Tampa Bay won 62 games in the regular season, tying the NHL record, but failed to win so much as one contest in the post-season, falling in four straight to the Columbus Blue Jackets. What comes next for the Lightning at a time when there are more questions than answers?
Anthony Cirelli looks on as the Blue Jackets celebrate|Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images
Tampa Bay Lightning fans who think they’ve just witnessed the biggest choke-job in NHL history can take solace in the fact that in 1982, the Edmonton Oilers finished 48 points ahead of the Los Angeles Kings and blew a 5-0 lead in Game 3 en route to losing the first-round series. In fact, statistically, there are at least six playoff series that were bigger upsets than the Columbus Blue Jackets over the Lightning.
Nah, forget it. There’s nothing that’s going to sugar coat this monumental folding of the tent by the Lightning. Given the fact they tied the NHL’s single-season wins record, won the Presidents’ Trophy and were swept in the first round, the Lightning make a compelling case for those who believe they made the most ignominious playoff exit in NHL history.
Nothing about the Lightning’s loss to Columbus in the first round made sense. The power play that was tops in the league during the regular season was mediocre at best. The penalty kill that was No. 1 in the regular season was abysmal. The league’s most dangerous offense couldn’t produce more than an average of two goals a game. The man who will almost certainly walk away with the Vezina Trophy in two months posted an .856 save percentage. And the player who put up the best offensive season of the salary cap era failed to score a goal and got himself suspended for a game. Wow, when you put it that way, perhaps it was the worst collapse in NHL history.
The result will undoubtedly have those wondering whether this roster has what it takes to win when it counts most. There will be calls for significant change and those who believe the $8.5 million captain, the $3.75 million coach, the GM…somebody, anybody, has to go.
Sound familiar? Well, it should, because the team that hoisted the Stanley Cup last June had been hearing exactly that for about a decade. Ask Steve Yzerman, who was until recently the GM of this team, how many times Detroit Red Wing fans wanted him on a one-way ticket out of town before he led them to three Stanley Cups, the first of which when he was 32 years old. Ultimately, it will be the Lightning’s ability to shut out that noise and make decisions based on logic rather than emotion that will determine whether or not they follow in the path blazed by the Red Wings and the Capitals.
So what are the Lightning to do? Well, they don’t have the luxury of doing nothing, and that might actually be a blessing in disguise for them. Going into next season, they have just over $6 million in cap space and they’re faced with the task of signing Braydon Point to a contract extension and basically rebuilding half of an aging defense corps. And the year after next, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy will have to be renewed.
So what the Lightning are going to have to do is accurately put a value on their players, then swallow hard and make some difficult decisions. They’re made all the more difficult by the fact that both Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde have no-trade clauses in their deals. Do the Lightning give up some assets to have a team take Ryan Callahan’s $5.8 million cap hit off their hands? Or do they either deal Point’s rights or allow another team to offer sheet him as a restricted free agent and take the bounty of assets they’ll get in return? You’d have to think that there’s no shortage of options on the table at the moment.
Those are decisions that were going to have to be made anyway, even if the Lightning had won the Stanley Cup. They’ll now be made with the backdrop of this massive collapse and you’d have to think it will be a factor, but the Lightning know they have a strong team and a solid organization, led by owner Jeff Vinik, and won’t succumb to the temptation to make change simply for the sake of change.
Part of the problem here is the Lightning really don’t have this figured out yet. Last season they went on a roll to start the campaign, then let their foot off the gas and almost lost the division. This season they vowed that wouldn’t happen again and kept their pace going until Game No. 82. Neither of those approaches was successful. The Capitals had a revolving door of coaches for a time, but stuck with Barry Trotz through three straight second-round defeats before he led them to a championship, so firing the coach isn’t a panacea.
This is not a case of an organization in disarray. The Lightning are solid and stable from top to bottom and their scouting staff, led by director of amateur scouting Al Murray, has displayed an uncanny ability to find players and develop them into very good NHLers. Perhaps coach Jon Cooper was right when he said that for six days in April, his team couldn’t find its game. Maybe it’s that simple. The Lightning will win a Stanley Cup someday. It certainly won’t be this season and might not be next, but if they remain patient, they’ll be rewarded. And in today’s parity-riddled NHL, that’s probably all you can expect.
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