New-look Lightning must retain identity to remain playoff contenders

TAMPA, Fla. — Maybe it was because the shock had turned to acceptance. Maybe it was because Steven Stamkos was skating with the "C" stitched near his left shoulder, not rehabbing at a furious pace to return.

Maybe it was because new winger Ryan Callahan, barely more than 12 hours after arriving in steamy Florida on Wednesday night, spoke about not trying to replace Marty St. Louis but instead asserting his physical brand of play for a team that needs a jolt late in the regular season.

Maybe it was because "#26 Martin St. Louis" was nowhere to be found in the bio pages of a thick pregame notes packet, except for a brief mention under Callahan’s entry that read, "Traded to Tampa Bay in exchange for Martin St. Louis."

Maybe it was because coach Jon Cooper revealed that he spoke to his team at 10:05 a.m. about St. Louis’ departure, verbal closure to a strange 24 hours, and said the discussion was "100 percent positive."

"It’s a different era," Cooper said Thursday, echoing Steve Yzerman’s words from the night before.

Whatever the reason, this day felt like a step into new territory at Tampa Bay Times Forum. If Wednesday’s news of St. Louis’ trade to the New York Rangers stung, Thursday’s buildup to Tampa Bay’s 3-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres was the balm.

The Lightning look different with St. Louis gone, Stamkos back from a broken right tibia and Callahan here. Their largest task: They must preserve who they are while managing so much change.

"We need to keep our identity," said Stamkos, who had five shots in 21:03 of ice time Thursday. "Guys come and go. Obviously, it’s a little bigger scale when you lose your captain and a guy like Marty for everything that he has done, so there’s going to be a little of an adjustment period. But we can’t change the identity of this team."

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That’s Tampa Bay’s puzzle in the weeks ahead. Stamkos is right: Names come and go, roster shuffle part of the reality in the NHL. So much of this life in dressing rooms and within front offices is about making the right tweaks, finding that perfect chemistry, discovering a winning formula through trial and error.

St. Louis’ departure feels different, of course. His likeness was seen on the side of the arena before his old team skated without him Thursday morning. His likeness was seen in the tunnel outside his former teammates’ dressing room before they took the ice Thursday night.

His likeness — both seen and unseen — will linger here, his legacy as perhaps Tampa Bay’s greatest player alive as long as there are those who remember what No. 26 gave this place: Blood, sweat, stats and more.

Still, a weight was lifted from within these walls, relief found in the fact that the trade deadline had passed, Stamkos was back and Callahan had arrived to give Tampa Bay a hard-hitting presence this lineup had lacked. The static was gone.

"I think Marty’s play speaks for itself," said Callahan, who had four shots in 16:33 of ice time Thursday. "He’s one of the top players in this league. By no means am I coming in and trying to replace what he did here."

The potential danger for the Lightning in the coming weeks will be the urge to become something different than what made them playoff contenders. So much change — from Stamkos’ comeback to Callahan’s introduction to trickle-down effects of St. Louis’ departure — has the power to derail a team that has lost eight of 11 games since Jan. 28.

"There has been probably a little something hanging over our team for quite some time," Cooper said.

"Whether this (trade) was right or wrong or if it’s going to help or hurt — we don’t know the answer to that question today. But it has brought kind of a new — I don’t know if ‘invigorating’ is the word — but a new life to our team. We don’t know which way it’s going to go at this point."

Only focus and strong leadership can make this new life go the right way. Sure, that means Stamkos and Callahan — a former Rangers captain — but rising talents like Ben Bishop, Valtteri Filppula, Victor Hedman and Tyler Johnson must do their part. There’s opportunity for all.

"We get Stammer and Callahan back," Bishop said. "We just got way better as a team any way you look at it. Stammer comes back, and he makes the team that much better. Then you’ve got a guy like Callahan, someone who we don’t really have in the lineup — a guy who is going to stir stuff up in front of the net, just anything to block shots. Our penalty kill has been up-and-down, and he’s going to help solidify that. I look at it that our team got a lot better."

"I don’t know if there’s really a new identity," Bishop continued. "I think the face of the franchise is coming back. I think that has always been our identity. Marty wanted out, and he got his wish. Now we got Callahan — somebody I think is going to make our team better."

A new normal has arrived. But that’s misleading: The familiar identity must remain the same.

"I don’t think our team identity changes," defenseman Mark Barberio said. "We’re a team that’s going to be committed to playing hard, defensive hockey and making sure we can transition quick. Our game plan is not going to change. We’re still going to play the same way and be the team that has been going all season long."

From afar, the Lightning look different after the St. Louis-Callahan trade, a franchise in search of a new identity after such a jarring event. Close up, though, it becomes clear that they require the exact opposite: An ability to stay steady and remain true to what made them Eastern Conference contenders, even with Stamkos out.

The days to come will be different. But no matter where the leadership comes, all that matters is that the Lightning don’t alter who they are, even with this recent slide.

"We didn’t change it when I went out," Stamkos said. "We didn’t change it when other guys have gone out. That’s the thing that is probably the toughest — you want to change things, but you’ve got to keep the same. And I don’t think we’ll have a problem doing that."

Their playoff visions depend on it.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.