(Editor's Note: over the course of the next week, we'll be previewing the 2011-12 Tampa Bay Lightning season with a series of articles exploring the team)
To recap the 2010-11 Tampa Bay Lightning season, you have to start in March 2010 when owner Jeffrey Vinik assumed control of the franchise. In an unexplained, hasty move, the Bolts dropped the previous season's marketing slogan of "Together We Will" and started to use "All In".
The events that transpired in the months leading up to the start of the 2010-11 campaign, in reflection, showed fans just how that phrase played out. Vinik, holding his cards close to his chest, built a brain trust to oversee the rebuilding of the Lightning franchise that piqued the interest of the hockey and pro-sports world alike.
May 2010 saw the hiring of Hockey Hall of Famer and Detroit Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman as General Manager of the club. Shortly thereafter, Yzerman hired Hamilton Bulldogs head coach Guy Boucher to oversee the Lightning roster. July saw the hiring of Vulcan Sports CEO Tod Leiweke in the same role for the Lightning. The move was a surprise coup, as Boucher had been close to a deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets only days prior.
And this was just the beginning of the revitalization of the franchise. We'd learn just how true "All In", both on ice and off, the commitment was during the season that followed.
The process of becoming what the team would amount to, probably started around the time Martin St. Louis was signed to a four-year contract extension, virtually guaranteeing that he end his career in a Lightning jersey. It was a sign that Yzerman was going to work with the core of players that were already in place, and not blow up the team and build around young stars Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman.
Free agent additions Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim put emphasis on adding skill depth on the bottom two lines, while the additions of Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina were made to do the same for the defense. Clark's signing marked the return of the long-elusive puck moving defenseman, which is an important part of Guy Boucher's system. Also brought through free agency was goaltender Dan Ellis, who was expected to share duties in net with returning veteran Mike Smith.
But the most profound move of the off-season by the team was the acquisition of LW Simon Gagne from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for defenseman Matt Walker and a fourth round draft choice in 2011. Acquiring Gagne, a top six forward known for his offensive abilities as well as injury woes, raised already up-ticking expectations to another level.
The 2010-11 Lightning were not to be compared with the teams of the recent past, even if their core remained largely the same. While changes with the franchise still dominated the off-season, there was a more demanding - yet constructive and cerebral - approach from Head Coach Boucher. The team was challenged to sacrifice as well as learn the in's and out's of the "Tampa t" 1-3-1 attack system. With Boucher's leadership, the team took up the challenge with enthusiasm.
The Bolts started the 2010-11 season with the promise of future shining bright. Steven Stamkos continued his goal scoring ways, flirting with a goal-per-game pace at one point, and Tampa Bay managed a 7-2-1 October. The most notable loss, thought to be only an aberration at the time, was a 6-0 drubbing by the Florida Panthers on October 16th in Sunrise. At different times, the team was also playing without defenseman Mattias Ohlund (who started the season on Injured Reserve) and without Gagne, who was suffering issues tied to his neck.
Yet that loss to Florida, that aberration, became more routine during November. While the Bolts found ways to eke out wins in close games (they had a .566 winning percentage for the season in one-goal-game affairs), they suffered lope sided losses during the remainder of the season with some regularity. While the team escaped November with a winning record (14-8-3), they also took with them the loss of Captain Vincent Lecavalier to a broken knuckle that required surgery and would sideline him for 15 games. The injury occurred during a 6-3 loss to division rival Washington, which would be one of five times that month the Bolts had lost by 3 goals or more.
While the Lightning defense was a work-in-progress, the goaltending tandem of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis was less than impressive, putting up some of the worst stats among goaltenders in the NHL. While the team in front of them was tasked with limiting opposing shot on goal and opportunities, Smith and Ellis struggled at times with even routine saves.
The situation reigned supreme as the team's biggest concern for the rest of 2010. December started with the Bolts being utterly decimated by the Boston Bruins, 8-1. While the contest can be dismissed with the later successes of the season, it was a statement game in the worst way possible: The Lightning lacked capable goaltending to ensure contention for a playoff spot.
