As of January 13, with 40 games remaining in the regular season, the Tampa Bay Lightning sit 8 points out of 8th place in the Eastern Conference, hardly an insurmountable deficit, I'd say. Although, I'd hardly say the Lightning are in good shape as much as this season is concerned: they currently stand just 2 points out of last place in the East, and a surefire lottery pick. Bearing this in mind, the way I see it there are two paths, neither of which are necessarily bad, that the team can take moving forward:
1) Make a move or two at the deadline to shore up what isn't injured (read: goalie) and pray for health through March and April.
2) Wait out the season, score a potentially Top 5 draft pick, and build for 2012-13.
There is no question that this team has been inconsistent, injury-plagued, and just damn unlucky at times. Goaltending, I think, is the most obvious issue, with Dwayne Roloson looking 42 and Mathieu Garon playing like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Of course, the injury bug has also struck the Lightning with fury, as only 6 players have played in all 42 games: Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Dominic Moore, Eric Brewer, and Brett Clark (7 if you want to consider Teddy Purcell sans the 1 game healthy scratch). Meanwhile, only three players have scored more than 10 goals (Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and Lecavalier) and similarly, only three have recorded more than 15 assists (Stamkos, St. Louis, and Bergeron); and this points to a lack of the all-important secondary scoring, be it due to injuries, luck, or both.
Barring any further injuries or setbacks (i.e. Hedman's concussion) **serious knocking on wood**, signs seem to point to the team being relatively healthy come trade deadline time on February 27 (I have no clue what the status of Mattias Ohlund is). Interestingly enough, the trade deadline splits the remainder of the Lightning's season exactly in half: there are 20 games between now and February 27th, and 20 after. Thus, it is likely that the performance of the team in the next 20 games will be crucial to determining the decisions of GM Steve Yzerman regarding this season and next.
Let us revisit our two options:
1) Consider this: the Lightning somehow find steady goaltending for the next 10 games (7 of which are at home, by the way); along with an increase in secondary scoring they manage to win 6-8 games. It is then not inconceivable that they could find themselves within 4 points of a playoff spot, considering 5 of the next 10 games are played against the current 8, 9, and 10 seeds (Washington, Pittsburgh, and Winnipeg, respectively). Does Yzerman then begin to explore the trade market as a buyer (barring further collapse before the deadline)? A goalie perhaps? We know through experience this season that the Garon/Roloson wave does not carry us far before it breaks, and we have to wait for a new one to form; the hypothetical wave of the next 10 games surely wouldn't last much longer, let alone into April. Maybe a Bottom 6 forward with a scoring touch, like an Antti Miettinen-type player that Yzerman missed out on earlier in the season (Miettinen currently has just 2 assists and is -7 in 11 games with the Jets, lucky us). Now, I am not horribly familiar with the trade market, so I cannot provide and particular speculation; however Vancouver, St. Louis, Minnesota, Buffalo, among others have goaltending dilemmas, so it seems as though the options are there. However, it is important to do this carefully, without destroying the future of the team. At any rate, if the Lightning can acquire a top-tier goaltender (without taking on stupid Luongo-esque contracts), it seems that, with a bit of luck, they might be able to sneak into the playoffs. Once they're in, as we all know, anything can happen.
2) This option does not look as bright, but seems all the more probable with every Lightning loss. If they should, say, win any less than 14-15 remaining games between now and the deadline, it's safe to say that the team's playoff hopes would be extremely slim. I have never been an advocate of the fire-sale, but that doesn't seem to be an option anyways. Of course, there will be a Lecavalier rumor, there always is; and I personally believe that trading him (even with his contract) would be a mistake, especially at this point. I would expect, should this be the case, that Yzerman would remain relatively quiet, and wait until the offseason to fix up the holes. Roloson is all but a sure-thing to retire at the end of the season, making a goaltending move almost a necessity (unless the management feels that Dustin Tokarski is ready to be a starting NHL goalie). Meanwhile, Kubina, Gilroy, Gervais, and Clark are all UFA's at the end of this season, combined with the uncertainty of Ohlund (seriously, does anybody know if he is ever going to play again?) we could see an overhaul of the defense, especially with a Top-10 pick in a draft pool that has several top puck moving defenseman. The only serious question at forward is if Downie (RFA) and Moore (UFA) decide to re-sign, but the core of the offense will likely remain in tact. Bearing this in mind, maybe one more year in the lottery club wouldn't be all that bad. Sure, it would suck between now and April 7, but I believe this team is just a couple of key pieces (read: goalie) away from contending for years to come.
Of course, we would all like to see Option 1 become a reality. As long as the Lightning can see 8th place, however far in the distance it may seem, the organization should remain aggressive in competing this year as well as in the coming seasons. But, the minute that playoff spot disappears over the horizon, and we, as fans, 'lose hope' in this season, remember that Option 2 is not as grim a future as it might initially appear to be.
(P.S.: Apologies for the long post, hope it was worth it.)