And just like that, 2018 has come and gone. While the new year is more of a formality in the NHL, the 2018 calendar year has been one of the most active times in Tampa Bay Lightning history. In fact, so much happened this year for the team that it is easy to lose track of everything.
Blockbuster trades? You’d better believe it.
Major re-signings? More than one.
A new general manager? Yeah, that happened.
So let’s look back at the year that was for the Lightning, and appreciate how much happened in such a short span of time.
Tampa Bay Hosts the 2018 All-Star Game
While it may feel like a lifetime ago now, the Lightning started off the year by hosting the 2018 All-Star Game. Entering the All-Star break, the Lightning were one of the league’s top teams, and as such, were well represented in the festivities. They had four players nominated to the initial roster, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. Then, after Hedman suffered an injury before the weekend, Brayden Point was awarded the honor in his absence.
By all accounts, the 2018 All-Star weekend was a huge success for the city of Tampa. Great weather, a fun atmosphere and the Gasparilla Pirate Parade combined to make the weekend a memorable one for fans and players alike. In the tournament itself, Team Pacific won it all, led by rookie Brock Boeser, who took home MVP honors. All in all, it was a fun weekend that helped showcase to the world that Tampa has, in fact, developed into a hockey city.
Lightning Make a Blockbuster Trade With Rangers
Not long after the All-Star Game, the Lightning found themselves back in the news with a major trade deadline acquisition. Then general manager Steve Yzerman went down to the wire, taking until the final minutes before the deadline, to complete a blockbuster trade with the New York Rangers.
In the trade, the Lightning acquired veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller for Vladislav Namestnikov, prospects Brett Howden and Libor Hajek, a 2018 first round draft pick and a conditional 2019 second round pick. As said by loserpoints of Rawcharge.com:
This is the kind of deal that alters the course of franchises in a meaningful way. The Bolts gave up significant current and future assets to get better in the short-term. The Rangers pressed the reset button on their team. This trade will have ramifications for both franchises for years.
Whether you were a fan of the trade as it happened, or if you thought it was an overpay for two veteran players, one thing was certain at the time. Yzerman was going all-in on winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 and he felt that McDonagh and Miller were the final pieces to push the Lightning over the top.
Lightning Come up Short in Playoffs
However, as we all know, it was not meant to be in 2018. After eliminating the New Jersey Devils 4-1 in the opening round of the playoffs, then delivering a decisive knockout blow to their long-time rival Boston Bruins in the second round, the Lightning faced off against the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Final.
After going down 2-0 in the series, the Lightning rallied to take a 3-2 lead in the series. Heading into Game 6, spirits were high in Tampa, but the team laid an egg in Washington, getting shut out by the Capitals 3-0. Then, the highest scoring offense in the NHL followed up that disappointing performance with an even bigger flop, losing Game 7 in front of their home crowd 4-0. Humbled by the eventual Stanley Cup champions, fans entered the 2018 offseason wondering how Yzerman could improve a team that was already built to win a championship.
2018 Draft Was Uneventful for Lightning
The 2018 offseason started off with a minor trade for the Lightning. Yzerman sent veteran backup goaltender Petr Budaj back to the Los Angeles Kings for Andy Andreoff and re-signed Louis Domingue to a two-year extension, committing to him as Vasilevskiy’s backup of the future.
With their goaltending situation settled, the Lightning moved on to the 2018 Entry Draft. Even without a first round pick, they still had a busy weekend, making seven selections. While none of these players jumped off the page as game-changers, they all have the potential to develop into something special for a team known for finding gems in the draft. At the time, I wrote:
…The Lightning took a few more risks during this draft than they traditionally would. With a stocked, young AHL affiliate, Yzerman had room to select a few players that needed more time to develop.
So far, the Lightning have signed Gabriel Fortier, their second round selection, to an entry-level contract. This means that even if this was an unexciting draft, it is already paying off with new talent for the team.
Yzerman Busy Locking-Up His Core
After the draft, Yzerman buckled down and started signing his core players to long-term extensions. He started off free agency by signing J.T. Miller to a five-year, $26.25 million contract, then followed that by locking up McDonagh with a seven-year, $47.25 million extension, making both players more than just a one-year rental after the blockbuster trade.
With Miller and McDonagh set, Yzerman turned his sight towards the biggest question mark on the Lightning roster, Kucherov. Heading into the final year of a three-year bridge deal and coming off of a career season, it was clear that the All-Star forward was due for a raise. While there were plenty of questions regarding if or how the team could afford to sign him, neither party let those thoughts linger. Just days into July, Yzerman signed him to an eight-year, $76 million extension, locking down the Russian superstar as a part of the team’s core.
Yzerman Steps Down Before Training Camp
After the busy offseason, the future looked brighter than ever for the future of the franchise. However, things took a sudden shift when, on Sep. 11, Yzerman announced that he would be stepping down as the Lightning’s general manager after eight years. He was to be replaced by assistant general manager Julien BriseBois, but would stay with the franchise throughout the final year of his contract, acting in an advisory role with the team.
This news seemingly came out of nowhere, with training camp just days away from starting. After the shock wore off, the dour mood around the Lightning quickly lifted. BriseBois was touted as one of the best assistant GMs in the league, and he played a hand in drafting and developing many of the team’s core players. So, while it may have been an unexpected change, the franchise was left in good hands.
One would think that this would be the last big shock for the Lightning, but, alas, it was not. The week before training camp brought with it two more newsworthy moments. The first was the trade of Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks. With the Lightning heavily rumored to be interested in him, this trade brought an end to the near-daily speculation about how they could acquire the former Norris Trophy defenseman.
The second big moment was the contract termination of Jake Dotchin. The reason for this termination was allegedly due to the Lightning being unhappy with his conditioning heading into training camp. While he was eventually waived and his contract was terminated, the whole exchange prompted a league-wide conversation about what was and wasn’t a material breach of contract. While losing a depth defenseman like Dotchin wasn’t ideal, the team had plenty of defensemen ready to take over his spot on the roster.
Lightning Playing Their Best Hockey
Despite having such a distraction-filled training camp, the Lightning left all of that drama behind once the 2018-19 season started. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know that Tampa Bay has been the best team in the NHL this season. Not only have they earned 62 points in 39 games, but they are also scoring more than four goals a game.
Simply put, this team is hitting on all cylinders right now, with the offense, defense and goaltending all combining to create some of the best play in recent memory. While I could give the full details, that has already been covered in a recent article.
While it’s hard to know what 2019 will bring for the Lightning, it seems unlikely that it will match the sheer amount of news that occurred in 2018. There is only one thing that the franchise could do this year that would top everything that happened in 2018…winning the Stanley Cup.
All the pieces are there to make it happen. Now we just have to wait and see if they can put it all together and make 2019 an even more memorable year for Tampa Bay.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.