TAMPA, Fla. – This season has long been lost for the Tampa Bay Lightning, from a strong start (6-1) wasted in February, to a coaching change (Guy Boucher to Jon Cooper) in March to an end Saturday night that signifies how much of a contradiction these 48 games became.
Fourteen-year veteran winger Martin St. Louis, who finished with 60 points after a goal and an assist in a 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers at Tampa Bay Times Forum, became the oldest winner of the Art Ross Trophy when the NHL’s regular season concluded Sunday. He’s 37 years old and looks the part of a dressing-room leader with scars – stern, composed, a no-nonsense presence, even when he’s asked to describe what it’s like to weigh a strong individual season against an unsatisfying team campaign.
“I’d trade a lot of that to be in a playoff and have a chance at a Stanley Cup,” St. Louis said. “When all that kind of goes away, the hope of getting in (the playoffs), you try to finish strong and play the right way. … When you’re trying to make the best of that situation and play the right way and do the right things, and hopefully you get some points along the way. But like I said, I’d trade that for a chance to play in the playoffs any day.”
Fact is, Tampa Bay was nowhere close to the playoffs. After Saturday’s defeat, the Lightning’s eighth in their last nine games, they finished with 40 points at 18-26-4 and in second-to-last place in the Eastern Conference. It looked much like their last 48-game lockout-shortened season, in 1994-95, when they had 37 points after going 17-28-3.
The Lightning have missed the playoffs five times in the past six years. The 6-1 start seems like ages ago. Back then, in January, they were a quick and efficient threat that scored five or more goals in five of their first seven games.
Enter St. Louis, who stayed consistent even when his team did not. His 60 points (17 goals) is remarkable considering the brevity with which they were earned. Last year, he scored 74 in 77 games. He scored 99 in 82 in 2010-11. When he won the Art Ross Trophy in 2003-04, his fourth Lightning season, he had 94 points.
“Hey, I’m proud,” St. Louis said. “I’m really excited about it. I’m not going to pretend I’m not. But like I said, I’d trade that for a chance to play in the playoffs any time.”
Likely, this feat will mean more to him later, after knowledge becomes less raw that the Lightning became the first of 14 teams since the NHL expanded, before the 1967-68 season, to miss the playoffs after having the NHL’s top two points producers (center Steven Stamkos finished second with 57).
Still, St. Louis’ scoring title is a point of personal pride. He spoke Saturday of how the challenge to prove oneself never ends, and in fact, becomes more intense with age. The question, “Can you still play?” becomes a haunting inquiry with seemingly no escape, at least until the bruises, the grind, are lost in retirement.
Yet with production from Stamkos and St. Louis comes a predicament for Tampa Bay: How can the Lightning translate individual gains into group progress?
It’s no surprise the Lightning’s defense was a sour point most of the season – they finished 26th in goals-against average by allowing 3.06 per game – but a similar situation will only create more questions next year.
How good can Tampa Bay be with St. Louis and Stamkos? Perhaps elite, but such a vision seems distant after an unfulfilling year.
“We have two of the top scorers in the league, and we’re not making the playoffs,” Cooper said. “That’s where, somewhere at some point, we’ve got to turn that into winning hockey games. … Next year, we’ve got to translate this into wins. Whether points are going to go higher or points are going to go lower, it’s not going to be about who gets the most. It’s going to be about who gets the most wins.”
The coach doesn’t need to remind St. Louis. As he unlaced his skates and ripped off his pads for a final time this season, the veteran sat at his stall and revisited a frustrating year.
“We wasted a good start,” he told FOX Sports Florida. “That’s long done. That start was wasted a long time ago. After 6-1, nobody thought we would be in this situation.
“It’s done. You’ve just got to go and earn it. We didn’t do that this year.”