The Tampa Bay Lightning were the favorites to win the Stanley Cup for almost all of the 2018-19 season. They had their best season in franchise history and one of the best ever in the NHL. Many believed last year to be their year, but the Columbus Blue Jackets weren’t having any of it. They swept the Lightning in four games and made them look like just another hockey team.
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Now that last season is in the past, the Lightning are once again one of the odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup in 2019-20. However, anything can happen, and it’s possible the Lightning won’t win the Cup. If they don’t win it this year, their window will be nearly closed for a few different reasons.
Jon Cooper has been the head coach of the Lightning since 2013, and even before that, he’s had success everywhere he’s been. He won the USA Hockey National Junior B Championship in 2001-02 in the North American Hockey League (now the North American 3 Hockey League), two Robertson Cups and a coach of the year award in the NAHL, the Clark Cup in the United States Hockey League and a Calder Cup with the Norfolk Admirals in the American Hockey League. Cooper also coached the Lightning’s AHL affiliate Syracuse Crunch to a 39-18-3-5 record before being promoted to the NHL.
After similar success in the regular season at the NHL level, Cooper still hasn’t been able to lead his team to the Stanley Cup. They lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanely Cup Final in 2015 and have yet to get back to the final round. In the playoffs against the Blue Jackets, like the rest of his team, Cooper failed to make necessary adjustments and fully prepare his team for heartbreak.
After a shocking Game 1 loss, the Lightning needed to respond, but they came out in Game 2 looking like they did in the last period of Game 1. Maybe it was because the Lightning had responded after losses in the regular season in a similar fashion, but Cooper had a business-as-usual approach when many coaches would have found a way to get the best out of his players. Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella did it mid-game in Game 1, and it was obvious the Blue Jackets had a shift in mentality.
If the Lightning are going to win the Stanley Cup anytime soon, Cooper will have to understand how and when to motivate his players in the face of adversity.
The NHL today is one of the most competitive leagues in all of sport. The league is trying to create parity, and while it has worked to a certain extent, teams can rebuild faster than ever before because the league as a whole is getting younger and faster. Teams like the New York Rangers who have missed the playoffs for a couple of seasons in a row are now in a position to play in the postseason due to a few free-agent signings, trades and developing talent.
The fluctuation of teams going from good to bad is arguably faster than ever and the Lightning — other than a strange 2016-17 season — have been good for quite a while now. It’s inevitable that multiple years of postseason runs can wear out players and that’s when the rebuilding teams can make a move in the standings.
The Lightning are also playing in the Atlantic Division which had three 100-point teams last year (the Lightning, Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs), and the Montreal Canadiens were hot on their heels at 96 points. Many believed the Lightning, Bruins and Maple Leafs to be very close in terms of talent and skill level, and they could beat each other on any given night. When it comes to playing those teams, they’re must-win games for the Lightning.
It’s also worth mentioning that the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft is nearing, and teams can protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie from being picked by Seattle. This will put the Lightning in an interesting situation since they have some good, young players but also some of the top players in the league.
This is likely one of the biggest hurdles the Lightning will have to jump over if they want to win the Stanley Cup in the next few years. As of Sept. 6, Brayden Point is the team’s only restricted free agent (RFA), but he’s also a player many feel the Lightning have to sign to continue their success. But, looking at the 2020-21 contracts, the Lightning will have five RFAs and four unrestricted free agents (UFA). Some changes are going to have to happen.
The Lightning are dishing out big contracts to captain Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Victor Hedman, and rightfully so — that’s the core of the team. However, Ondrej Palat is making $5.3 million for the next three seasons, Yanni Gourde is making just over $5 million for six seasons, Tyler Johnson is making $5 million over five years and Ryan McDonagh will be getting $6.75 million until 2025. It’s extremely unlikely the Lightning will keep all of those players in the next three years, especially since they have multiple free agents to try to re-sign.
Almost every team has to deal with salary cap issues at some point, and it just so happens the Lightning’s time will be after this season. This makes their quest for the Cup that much more urgent. They will still have to deal with their free-agent situation regardless, but having a Stanley Cup championship before doing so might make things a little easier.
The window for the Lightning to win the Stanley Cup is quickly closing. While some of the factors aren’t under their control, they can do more to give themselves a better chance at coming out on top over the next few seasons.