TAMPA, Fla. — A cloud of disappointment lingers over the Tampa Bay Lightning with no signs of dissipating.
Last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winners were swept in the first round of the NHL playoffs, and captain Steven Stamkos says there are no words to adequately describe what a longer than anticipated summer has been for a team that matched the league record for regular season victories before collapsing at the most important time of the year.
“It was a tough feeling for a lot of us who had aspirations of much bigger things. … But it’s a time for everyone to reflect, get stronger, get that fire back and come (back) with a different perspective and a new attitude,” said Stamkos, who is entering his 12th season.
“We could sit there and pout in a corner but it’s not going to change anything that happened last year,” the six-time All-Star added. “I’m hoping guys come in with that extra motivation and a little chip on their shoulder because I know I will.”
If there’s any consolation, the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, who also won 62 games before falling short of winning the championship, rebounded the following season to win the Stanley Cup.
It’ll take a similar response from the Lightning to erase the pain of being swept from the post-season by the Columbus Blue Jackets last spring.
They certainly have the talent to do it, beginning with Stamkos, reigning league MVP and leading scorer Nikita Kucherov, Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Brayden Point, who signed a new three-year contract worth an average of $6.75 million per season on Monday.
“Last year was a very successful year in terms of wins in the regular season and in terms of a lot of individuals having tremendous years and being recognized for that. It’s great and deserving for sure but the goal here is to win a championship,” Stamkos said.
“But in saying that you can’t get ahead of yourself. We need to, if anything, take a step back and realize the opportunity we have with the amount of talent we have on this team,” Stamkos added. “It really is the toughest trophy to win in sports, and we need realize how tough that is and not just expect it.”
Despite last season’s record-breaking success, general manager Julien BriseBois didn’t stand pat in the months following the playoff collapse, adding veteran defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk, backup goalie Curtis McElhinney and forward Pat Maroon to an already deep and talented roster.
Maroon helped the St. Louis Blues win their first Stanley Cup title.
“It’s not easy to win a Stanley Cup, as we’ve learned and I’ve learned in my career,” defenceman Ryan McDonagh said. “So to bring a guy in who’s done it, and done it so recently, he understands the ups and downs that go on throughout the season and when your back is against the wall, how you come out of that and overcome those things. … Hopefully, he can shed some light on what works and help push us in the right direction.”
D Kevin Shattenkirk, F Pat Maroon. G Curtis McElhinney.
D Anton Stralman, D Dan Girardi, F J.T. Miller, F Adam Erne, F Ryan Callahan
Once again, scoring doesn’t figure to be an issue. Kucherov led the NHL with 128 points en route to capturing the Hart Trophy last season. Stamkos and Point had 40-plus goals, too, finishing with 98 and 92 points, respectively.
Throw in Tyler Johnson and the Lightning have firepower to burn. The defence, led by 2018 Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman and McDonagh, is solid as well. Vasilevskiy was 39-10-4 with a .925 save percentage and 2.40 goals against average. He’ll be backed up by McElhinney, who signed as a free agent after spending last season with the Carolina Hurricanes.
It’s Stanley Cup or bust after last season’s playoff collapse.
Despite a talent-laden roster, It will be difficult duplicate last year’s regular-season success. And even if the Lightning does claim another Presidents’ Trophy, it will mean little unless they not only can get back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2015 — but win it all.
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Fred Goodall, The Associated Press