed the door shut to record his first career postseason victory.

Vasilevskiy went on to start game four in the Madhouse and had an impressive performance in the loss, allowing only 2 goals off of 19 shots. But Vasilevskiy having two good showings in the Stanley Cup Final is no fluke. This is a guy who is considered by many scouts and analysts to be the best goalie prospect in the last 20 years. He will certainly be providing some healthy competition to Ben Bishop for the starting spot over the next few seasons.

Rising Stars

Aside from the already established stars of Ryan Callahan and Steven Stamkos, the Bolts have a slew of young stars who are all making huge impacts. “The Triplets” line of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat is the line that gets all of the attention. With 200 points during the regular season and the postseason’s top two leading scorers all of that attention is not unjustified.

Tyler Johnson, one of the league’s fastest skaters, is only 24 but he was the postseason’s leader in points and in goals despite having a broken wrist for most of the Finals. He ranked 16th in goals and 14th in points over the course of the season, also netting six game winning goals. Nikita Kucherov, the 21 year old Russian, exploded in his first full season with the team. He had above average numbers that kept getting better as the season progressed. ‘Kuch’ had a great showing in the Finals, constantly creating opportunities and getting himself involved even if the stats may not show it. Ondrej Palat rounds off the line. Palat, just 24, is in his second full season with the team and he built off of his impressive rookie season and was one of the heroes of the Eastern Conference Finals and buried four goals with an impressive power play unit.

Each of the three triplets had a stellar postseason and are a key part of the Lightning’s success. However, there are some unsung heroes that are worth mentioning. J.T. Brown, the 24 year old right wing from Minnesota saw more ice time as the season progressed. When head coach Jon Cooper made the decision to move Ryan Callahan to the third line to play with Brown, Brown excelled. While Brown doesn’t have the statistics that pop out at you during the postseason, he did have some impressive play that you could only notice from watching the games. He is a tough, scrappy player who never gives up on a play and soon enough the goals will start pouring in.

Victor Hedman, had a very impressive postseason and at only 24 years old he is having analysts say “he’s arrived”. Drafted by Tampa Bay 2nd overall in 2009 Hedman in undoubtedly the best defenseman on the roster and one of the best in the NHL. Hedman played world class defense on some of the league’s best shooters in the playoffs and shut down Blackhawks star Patrick Kane in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Swedish star is a big presence on the ice with a long reach coming in at 6’6” and 230 pounds. He isn’t afraid to get physical at any part of the ice and will win the physical battle more times than not.

To round out the rising stars, Johnathan Drouin played his first full season with the Bolts and he is someone to be excited about. The 20 year old 1st round pick showed some moments of greatness during the season. While the numbers are not there yet, he has proven that he is a quick and elusive sharp shooter that is deadly at any range. Going forward he is a name to keep an eye on.

While the loss in the Stanley Cup Finals may sting for a while, it is a great time to be a Tampa Bay Lightning fan. The Eastern Conference Champions will come back experienced next season and even more importantly, hungry for The Cup.

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