1. How has Andrei Vasilevskiy responded to being anointed the number one goalie for the Lightning?
Excellently. He's picked up right where he left off following the Ben Bishop trade last season. Since 2/26/17 when Ben Bishop was traded, Vasilevskiy leads the NHL in wins with 30 and has a 30-8-3 record. He trails only Sergei Bobrovsky over that time frame in save percentage. Vasilevskiy has been one of the best goaltenders in the league this season and he shows up night after night. His development is right on schedule from what Steve Yzerman expected, especially in light of how Ben Bishop's contract extension ended following last season. Even without the trade, this was the season Vasilevskiy was expected to take over as the starter. He has an incredible work ethic and compete level to go with elite physical talents. As a prospect, they didn't call him the Russian Carey Price for no reason and he's showing the NHL exactly why right now.
2. How is Mikhail Sergachev performing outside of putting up points?
Incredible. His time on ice has been well managed by the coaching staff with a 14:32 TOI that has been slowly increasing as the season goes on. He went from 12:47 over the first ten games, to 15:13 in the second ten games, and now is at 16:06 over the last seven games (not counting Thursday's game against Colorado). He's been mostly teamed up with Anton Stralman who has been a near-perfect counterpart to Sergachev's style. Being paired with Stralman has also meant that they are often asked to take on tough match-ups at home and his youth often invites tough match-ups on the road. Sergachev makes an excellent first pass and has high-end decision making abilities. He's still prone to mistakes just as any 19-year old in the league would be. But everything else in his game has more than made up for the odd mistake here and there. He's not playing on the penalty kill, yet, but I expect that will come in time. With his elite hockey IQ, he should be able to be a contributor in all three phases of the game in all three zones before too long.
3. Is part of Tampa’s success this year due to being in a terrible division?
The Lightning have only played seven games against the Atlantic division and are 5-2-0 in those games, though those games are against the bottom four teams in the Atlantic. However, the Lightning are 7-3-2 against the Metropolitan and haven't played against the Flyers yet, and that includes five wins combined over Pittsburgh, Washington, and Columbus. Against the West, the Lightning are sitting at 7-1-0. In fact, the Lightning have played 10 games against the bottom 11 teams in the league and are 7-3-0 against them. Against teams that are sitting in a playoff spot as of Wednesday, the Lightning are 11-3-1.
So, the short answer is... no, the Lightning are not taking advantage of a weak Atlantic division. They've been playing well against tough competition from all over the league.
4. Steve Stamkos seems to finally be healthy this year. How great is that for the Lightning and the NHL?
It's incredible. It's a shame that the NHL has such a problem with highlighting stars from small markets. Most NHL fans know Stamkos' name, but even with his injuries the past few seasons, he's still been one of the elite goal scorers of the post-2004 lockout era. Going back to the 2005-06 season (three full seasons before he entered the league), he still ranks 12th in goal scoring. Since entering the league, only Alex Ovechkin has more goals than Stamkos. And yet, Stamkos is a player that isn't marketed very well by the NHL because he's in Tampa. If he had been drafted by a large market, he'd be a face of the franchise. The same goes for Nikita Kucherov. For those of us in Tampa, we've known how special he was for a few years now. It's only taken until this season for fans and media pundits to actually start talking about him as one of the elite players in the NHL. Kucherov does it all; skates, passes, shoots, scores, awesome cellies. So, it's certainly great for the Lightning... but the NHL? That's debatable.
5. Why was Ryan Callahan signed to that contract again?
The warning signs for the downfall of Callahan was certainly there before he was signed to that contract extension. And in the first year, he actually lived up to it scoring 24 goals and 54 points in the first season. The second season wasn't so great with just 10 goals and 28 points as he also lost his spot on the top line with Stamkos and the top power play unit. Last season was a lost season for Callahan as he tried to fight through a hip injury and the two surgeries needed has probably made him lose a step of speed. But he's fully healthy this year and he's playing a hard nosed game on the fourth line. The point production isn't there, but in his current situation, it's hard to expect that there will be a lot of points as he only has a goal and six points over 26 games. With that said, it can't be understated how much his presence means in the locker room. Is it worth all of the money he's being paid? Probably not. But at this point in the contract, you have to look for value where ever it exists. The team lost two very important voices in the room in Stamkos and Callahan for almost the entirety of last season. Other players had to step up in the room and I don't think they were as effective in there. Towards the end of the season, Stamkos and Callahan were actually traveling with the team despite being done for the season just to be around the team and to help in any way they could. With Callahan back in the room full-time, plus the additions of Chris Kunitz and Dan Girardi, we've seen an extra hunger, an extra level of compete from the Lightning this season. And that's been a big key to their success.