As the NHL trade deadline looms, albeit quietly, the Tampa Bay Lightning are attempting to dig themselves out of a rather large hole. Make no mistake, the unenviable position the team found themselves in at the beginning of February was largely self-inflicted.
By the beginning of the month, they found themselves in the cellar in the Eastern Conference. Not in the last playoff spot — dead last in the conference. Closer to a draft lottery than the postseason. There were many reasons for their position.
Sure there were injuries but that alone doesn’t differentiate the Lightning from the other 29 NHL teams. There was sloppy defensive play at times along with average goaltending. When the goaltending did perform well, the offense would take a night off.
The injuries did result in a lot of frequent flier miles as the team recalled 15 different players from their AHL affiliate, Syracuse Crunch, in 34 different transactions. The only saving grace for the team seemed to be the parity that exists in the NHL. Even though they were in the cellar, they were only eight points from a playoff spot.
So as the NHL heads into the final 10 weeks of the regular season, the Lightning are wrestling with the question of whether or not they are a playoff team. Is this team ready to hit the links and not the ice this spring?
Fixing A Hole
True to the struggling nature that has hung on this team throughout the season, they lost the first game of February. It was a big game to boot — they lost to the Ottawa Senators, one of the teams that has one of the playoff spots the Lightning covet.
It wasn’t even close either, as they lost 5 to 2. At that point, the locals were searching for the nearest draft prospect reports. It appeared as if the season of high expectations was about to finish with a thud. Then the Lightning remembered who they have been the last three years.
In the subsequent seven games this month, the Lightning didn’t lose in regulation and went 5 – 0 – 2 in that span making up some ground. They climbed out of the bottom of the conference but still are chasing a few teams for a playoff berth.
In their last game, with the seven-game unbeaten streak going, the Lightning lost to the Calgary Flames 3 – 2. At the 60 game mark of the season with 22 remaining games, they are six points out of the last playoff spot in the East.
This is where things get curious. Does Lightning GM, Steve Yzerman believe his team can make a run for a playoff spot? If so will he be a buyer at the trade deadline?
The recent stretch of 12 points in seven games might have given pause to Yzerman on a deal and forced any potential trade to the back burner.
Yzerman may still pull the trigger but it isn’t clear that he would be a seller or buyer in any trade. They also are at the point where they need help from other teams. It is improbable but still possible for them to make the playoffs.
Hello Good Buy
Any deadline trade would signal what is truly Yzerman’s belief of the rest of this season. Making no deal would not clarify whether or not this is a team for the postseason.
Deal or no deal will not answer the question of whether or not this year’s Lightning team is ready for the postseason. The Lightning has the talent. Yes, Captain Steven Stamkos is still at least a month away from returning from his November knee surgery. Associate captain, Ryan Callahan is gone for this year unless the team does make the playoffs and that isn’t a certainty.
Not having these two leaders hurts the team’s playoff chances but lest we forget that last season as Stamkos was lost on the brink of the playoffs. Emergency surgery was required to address a blood clot near his right collarbone.
The loss of their captain didn’t prevent them from playing and winning two series before getting to the Eastern Conference Finals. In fact, they made it all the way to Game 7 before losing to eventual Stanley Cup Champion, Pittsburgh Penguins. They played without Stamkos long enough to allow him to make it back for that Game 7.
The point being that they had the talent last year to perform at the highest level getting them to the brink of playing for the Stanley Cup for the second straight year. For all intents and purposes, they are still the same team just one year more experienced.
The question isn’t can they play without their captain, but will they play like they are capable of playing without him. They must if they want to play in the postseason. The talent is there.
And In The End
Nikita Kucherov leads the scoring and he is getting help as coach Jon Cooper has reunited the Triplets Line of Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. In addition, Jonathan Drouin is having a career year in goals and points. Victor Hedman is one of the league’s best defenseman and should get Norris Trophy consideration.
Ben Bishop is now playing in Los Angeles (traded for Peter Budaj) so Andrei Vasilevskiy is the goalie of the present. Vasy has some big shoes to fill. The Bishop we have seen in the previous three seasons has been an elite NHL level. If the team is going to make a push for the postseason, the goalie play, now more than ever will be key.
Bishop’s elevated play this month has been nothing short of stellar. Vasilevskiy has to match that performance level now. The keys to the car are now in the young goalie’s hands.
Is it enough to hurdle the Lightning over the handful of teams that stand between them and the postseason? Take note of the things that happen in the next few games.
Will Cooper use the newly acquired Budaj in tandem with Vasilevskiy? Will the goalie play continue to help the defense? Are the Triplets here to stay and carry this team offensively? Does Yzerman pull the trigger on another trade?
Is the Lightning a playoff team? While there seem to be more and more NHL teams that can answer that question definitively, the jury remains out on this Lightning team.