The Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the NHL's most dangerous and winningest teams in the last five seasons.
They took home back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 2020 and 2021, and they made it back to the Stanley Cup Final in 2022 before falling short against the Colorado Avalanche.
The Lightning featured their usual array of superstars once again last season, including Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Few teams can match Tampa Bay's top-level talent, but they were not the same team in 2022-23 that they had been in the past.
Tampa Bay finished third in the Atlantic Division behind the record-setting Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, and they rarely demonstrated the consistency that head coach Jon Cooper and the team's fans are used to seeing.
While it's tough to blame any single player, Vasilveskiy did not play up to previous levels. Regularly considered the best goaltender in the league, that skill did not surface last year. He had a 2.65 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage.
After their disappointing regular season, the Lightning suffered a stunning defeat in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. They fell to the Maple Leafs in six games, giving their opponents their first playoff victory since 2004.
Bounce back in 2023-24 for the Lightning
There's little doubt that Cooper would like to see his team play more consistent hockey in the 2023-24 season, and there's a good chance that can happen if players like Kucherov, Point and Vasilevskiy can return to peak levels.
In addition to their superstars rising again, the Lightning need far more help from their third- and fourth-line players as well as their bottom pairing defensemen. Championship level teams often get major contributions from their less-celebrated players.
The Lightning have a lot of veteran talent, but they also know that they must continue to work young prospects in their lineups once they start to show consistency.
The team has some very talented youngsters who may not be ready to contribute this year, but they will have a chance to make an impression in training camp. Additionally, these players will have a chance to be Lightning stars of the future.
Here's a look at 3 of those players.
Goalie Hugo Alnefelt, Syracuse Crunch
While the presence of Vasilevskiy indicates the Lightning have the goaltending position taken care of for the present and near future, the Lightning have regularly taken great care of the goaltending position.
Management may not be making any assumptions about Vasilevskiy having yet another stellar year. If they don't like what they see from him, they may turn to Alnefelt in 2024-25 or beyond.
Alnefelt showed quite a bit of improvement last year while playing with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League, and he delivered a .904 save percentage and 2.77 goals against average.
Those numbers are good but not great, but the 22-year-old Alnefelt should only get better. The belief is that he could become the Syracuse starter at some point during the season, and he may get a chance with the big club in the following season.
Forward Ethan Gauthier, Drummondville Voltigeurs
Gauthier does not have great size, but the the 5-11 forward has a chance to develop into a top-notch scorer in the next couple of seasons.
Gauthier is not the most physically gifted player, but he has an excellent understanding of the game and knows what it takes to make plays and help his team compete. He appears to be a big-time forechecker who can attack opposing defenseman and find a way to take the puck away. He knows the escape route of opposing defensemen, and he will cut it off 9 times out of 10.
He was a point per game player last year in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and he has a chance to do even more this year.
Forward Dylan Duke, University of Michigan
The Wolverines have had some of the most talented collegiate players in recent years, and many of them left the program prior to the last season. Duke stepped up in a big way for Michigan, scoring 18 goals and adding 32 assists in 41 games. Duke also played a key role for the Under 20 Team USA in the World Juniors with 4 points in 7 games.
As Duke continues to to make progress, he has the ability and work ethic to play a key third-line role with the team That should not be overlooked on a team that has been dependent on those type of players for its most impressive achievements.