- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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Despite a disappointing playoff performance last spring, the Tampa Bay Lightning -- who were swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round -- actually may be one of the most intriguing teams to watch, with training camp just around the corner.
Add some splashy offseason acquisitions -- defensemen Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison, and forward Brian Boyle -- and highly touted prospect Jonathan Drouin, and this could be the sleeper team of the NHL.
Former Lightning defenseman and Stanley Cup champion Pavel Kubina is hoping to see his old team emerge as one of top dogs in the East.
“I think it’s a great mix,” Kubina told ESPN.com in a recent telephone conversation. “[Jeff] Vinik really got behind them -- he’s one of the best owners I’ve ever played for -- and the team has a great future. They’ll definitely make the playoffs.”
Kubina, who played for Tampa Bay for 10 seasons, still resides in the area and runs Private Allstar Cars, a private car concierge service. Though that passion project keeps him busy, he maintains a close relationship with his former club and keeps tabs on it throughout the year.
Kubina was thoroughly impressed with the play last season of the 6-foot-7 Bishop, who earned a Vezina Trophy nomination after posting a 37-14-7 record with a .924 save percentage and a 2.23 goals-against average. Unfortunately for the Lightning, he went down with a wrist injury right before the playoffs began.
“Obviously with Bishop in net, even when they don’t have a good night, he’s capable of stealing games and getting them two points,” Kubina said. “They have a chance to win every night.”
Having Stamkos back at full strength also will be a major bonus. The 24-year-old superstar suffered a devastating leg injury in November, and despite an aggressive rehab plan that allowed him to return in March, he was clearly not playing at full capacity.
After a whole summer to rehabilitate the injury, Stamkos is ready to go, and Kubina can’t wait to see the results.
“I could see Stammer having probably 60-70 goals if he plays the whole year and, with Ben Bishop in net and some of their younger players, they could definitely do some damage in the East,” said the 37-year-old Kubina, who played in 970 career NHL games. “They don’t hold back a lot on offense, they create a lot of chances and they don’t sit back and wait to score.”
A big part of that, of course, is Jon Cooper, who made a splash in his first full season as the Lightning’s coach.
Kubina likes his demeanor and the way he has utilized a young, talented roster.
“He’s done a great job with the team,” Kubina said. “When he took over, the team started playing fun hockey. What I like about the system is they skate and play hard. They don’t sit back on a lot of chances . . . He does a good job with that young group.”
1587dScott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun