After a season which many observers would label as overachieving, the Bolts now find themselves in the unenviable forum of heightened expectations. Coming within one victory of the Stanley Cup Finals has many hockey fans in the Sunshine State envisioning a return to glory for Vinny and Co. While this is well within the realm of possibility, members of the Eastern Conference have not been kind to the two teams who made the Conference Finals in the previous season. In fact, not since the Penguins repeated as Eastern Conference representative en route to the Stanley Cup title in 2009 did a team make the Eastern Conference Finals for two straight seasons.
And it gets worse for Bolts fans, of the eight participants in the Eastern Conference Finals since 2007, only three teams have made it past the first round! The Flyers did it last year but quickly burnt out in a sweep at the hands of Boston in Round 2. In 2010, Pittsburgh defended their title into the 2nd Round before falling to the Habs in seven games, closing Mellon Arena for good. The third team, as prior mentioned, is the Pens when they took it all in’09.
So what does this all mean for the Lightning in 2011-12? History would suggest that although the Bolts have a competitive roster, one capable of contending for Lord Stanley’s mug, Tampa fans should not be celebrating the accomplishment of coming within a goal or two of the Stanley Cup Finals too freely. The fact of the matter being that every season teams come “within a goal or two” of leaping forward to the next round of the post-season. Just ask the Montreal Canadiens, who fell in OT to the Bruins in Game 7 of the first round. Should the Habs be considered more of a favorite than Tampa because they pushed the champs closer to elimination? The answer for most would probably be an emphatic ‘no’, considering the explosive fire-power that the Lightning have in their lineup. But it is worth putting into perspective the accomplishments of past seasons, being just that, the past. Not to take anything away from the absolutely heart pounding run the Bolts put together last spring, just proposing that the slate be wiped “relatively” clean for assessing the team moving forward.
Looking forward, there is a sense of immediacy for this team to reach the pinnacle sooner rather than later, thanks to a 5-year deal awarded to Steven Stamkos, bringing the budding superstar right to UFA eligibility in July 2016. Now its been over-examined that this means Stamkos wants out of TB A.S.A.P. but it is more a matter of prudent financial planning. You need look no further than this summer’s entanglement of contract negotiations, from Drew Doughty, to Luke Schenn, to Brad Marchand. A sticking point on a number of these contracts is term, not money, as players do not want to lock in past the prime negotiating point of their careers. It is also a way to ensure that a superstar talent is not ‘trapped’ on a team in decline if ownership does not commit to building a proper supporting cast for success. And in a salary cap world, it can be very easy to see it all go very wrong in a hurry.
So on the surface it would appear that Stamkos has ‘granted’ the Lightning a five year term to build a winner around him. But given further examination, the window of opportunity may already be sliding shut. At the commencement of the 2011-12 season, eleven of the 23 players on the Bolts roster are entering contract seasons, eight of which are pending UFAs. Understandably there are some depth players on this list, but some of these guys will be deserving of a return, quite possibly at a heightened cap hit.
One player sure to get a raise next summer will be stalwart D-man Victor Hedman, who could command just under Shea Weber dollars if his numbers continue to climb. What does this mean for veteran blueliner Pavel Kubina, who was a tower of power on the back-end in last year’s playoffs? Will the Czech take a discount to stick with the Lightning, or will he head to financially greener pastures? Do you re-sign both Kubina and Hedman, thus having to let someone like Steve Downie walk away in the off-season? Do you value Kubina’s back end presence, or Downie’s ability to protect the stars and lay punishment on opposition defenders?
The answer is both, all, the whole nine yards. To reach the top you need to have all the bits and pieces, something the Lightning appear to have , minus maybe a third or fourth line punisher. And it is becoming ever apparent that it is nearly impossible to hold on to all of these pieces long-term, which makes this blogger believe that the Lightning may have a two year window in which to win the cup with this core. Maybe one year, this year, if you look at the position that matters most in the post-season - goaltending.
Dwayne Roloson returns between the pipes after an unworldly performance for the Bolts in last season’s stretch drive and playoff run. Although there may be some doubts about his ability to maintain performance at his age, it is widely accepted that he remains on top of his game. The question is, for how long? There is a common notion around the league that this will be Roloson’s last season, despite the outcome. Such is reality for any pro athlete turning 42 to begin a season. And barring the unlikely scenario that Yzerman can trade for another top flight netminder once Roloson retires, the future is pretty bare between the pipes for Tampa Bay.
Tampa’s top goalie prospect is Dustin Tokarski, who made headlines at the 2009 World Juniors, leading Canada to Gold with a 4-0 record in the tourney. Although Tokarski possesses superior speed and skill, he has not even come close to proving he is an NHL capable netminder, allowing 3 goals on 16 shots in only 44 minutes of NHL time last season. Tokarski is criticized for being too small and going down too early, leaving him vulnerable to NHL snipers. Although the departure of Roloson will free cap space for the future, said space will most likely be used to re-sign the above mentioned defensive tandem.
So the time is now for the Lightning, maybe more so than any other team in the East, to reach the promised land. With a core that includes Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, Ryan Malone, Kubina, Hedman, Downie, Roloson, and a budding Nate Thompson (who’s contract expires in two seasons) the pieces are in place for the Lightning to make a big splash this season. If not, it could mark the beginning of the end of the Stamkos era in Florida, as his supporting pieces could fall by the wayside, summer by summer, until UFA status is upon him. So without trying to put all your backs against the wall Lightning fans, it could be now or never time in the Bay area. Get ready for puck drop TB, because win or lose, now or never is the most exciting kind of hockey there is.