Lightning Building on Last Season

Over the last twenty years in the NHL, only five teams have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in consecutive seasons. In this same span, only one of those five teams repeated as the Stanley Cup champs, the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

Of the five teams who made it to the Finals in back to back years, only one of them won a Stanley Cup the year after losing in the Finals. That was the Pittsburgh Penguins who lost the Red Wings in 2008 only to beat those same Red Wings in 2009.

As the runner-up in the Finals this past June, the Tampa Bay Lightning cannot operate under the assumption that it is a given for a repeat Finals appearance. Yes, they have talent up and down the lineup. They are as strong an offensive team as there is in the league.

They also have youth. Lots of youth who have, to the 29 other NHL teams, speed to burn. Of the players expected to make this season’s final roster for the Lightning, only Matt Carle and Valtteri Filppula are over the age of 30 and both of them are 31.

Hard as it may seem to believe but their two top leaders, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman are only 25 and 24 years-old. That seems crazy because at least here in sunny Florida, those two have been in the lineup for more than half a decade.

The Lightning also have Ben Bishop between the pipes. Although he hasn’t broken into the “elite” category, he is shopping in the neighborhood. After a shaky playoff start, Big Ben settled into a very good playoff performance until injuring his groin in the Finals.

Ben Bishop
Ben Bishop was solid in his first post-season as a number one goalie.  (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite the blossoming talent enjoyed by the franchise there is still no guarantee they will play for Lord’s Stanley Cup next June. As recent history has shown it is excruciatingly difficult to play in consecutive Cup Finals, though many prognosticators have Tampa as one of a handful of favorites to hoist next year’s Cup.

What can be some of the other pitfalls to guard against? Injuries certainly can curtail a team’s chances to compete for the Cup. As the pre-season begins, the Lightning has already been hit with a sudden and lengthy injury. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, Bishop’s understudy, underwent emergency surgery to remove a blood clot in his left collarbone. Early prognosis has Vasilevskiy out for two months. Although it may be too early for any early guess on how much time Vasilevskkiy will miss.

If Vasilevskiy misses one week more than the early prognosis of two months, it will mean he will be miss at least twenty percent of the season. Injuries are a fact of life in the NHL. It is a brutally physical game played at lightning speed, no pun intended. The Lightning have the depth to withstand the standard injuries all teams experience. What happens if a key player or players miss significant time beyond Vasilevskiy?

Another threat to the Lightning’s return to the Finals has more to do with their upcoming opponents more than the Lightning themselves. Hey, they made it to the Finals just a few short months ago. Teams that don’t make the Finals take their game up a gear when they play one of the two most recent Finals participants. It is a way teams measure themselves.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have been recipients of this kind of treatment over the last four years. The upside to this is very good teams can become great teams having to face teams who are stepping up their game every night.

So, knowing that the teams on their schedule are taking it up a notch, how will the Lightning respond? Can they take their game to the next level? Before you answer, as the Stanley Cup runner-up, you ought to realize that the next level is Stanley Cup champion.

For all intents and purposes, the team is basically the same team that lost to Chicago in the Finals. They signed Erik Condra to replace the departing Brenden Morrow. With this move a young team becomes younger. All the other guys are the guys that Coach Jon Cooper went to war with last season.

Let’s take stock, history and injuries are stacked against them. The 31 other teams are going to meet you with fire in their eyes to beat the snot out of you. Before you know it, the season begins and the pressure mounts.

We will see what this Lightning team is made of soon. Yes, it would help out immensely if Steve Yzerman announces that he has locked up Captain Steven Stamkos to a deal that keeps him in the Bay area until he is 33 years-old.

The best line in the NHL, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat have to reach deep to improve last season’s breakthrough performances individually and as a group.

Victor Hedman will anchor an underestimated defense. This is the part of the team that has some age on them. Besides Carle, Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn are 30 years-old and Anton Stralman is one year behind them. The benefit of having a defensive corps with this level of maturity is the experience especially in meaningful games.

The potential liability is the grind of having played six pre-season games along with 82 regular season games on top of 26 playoff games. The physical toll of 114 NHL games is hard to fathom. One of the results of this grueling marathon is the next season comes awfully quick. Can this team bounce back?

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Only time will tell how this year’s version of the Lightning respond to being a marked team. Only the lengthy regular season will show the fan base exactly how much mettle this organization has this year. No one will question the talent, the leadership, the coaching and the front office of this franchise. On paper this is a great team but the old adage is the Cup isn’t won on paper.

The regular season is almost upon us and the excitement has many fans amped up. When the puck drops in a couple of weeks, the Lightning players must be ready to answer that bell. Despite the success of last season, the ending left a bad feeling in the collective pit of the team’s gut.

Are they hungry enough to overcome the challenges ahead? There is a growing faith and belief throughout the Tampa Bay area that this team has the right stuff to build on last year. If I were a betting man, I’d bet on blue. Tampa Bay Lightning Blue.