With the offseason in full swing and free agency news dying down, it’s time to turn our attention to the upcoming 2023-2024 season.
Schedules for all 32 teams were released about a month ago, with fans of every team circling the matchups they’re excited to see.
From former players returning for the first time to playoff rematches, there’s no shortage of storylines. Adding to the intrigue is that the Tampa Bay Lightning’s cross-state rivals, the Florida Panthers, advanced to the Stanley Cup Final before falling short in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights.
In this piece, I’ll look at five Lightning games that should be considered must-watch television during the 2023-24’ season. They’re in no particular order, so don’t worry about prioritizing one game over another.
October 10 vs. Nashville Predators
For the second straight year, the Lightning open their season on national television (ESPN). This time, they kick off a three-game slate with a 5:30 pm puck drop against a Predators team that’s made moves to improve after finishing outside of a playoff spot last season.
Ryan O’Reilly and Luke Schenn signed free-agent contracts with Nashville after helping the Toronto Maple Leafs break the curse of not getting out of the first round by beating the Lightning in six games.
Tanner Jeannot also faces his former team for the first time since being traded to the Bolts for five draft picks and defenseman Cal Foote at the 2023 trade deadline.
October 21 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Nearly six months after the 2022-23’ season came to an end much earlier than expected, the Lightning face the Maple Leafs for the first time with a chance to make a statement that they are still a threat to make the playoffs and possibly go far.
Both teams look different than they did in April. The Leafs parted ways with longtime general manager Kyle Dubas after failing to make it out of the second round. In his place, Brad Treliving was hired after spending nine seasons as the Calgary Flames GM.
The roster saw turnover as well. Grit and toughness became a priority after the Panthers had their way in a physical five-game series. As a result, forwards Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, and Ryan Reaves all inked deals to play north of the border.
On defense, John Klingberg signed a one-year contract to help shore up the Leafs blue line after both Justin Holl and Schenn left as free agents.
Michael Bunting, Alexander Kerfoot, and O’Reilly also departed via free agency.
For the Lightning, Conor Sheary, Logan Brown, Josh Archibald, and Luke Glendening were all added as free agents.
Unfortunately, the salary cap forced the team to trade Ross Colton, who had two of the biggest goals in recent history, to the Colorado Avalanche and Pat Maroon to the Minnesota Wild. Corey Perry was an unrestricted free agent who was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for future draft picks. Alex Killorn and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare each signed free agent deals to play elsewhere.
In goal, the Leafs signed Ilya Samsonov to a one-year deal via arbitration. They then placed Matt Murray on long-term injured reserve (LTIR). The Lightning, meanwhile, signed AHL Colorado Eagles netminder Jonas Johansson to back up Andrei Vasilevskiy.
December 27 vs. Florida Panthers
With the NHL’s holiday break coming to a close, the Lightning open their post-break schedule with the first of three meetings against their cross-state rivals, the Panthers.
The 2023-24’ season presents an added element of intrigue, as the Panthers went on a Cinderella run for the ages by coming back from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the Boston Bruins. They then steamrolled past both the Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes to make their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1996.
Boasting stars like Matthew Tkachuk, Carter Verhaeghe, and Aleksander Barkov, the Cats can score goals. Defense and goaltending was more of a question mark, though Sergei Bobrovsky’s 2023 postseason went a long way in answering some critics’ questions.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niko Mikkola and Mike Reilly were all added as free agents to shore up the teams defense and help offset the losses of Marc Staal and Radko Gudas.
January 13 vs. Anaheim Ducks
After spending the last 11 seasons with the Lightning organization, 10 of them at the NHL level, Alex Killorn makes his return to Amalie Arena for the first time wearing a different teams sweater.
In a decision he called “extremely hard,” Killorn chose to continue his career with the Anaheim Ducks. He penned a heartfelt goodbye to the Lightning on his Instagram account (@akillorn17) a few days after signing a four-year, $25 million contract.
While Killorn never scored a bunch of goals or piled on the points, he played a key role in the Lightning’s back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. In fact, he scored two points in Game 4 of the 2020 Cup Final against the Dallas Stars to give the team a semi-comfortable three games to one series lead.
This past year, Killorn notched career highs in goals and points while still being responsible defensively. His plus-18 rating was the fourth highest of his career, behind only the stretch spanning from 2017-18 to 2019-20.
One can bet that after spending his whole career in Bolts blue, Killorn will get the recognition he deserves in his first game back. Who wants to miss that?
February 15 vs. Colorado Avalanche
A salary cap casualty, Ross Colton makes his return to Amalie Arena the day after Valentines Day 2024. He was traded to the Avalanche for a second round draft pick in the 2023 NHL Draft.
In two and a half seasons with the Lightning, the Robbinsville, New Jersey native carved out a nice role for himself as a second or third liner who scored a number of clutch goals.
Colton burst onto the scene, scoring on the first shot of his NHL debut. It stood as the game winner in a 3-0 win over the Hurricanes, making him one of two players in franchise history to score a game-winner in their debut.
Two goals that stand out, however, came in the playoffs. First, he scored the game-winning goal in Game 5 of the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. Less than a year later, Colton took a perfect pass from Nikita Kucherov and beat Bobrovsky with mere seconds remaining in Game 2 of the 2022 second round to give the Lightning a 2-0 series lead. They went on to sweep the Panthers and advance to their third straight Stanley Cup Final.
Ironically, the team tasked with ending the Lightning’s quest for a three-peat was the Avalanche. They did just that, beating Tampa Bay in six games to win their first Cup since 1996.
December 21 vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Stanley Cup champions. Enough said.
January 18 vs. Minnesota Wild
Pat Maroon’s return to Amalie Arena.
November 9 vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Corey Perry returns to Amalie Arena, and the Lightning get their first look at 2023 first overall draft pick Connor Bedard.
Now that I have given my five can’t miss games, what do you think? Would you add or subtract any? Feel free to give your thoughts.