The Salary Cap Era’s Best Team: The Tampa Bay Lightning – Part Two

Via NHL.com

The Salary Cap Era’s Best Team: The Tampa Bay Lightning – Part Two

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The Salary Cap Era’s Best Team: The Tampa Bay Lightning – Part Two

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Via NHL.com

The Colorado Avalanche won the 2022 Stanely Cup defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games. Tampa Bay had several impressive streaks broken while rewriting history during an impressive three-year run. This series of articles will look at how the Lightning rose to become a hockey superpower, sustained its success and where the franchise goes from here.

The year is now 2012 and the NHL had just ended a lockout that cut its season to a mere 48 games. Tampa Bay was only two years removed from an Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Boston Bruins. 

The lockout shortened 2012-13 season saw the Lightning finishing 14th in the East and 4th in the old Southeast Division while failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Tampa’s combination of old veterans, young talent and various role players had fallen flat on its face. The end of this season brought about many changes for both the Lightning and the league. 

For the league, it would realign into four divisions and unevenly split the conferences into 16 (East) and 14 (West) teams. This move would set up the eventual expansion of the NHL in 2018 and 2021. Realignment moved Detroit and Columbus to the Eastern Conference and newly reestablished Winnipeg (was Atlanta) from the East to the West.

As for the Lightning, a change was necessary. Then general manager Steve Yzerman fired head coach Guy Boucher and hired the team’s current head man Jon Cooper. Longtime captain Vincent Lecavalier and the Bolts also decided to part ways as the 32-year-old went to Philadelphia. The vacancy in the captain spot was awarded to both 38-year-old winger Martin St. Louis and young, face-of-the-franchise center Steven Stamkos.

The 2013-14 season saw the Lightning make an immediate turnaround. The mixture of a few key veterans and a young future core finished with 101 points and second in the Atlantic Division. Unfortunately, the young team found itself completely outmatched in the first round of the postseason. The Montreal Canadiens would sweep the Lightning before upsetting the President Trophy winning Boston Bruins.

The start of the 2014-15 season was met with the departure of veteran leader St. Louis as the full captaincy was handed to 24-year-old Stamkos. Tampa now began to see the emergence of its young core. Alongside Stamkos, the Lightning now featured Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Victor Hedman and Jonathan Drouin. The oldest of those players was 25 at the time. 

Tampa also possessed 28-year-old Ben Bishop and 20-year-old, rookie goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. They gave the Lightning two reliable options in net for both now and in the future.

The Lightning would finish the ’14-15 season with 108 points and second in the Atlantic. Tampa would take down an older Detroit side in seven games before avenging its 2014 postseason loss with a six-game win over top-seeded Montreal. The Bolts would then de-crown the reigning Eastern Conference Champion New York Rangers. Tampa’s magical run would come to an end as the Chicago Blackhawks solidified its dynasty, winning the franchise’s third Stanley Cup in six years.  

Tampa Bay entered the 2015-16 season looking to finish what it started the previous spring. After a hot start to the season, the Lightning appeared poised to win its division and possibly the regular season Eastern Conference title. That all changed on March 31 when Stamkos played his final game of the regular season. He would have surgery to remove a blood clot near his collarbone four days later. 

The Bolts entered a slump to finish the regular season, but Jon Cooper rallied his troops in time for the postseason. Tampa had life. Aided by a favorable matchup against a last-gasp Red Wings side, the Lightning won round one in five games. The Bolts would do the same to the New York Islanders who upset the top-seeded Florida Panthers in the previous round. 

Tampa then faced a new superpower in the Eastern Conference Finals: the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Lightning would take the Penguins to the brink of elimination but could not put Pittsburgh away at home thanks to a key overturned goal early in the game. The series shifted to a game seven where Stamkos returned to the lineup for the first time since his April surgery. The captain’s return would not be enough as Tampa would fall 2-1 to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions.

Following its elimination, the Lightning and Stamkos agreed to a long-term extension. On June 29, 2016, Steven Stamkos signed an eight-year contract with an average annual value of $8.5 million. 

Tampa entered the 2016-17 season with Stanley Cup aspirations once again. Unfortunately, the Bolts were delt a crushing blow only 17 games into the season when Stamkos was injured again. The captain’s season would end after tearing his meniscus. Tampa battled through an up-and-down rest of the season without its leader and best player. 

Production drop-offs from players like Johnson, coupled with a lack of consistent offense, had Tampa Bay fighting for a playoff spot down to the season’s final day. The Lightning would come up one point short and miss the postseason for the first time since the 2014.

Tampa Bay opened the 2017-18 season with multiple swirling questions: Can Stamkos fully bounce back from his torn meniscus? Can the Lightning finally get over the hump and become champions? 

Tampa cruised through the regular season with Nikita Kucherov leading the team in points with an even 100 and Vasilevskiy now anchoring the team in net as the number one goaltender.

Tampa would have an eerily similar 2018 postseason to its previous one in 2016. The Bolts would take care of a bad Devils team in five games before gentleman sweeping the Bruins in the same number. In the Eastern Conference Finals, Tampa found itself down 2-0 to the Washington Capitals before rattling off three straight wins, pushing Washington to the brink of elimination. 

Just like 2016 against Pittsburgh, the Caps took game six and forced a winner-take-all game seven. This time the Lightning would host. On the back of Brayden Holtby, Washington would beat Tampa Bay 4-0 and eventually win the Stanley Cup. The Lightning went home empty handed once again. 

 Following the 2018 season, Tampa Bay had qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs seven times since the salary cap was implemented in 2005. The Lightning had now appeared in four Eastern Conference Finals, winning one, in the Salary Cap Era. Tampa Bay had also appeared in one Stanley Cup Final but were yet to reach the top of the hockey world.

2019 would see Tampa Bay favored as the odds-on favorite to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.

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