There’s rarely a Tampa Bay Lightning story these days that doesn’t somehow relate to Steven Stamkos, but it’s a shame so many fail to recognize the greatness of this team besides simply #91.
Though this franchise hasn’t achieved a championship on this side of two lockouts, they’ve been a consistent contender as just about anyone as of late, in either conference
It’s easy to think their window of contention is gone if their superstar forward doesn’t stick around … but there’s plenty to like about this team than simply one player.
The Lightning, had, by all accounts, one of their best seasons ever. A Game 7 Conference Final loss to the eventual champion is nothing to be ashamed of, and neither is a 46 win season.
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While there’s much to be said about the Bolts’ offence, it’s easy to overlook that they’re also #blessed with one of the league’s best defensive combinations in a quality back six (plus a very solid goaltending tandem.)
The team came a win short of the Stanley Cup Final without their biggest star for the majority of their playoff run, and walked handily over the Islanders and Detroit.
Head coach Jon Cooper’s done a great job of managing the team effectively and getting the most out of his players, but there has to be some questions as to what exactly’s the disconnect between Cooper and some of his more talented players – see situations with Drouin, St. Louis, and limiting ice time on Steven Stamkos. Perhaps it’s nothing more than a false narrative, or maybe it’s the tradeoff Cooper takes in instilling his philosophy. Whatever the case, despite the drama, Cooper’s proven that he can produce a successful hockey team without needing to always have big-name talent at the forefront of his success.
Like most teams that end up in the conference finals in back-to-back seasons, the Lightning’s roster is one of the deepest, most well-rounded teams in the entire NHL. I can’t find a player on the Lightning’s roster who doesn’t belong there in one way or another. Besides Ryan Callahan, there’s no bottom-six players getting overpaid, there’s no defencemen past their prime taking a huge cut of the team’s cap hit and ice time, and there’s one well-paid goalie… but he’s also a very good one at that and has been crucial to the Lightning’s success over the past few seasons.
Nine players scored at least 10 goals this past season, while both Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov scored 36 and 30, respectively.
Besides one bad contract in Ryan Callahan, there’s nothing that sticks out as a problem for this team. Both Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman go below market value for their performances, and even if the Bolts don’t carry tons of big-name players, they also have the NHL’s fifth youngest roster with still room to grow.
The Lightning’s cap situation revolves heavily around one player, Steven Stamkos. Whatever plays out over the next few weeks is, quite obviously, a major factor in the limitations of what the rest of the team can do.
But beyond Stamkos, they’ve still got quite the lineup assembled. With $21.2 million in cap space and 15 players signed, they’ll either have some tough choices to make (if they strike a deal with Stamkos), or should be able to sign their RFAs comfortably.
Looking at their RFAs, Nikita Kucherov led the team in scoring this past season with 66 points, while Alex Killorn put up 40 points.
The team’s top 5 scorers all began the season at 25 or younger, and Valitterri Fillipula was the team’s oldest player at just 31.
This is a team that’s a model in how to effectively manage your contract space for one season… but the biggest factor.
Steve Yzerman has generally proven to be a Smart General Manager™, so I wouldn’t worry too much about getting himself out of the large number of contracts he has to deal with over the next few seasons. There might be a cap casualty or two (or ten), but it happens to every good team. Tough decisions will need to be made, but Yzerman’s proven himself at one of the best at finding undervalued talent.
Callahan’s deal might be crippling to some teams, but it’s not nearly as bad as it could be in Tampa Bay, considering the rest of the team’s handled very well.
All in all, Tampa’s got a bright future going forward if they keep themselves in line.
Confidence wouldn’t be high in bringing back Stamkos considering he’s through, well, 100% of his contract and hasn’t re-signed. You’d have to figure they’d have a general idea by now of whether they’re realistically bringing their captain back or not.
The key for Tampa would be to neogotiate deals with their RFAs, but there’s not much more work that needs to be put in immediately to make this a competitive roster next season. The Lightning might look to be creative at the draft if they feel like they’ll need to replace Stamkos, but snagging a mid-late first round pick is
Even if Stamkos goes on to find a new team, there’s no real reason why the Lightning can’t remain competitive without him – as they were able to push the Penguins to the brink of elimination with out him in the lineup for all but Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, which they obviously lost.
It’s still go-time for this young team next season, and although they might not necessarily improve their roster drastically, that might not be a bad team. Most, if not all, of the assets this team needs are in place, and they appear poised to remain a threat for a few seasons rolling now.
Jonathan Drouin might finally step into the top-six role he’s been longing for, and perhaps Anrdei Vasilevskiy sees his playing time increase as he could be the potential starter of the future?
Of course, their success seems to depend on the strength of the rest of the always unpredictable Eastern Conference- but if things go their way, don’t be surprised to see Tampa back among the East’s elite next year.