TAMPA, Fla. – Little about this season, from a coaching change to boasting two of the game’s most prolific offensive threats, was typical for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
That must be kept in mind when crafting the epitaph for what was a frustrating, inconsistent year for a franchise that expected more. When considering the potential and star power on its roster, Tampa Bay, simply, should have been better. Winger Martin St. Louis led the NHL in points with 60, and center Steven Stamkos finished second with 57. Meanwhile, St. Louis led the league in assists (43), and Stamkos finished second in goals (29).
Still, somehow, the Lightning were little more than an afterthought in the Eastern Conference by late March, once again absent from the postseason for the fifth time in six long years.
The Lightning totaled 40 points with an 18-26-4 record, good for second-to-last in the conference and four points ahead of the Florida Panthers for the 15th spot. The aftermath left a sense of the unfulfilled, the searching, for a franchise that packed its dressing room Monday at Tampa Bay Times Forum with more questions than answers.
Will coach Jon Cooper, who replaced the fired Guy Boucher in March, grow into a successful leader in the NHL? Will Tampa Bay capitalize on the elite talent found within its roster, mainly Stamkos and St. Louis? Will its goal-tending situation, with Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback, be stronger next season? Will the Lightning continue to score at a rapid rate?
Back in January, there was no doubt, only potential. At that time, the season, the Lightning’s third under Boucher, looked promising. Tampa Bay started 6-1 and scored at a blistering pace, registering five or more goals in five of its first seven games. The Bolts were fun and dangerous, a high-risk-but-mostly-high-reward threat that looked capable of turning the 48-game lockout-shortened season into an advantage, not a hindrance, in a sprint toward the playoffs.
Of course, that early success failed to last. The Lightning stumbled in February, losing six consecutive games after the 6-1 start. Optimism turned to frustration, frustration became change March 24, when Boucher was fired after an 84-62-19 record with Tampa Bay. Finally, the Lightning limped through the rest of the schedule, finishing 5-8-3 under Cooper.
The coaching switch was only part of the adjustment in a year of change. Tampa Bay traded for Bishop, formerly of the Ottawa Senators, on April 3 by sending young forward Cory Conacher and a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft to Canada. It was obvious that the Lightning had to do something in goal, but by the time the move was made, they were deep into a trend that made them a frustrating group to follow.
Consider Tampa Bay finished third in the NHL by averaging 3.06 goals per game. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins, at 3.38, and the Chicago Blackhawks, at 3.10, averaged more. Meanwhile, the Lightning finished 26th in the league with a goals-against average of 3.06 per game.
There, at its heart, is the season’s narrative: Star power and possibility were present, but there were also imbalance and not enough depth to turn potential into desired results. When watching the Lightning at times, especially in their seven-game start, it wasn’t a stretch to see them as a contender in the Southeast Division and the Eastern Conference as a whole. Boucher seemed well-liked by players, Stamkos was a young but accomplished star and St. Louis offered stable veteran guidance needed by any franchise that has visions of becoming elite.
“Disappointment,” Stamkos said, summarizing the season. “We’ve been in this situation before. It’s not fun. You play to be in the playoffs at this time of the year. That’s what you work hard towards in the summer when you’re preparing for a season. That’s what you work hard throughout the year to do. It’s extremely disappointing from a team perspective but also as an individual. You always feel that you can do more when the team’s not winning. It will be a long summer.”
Stamkos, more than anyone else, is a fascinating study. He represents the Lightning’s hope for the future, and for good reason: He has established himself as one of the NHL’s premier talents, only five years into his career in the league, after entering as the top overall pick in the 2008 entry draft. He had 29 goals this season, which would have put him on pace to threaten for a third 50-plus-goal campaign had this been a normal year. (He had a career-high 60 in 2011-12.)
However, what good are individual gains if team results fail to follow? On Monday, Stamkos spoke about how Tampa Bay has been patient in a slide since 2007-08, after the Lightning made four consecutive playoff appearances starting in 2002-03. But time is growing thin with aging veterans only getting older.
Despite Stamkos’ presence, Tampa Bay has only made the playoffs one time with him, in 2011, when the Bolts were one victory against the Boston Bruins from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. If disappointment was the takeaway from this winter, urgency should be a theme next season.
“We have great things,” St. Louis said. “(Vice present and general manager) Steve Yzerman is a smart guy. He’s been in every guy’s situation. His experience, his knowledge, I have full confidence in what he’s trying to do. I can feel some of his pain, because obviously, he wants to win, and it hasn’t gone the way we would have liked the last couple years.”
As with any end, though, a new start awaits. Cooper, with his success in the American Hockey League, must evolve to have his methods translate to the NHL. It was smart of Yzerman to lock up the coach, a rising star, before the offseason. But starting in training camp, this will be Cooper’s team, free of memory and influence from a previous regime.
Meanwhile, Stamkos and St. Louis will be back, presumably as dangerous as before. The goal-tending situation will be a key development to watch. Next year should present less change, less trauma, but the stakes will remain high all the same.