As December wore on, just when it looked like Mike Smith had turned the corner and started to play consistently, injury would fall him, and force Ellis and rookie netminder Cedrick Desjardins to tend the pipes for the remainder of the year.
And that was when Steve Yzerman decided enough was enough.
After Desjardins second start (and second win) of the season, a New Years Day affair against the New York Rangers, it was announced the Bolts had acquired veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson from the New York Islanders for defensive prospect Ty Wishart.
Things changed. Not just the more consistent and more tenured backstop posting four shutouts within his first month after joining the Lightning... But there was a shift in offensive production as well. Teddy Purcell and Vincent Lecavalier found themselves to be linemates and clicked together. Steven Stamkos' goal scoring ability seemed to dissipate, and Martin St. Louis continued on a points tear that would earn him a Hart Trophy nomination by season's end.
The Roloson acquisition wasn't management's only commitment to bolstering the roster for a playoff push. The Lightning acquired defenseman Eric Brewer from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for defensive prospect Brock Beukeboom and a 3rd round draft choice in 2011. The team also ended up jettisoning Ellis via trade with the Anaheim Ducks. Mike Smith, who had been waived and sent to Norfolk after returning from injury, would be anointed Dwayne Roloson's backup from that point forward.
Fans who remember March 2011 might recall that it didn't look like Tampa Bay would be doing anything. They seemed to free fall during their only losing month of the season (5-6-4). It was frustrating to watch, especially having seen the flashes of brilliance by the squad at times throughout the season... But it was a solemn reminder that the Lightning were on year one of a grand franchise rebuilding. It was the start of the process, and expectations and hopes had been bolstered perhaps too high during the regular season up to that point.
Guy Boucher and Steve Yzerman themselves would say repeatedly that the team overachieved. Maybe that's what made March so frustrating to behold: Fans had gotten used to the overachievement. Whatever the case, that overachievement of the season and the ship-righting in April resulted in the franchise first playoff appearance since 2007.
As the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Bolts were pitted against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Even if the Penguins were lacking the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and a suspended Matt Cooke at the time, the team remained impossible to write off... And that was proven by the Lightning being driven to the brink of elimination after four games played.
The series returned to Pittsburgh for Game 5, and Tampa put an exclamation point on their statement that the team would not go quietly into the offseason. Tampa Bay won 8-2, and then performed one of the grandest feats possible in pro-sports: winning the series, 4 games to 3 after being down 3 games to 1.
There was little time for recuperation from the Quarterfinals, as Tampa Bay went directly to Washington to face off against the #1 seed In the Eastern Conference, the Washington Capitals. The Caps had manhandled the Bolts for much of the season, winning the regular season series 4 games to 2, while outscoring the Bolts 17 to 9 with those games combined.
Yet, those numbers are moot when the playoffs begin. The second season wipes the slate clean, and you start over with an 0-0 record. There is no past, there is only the present. Tampa Bay rolled over the Capitals, sweeping them out of the playoffs in the most improbable fashion. And while the sports media focused on Capitals failings, Bolts Nation reveled in the Lightning's success.
For the second time in franchise history, the Lightning were playing in the Eastern Conference Finals. Pitted against the #3 seed Boston Bruins... The task didn't seem all that insurmountable. The Bruins and Lightning finished with the exact same record, they were very evenly matched statistically. They had both swept away their semifinal opponents.
It was to be no surprise that the series went seven games. But at one point or another, a overachieving Lightning team was going to falter and fail. Facing injuries to Sean Bergenheim - who had been an offensive powerhouse during the playoffs, scoring 9 goals in 16 games - and Pavel Kubina, along with an array of injuries to the rest of the roster, the Bolts luck and overachievement was going to run out at one point or another... And it did in Boston on May 27th with a 1-0 loss to the Bruins who went on to win the Stanley Cup.
And so, the process of becoming, the 2010-11 quest to d achieve came to an end. There are more highlights and lowlights, stories and dramas that could be pointed out and stressed upon... But the past is said and done. That process is over.
The process of becoming has begun once again. The Lightning's 2011-12 quest for glory is about to begin.