Grueling Marathon Begins for The Lightning

The dawn of a new NHL season. The hope of all NHL teams and their respective fan bases have been piqued since they last laced up. No team stands still during the summer. Transactions are made, players are kept or moved off the roster. In this day of free agency, players can and do choose to move to another city, another franchise. Yet as the 2015-16 NHL season begins, the fans in the 30 metropolitan areas of the 30 NHL teams think to themselves that this could be the year.

Fan bases think this way because until that first game is complete, all 30 teams are undefeated. Every single team has playoff aspirations and as long as they can keep their losses to a minimum, they will earn a spot at the end of the grueling season to compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

For the Tampa Bay faithful there is certainly plenty of hope to wash away the bitterness of last June’s Finals loss to Chicago. Yes, thoughts of that series loss still lingers but the beginning of a new season washes away any sour tastes that remain.

(Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)
2015 Stanley Cup Finals (Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

Technically, the Tampa Bay Lightning only made two moves since they skated off the ice in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. First, they did not re-sign Brenden Morrow and instead signed forward Erik Condra who has played the last three seasons for the Ottawa Senators. Condra is almost ten years younger and lightyears faster than the departed Morrow. This move was a move of design by general manager, Steve Yzerman and the Lightning front office.

The other move was a move made out of necessity. After backup goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy had emergency surgery at the beginning of September, a search for a backup goalie began. Veteran Ray Emery was brought in and farmhand, Krister Gudlevskis was given a longer look during training camp and the pre-season schedule. Emery has been cut and Gudlevskis has been sent to Syracuse in the AHL.

Ultimately, the team claimed Kevin Poulin off of waivers from the New York Islanders on September 27th. Despite being on the roster for the last two pre-season games, Poulin did not see a minute of ice time. So, heading into the new campaign, Poulin will be the backup to Ben Bishop until Vasilevskiy gets medical clearance to return.

The Steven Stamkos watch has begun. Yzerman stated after the Finals, that re-signing his captain to a long term contract was his number one priority. That deed is still undone. As the team prepares to start a new season, Stamkos is officially entering his last year under contract with the organization. Will it be his last in Tampa?

Conventional wisdom would tell us that a meeting of the minds will get this deal done. While there may be other NHL teams that can smell the playoffs and fewer teams that have a legitimate shot at hoisting the Cup over the next few years, the Lightning are certainly one of a handful of teams that can confidently state they are contenders. Would Stamkos go to a franchise that is further away from hockey’s Promised Land? Time will tell.

In a business luncheon last month, owner Jeffrey Vinik was asked about the Stamkos negotiations. Vinik expressed complete confidence in Yzerman and said “I have a full confidence that Steve (Yzerman) will figure out the deal with Stammer. I love Stamkos as a player, I love Stamkos as a person, and I hope he’s here for years to come, but I’ll let Steve (Yzerman) do the business.”

Vinik has been an incredible sports owner in this community. There is no reason to doubt in his belief that this deal will get done. At 25 years of age, Stamkos is about to begin his eighth NHL campaign and locking him in a deal that takes him to his early 30’s is what this franchise needs to do.

When a team makes as few changes as the Lightning franchise has done, the statement that it is making is that they believe the pieces are all in place to build on what was accomplished in recent seasons. Two years ago, the team made the playoffs for the first time in three seasons despite losing Stamkos for more than half that year.

Last season, they didn’t win their division but played well enough in the playoffs, especially on the road to play for the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately, they were the runner-ups to the most prestigious trophy in all of sports.

There is only one way to improve upon last year and that is to win it all this year. It won’t be a cakewalk. It never is for any team. To play 82 physically grueling games just to earn a chance to play in the playoffs is tough enough.

It cannot be Stamkos alone. Ben Bishop will start in net but he’ll know that he has an untested backup in the opening weeks of the season. Will he play 60 or more games for the third season in a row? The best line in the NHL last season was the Triplets Line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. Can they step up their game further? One thing for sure is that all of their opponents won’t be taken by surprise by these guys like they might have been last year.

Tyler Johnson
(Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)

It won’t be easy for the Lightning but the expectations are there. From the fans and the ownership. From the front office and the NHL talking heads. They are expected by many to win the Atlantic Division. They are expected by some to win the Cup.

Time will tell but hope abounds. Reminds me of my father who would buy a $1 lottery ticket every week. When I mentioned to him that he had a better chance at being struck by lightning, he would tell me that this dollar was the best dollar he spent all week.

Better than any dollar spent on food, rent or utilities. That did not make sense to me, until he explained: “from the moment I buy that ticket, I think of the millions of ways I am going to spend it and inside, I am jumping for joy..”

Took me years to understand, it is how it feels to be a Lightning fan today. Thinking about everything that they are going to accomplish this season, how it could culminate with the Cup coming to Tampa. The excitement is here. It is palpable. Talking to Lightning fans for the last week, they were giddy with anticipation. The new season is here.

First, I am buying a lottery ticket, then I am going to settle in with 19,203 of my closest friends tomorrow at Amalie Arena. Once the puck drops, the marathon begins and I will think of a million things that will happen between now and next June when the new Stanley Cup Champion is crowned.