It wasn’t the ending that was envisioned in Tampa Bay. The loss in Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Pittsburgh Penguins was the unexpected finale for the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2015-16 season. It was not supposed to conclude with more questions than answers.
After last year’s Stanley Cup Final appearance, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman made one roster move prior to the beginning of this season. He signed free agent forward Erik Condra to replace the retired Brenden Morrow. Couldn’t blame Yzerman, as his team has been one of the youngest teams in average age in the NHL over the last two seasons. Why reinvent the wheel or go back to the drawing board when your team is by all indication, one of the league’s best.
In spite of the magnificent playoff run a year ago, falling two wins shy of the Cup left a sour taste in the mouths in the Lightning locker room. The mantra throughout this entire season was the road to redemption. Having won the Eastern Conference only to fall short of the ultimate goal last year fueled the team this season. Anything short of reaching and winning the Cup was unacceptable.
Finding a way back to play for the Cup was made difficult at the loss of both Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman. Imagine any NHL team reaching Game 7 of their conference finals without their top offensive weapon? Imagine any NHL team going through the first two playoff rounds without their second best defenseman? This Lightning team fell two Game 7 goals shy in the Eastern Conference final of a return trip to play for the Stanley Cup.
This team has displayed a resiliency and character that defines this organization. Tough, strong and more than capable players up and down the roster and up and down the organization. It starts with Yzerman. Oh, the lessons this brilliant GM learned in the Red Wings system. He approaches his duties with the same intensity, focus and determination that exemplified his 22 year NHL playing career.
In this franchise, those characteristics filter their way down to the roster. The team experienced a lot more injuries this season than last. Yet, when one man went down or was lost for any significant amount of time, the next man stepped up and the team fought to end up second in the Atlantic Division. Depth, up and down the organization.
Looking back at this year’s Lightning team and the upcoming season, there were some good, some bad, and could come some ugly after the abrupt end to the ’15-16 season.
As a young team, one of the advantages from a fan’s perspective is seeing the development of younger players right before your eyes. This year we saw that with several younger Lightning players. In the regular season one of the breakout players this year was 23 year-old, Vlad Namestnikov. Scoring 14 goals and 35 points were career highs as was playing in 80 of the 82 regular season games and every playoff game. Namestnikov saw a lot of time on the number one line and is a restricted free agent on July 1. This is one of the deals Yzerman must resolve sooner rather than later.
There were three other players that began to enhance their NHL reputations in the playoffs. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy found himself the Lightning’s #1 goalie 13 minutes into the Eastern Conference finals against the Penguins who were the hottest team in the NHL since January, about a month after making their coaching change, giving the reins to Mike Sullivan.
During the playoffs, Vasilevskiy saved 92.5% of the shots he faced and the Penguins peppered him with a colossal number of shots. Some people may think that if Tampa had injured Ben Bishop in net things may have turned out better for the team. Truth is that without Vasilevskiy in net, the Lightning would not have been playing in Game 7 at all, let alone fall two goals shy of winning. Vasy is 21 years-old and will be a restricted free agent after next season.
Another bright spot was the turnaround from 21 year-old Jonathan Drouin. Talk about up and down. The season young Mr. Drouin just experienced had valleys so low but finished with a peak that sends a hopeful promise of what could be. Drouin, with his bags packed and one foot out the Lightning door after his trade request became public was a different player than previously displayed. After his failure to report to a Syracuse Crunch game after being sent down from Tampa in January, he was the longest of long shots to be an integral playoff performer for the Lightning.
Drouin showed a toughness and sheer will in his game upon his return at the end of the regular season after Stamkos had his surgery. During his exit from the locker room for the last time before next season, Drouin told reporters “I definitely want to be here”. Yzerman’s patience (or was it stubbornness) in not trading Drouin should pay dividends for the franchise for years to come. He is still under contract to the team next year with restricted free agent status after next season is completed.
The blazing star this year especially in the postseason was Nikita Kucherov. With 11 playoff goals and 19 points in 17 games during the playoffs, Kucherov solidified his standing as one of the game’s best right wingers. Kuch is 22 years-old and a restricted free agent this July 1st. Behind Stamkos, Kucherov is most likely Yzerman’s highest priority. Cementing his stature as one of the game’s youngest superstars, Kucherov must be locked up as one of the team’s foundations. No ifs, ands or buts.
On the bad side of the ledger is the defensive corps. They are a bit of an anomaly in that their penalty kill is top ten in the league during the regular season and top three in the playoffs after the conference finals but they allowed a disturbing amount of shots on goal during the Eastern Conference Finals.
This group has more questions than answers and Yzerman must make some tough decisions. The answers in this group are Victor Hedman, Stralman, and Jason Garrison. After those big three, questions abound. There is no more polarizing player to Lightning fans than Matt Carle. This 10-year veteran is the favorite target of boo birds in Amalie Arena.
It did not go unnoticed to Carle’s fans and foes that he was a healthy scratch in Game 7 of the ECF to 22 year-old Slater Koekkoek. Carle lost his spot in the team’s most important game to a kid who only played nine regular season games this year. When you look at the team’s cap situation and see Carle is the highest paid defenseman and a $5.5 million cap hit, perhaps it is time for Yzerman to find a way to part ways with the veteran.
Slater Koekkoek is growing right in front or our eyes, he’s been terrific during the playoffs
— Erik Erlendsson (@Erik_Erlendsson) May 25, 2016
Ah, but here’s the rub. Carle is still under contract for two more seasons. He also has no trade clause so he has to approve any deal Yzerman might be able to make. Maybe it’ll cost the Lighting to eat some of the Carle cap hit to find a taker in a swap. In any case, the defensive corps needs an upgrade and cap constraints make this a bad spot for the team.
Yzerman’s ugly dilemma this off-season starts and stops with Stamkos. Estimates in what it will take in dollars vary from 9 to 11 million per annum. That is a long term decision that will determine the next five to seven years or more of this team. Most observers would give Yzerman a solid rating in his performance at the helm of the Lightning. He is the reigning NHL GM of the Year.
The part of the Stamkos contract that is bad is the reaction to which ever way this story unfolds. If Stamkos is locked to an eight year deal greater than a $9 million annual cap hit, there will be between a couple and a handful of players that will be cap casualties.
Re-signing Stamkos might mean that Alex Killorn or Valtteri Fillpula will be gone. It might mean that Ben Bishop won’t be able to be locked up after next season. It might mean that the services of a Jonathan Marchessault cannot be retained.
The loss of any of these players as a result of locking up Stamkos will bring some wrath Yzerman’s way. If Stamkos cannot be signed, the team will be able to keep Kucherov, sign Hedman next year, possibly even keep Bishop for the next few years. But Yzerman might not be forgiven for allowing his 26 year-old captain go. World class snipers don’t grow on trees.
The good, the bad and the ugly will define Yzerman’s offseason. Does he keep the band together as much as he can? Does he decide on a new direction? Whichever way Yzerman decides to go, some will say good, some will say bad and we all hope it doesn’t get ugly.