Perhaps the lesson of the 2011-12 season was spelled out by Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher just before training camp commenced in September 2011. Speaking to Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune, Boucher needed fans to remember this new season wasn't going to be a continuation of last season.
... But what we were at the end of the year is not what we are going to be at the beginning of this year. I think that's the common misconception that teams, organizations and fans usually have is that they think it just continues and it's an on-going process, which it's not. There is a break in between, there's a change of players, there's chemistry that is going to be a little different to start.
For fans, it was hard to fathom the new chapter and now story. No, it was a continuation! Had to be! That's what we're taught, after all, with pro sports. The break over the summer after the Bolts 2011 Eastern Conference Finals run the previous spring couldn't sap or stop the upward climb of this team and franchise, now could it?
Forwards Simon Gagne, Sean Bergenheim and goaltender Mike Smith each departed the Bolts over the summer of 2011. Smith had struggled in Tampa with injury and consistency issues through his tenure. Bergenheim raised his name ID through the league with his performance in the 2011 playoffs and played that into a payout from the Florida Panthers. Gagne? Gagne was dismissed because he sought the long-term deal in Tampa and stability, while the club was offering to bring him back on a short-term contract.
The Bolts brought in former Ottawa Senators forward Ryan Shannon seemingly as a replacement for Bergenheim, they also added former Canadiens forward Tom Pyatt to the roster (a move dismissed at the time as just a depth addition) and set up what would become musical chairs for a roster spot. Pyatt, Shannon and now-healthy Mattias Ritola would all vie for playing time while wing Dana Tyrell found himself pushed out and demoted to Norfolk of the AHL.
In the crease, the Lightning invested in Dwayne Roloson for another season while signing Mathieu Garon to back him up. The plan was for Garon would spell Roloson, who at 42 years old wasn't supposed to be a workhorse for the club. But he was the #1. That was the idea, at least..
The 2011-12 campaign started on the road with thanks to the finishing work on the $40 million worth of renovations at 401 Channelside Drive. The opening road trip that started in the preseason, would run through the season opener on October 7th, and finally conclude on October 17th.
The season also started without Mattias Ohlund on defense. Ohlund, for the second straight season,was shelved and had to have his knees attended to. He would never play a game last season and his career seems all but done now, as his knee condition worsened after surgery.
And then the season commenced...
After drubbing a Carolina Hurricanes team looking for revenge on the Lightning for Tampa Bay knocking them from appearing in the 2011 playoffs, the Bolts finished their five game season opening road trip with a 1-2-2 record. Not a good way to start, but the team was still producing points and staying in the race.
That narrative - productive but things not working out - would dominate the 2011-12 season. The season was clearly not a continuation of 2010-11, as Dwayne Roloson struggled in the crease and did not look like the same player that accepted all challenges (turning away most) during the 2011 playoffs. In fact, Roloson couldn't be depended on, finishing the season with a 3.66 GAA and .886 save percentage in 40 appearances. Ryan Shannon struggled with both consistent playing time and with injuries - he played only 45 games in 2011-12 and amassed a total of 12 points (4 goals, 8 assists). Mattias Ritola was waived in early November and went home to Sweden instead of playing in the AHL.
Injuries punctuated the season, with Ohlund being joined on the sidelines at times by the likes of Victor Hedman who had concussion issues. Martin St. Louis took a puck to the face during a morning skate on the day of what would have been his 500th consecutive NHL game. The Bolts called up Dana Tyrell to resume his NHL career, only to see him tear his ACL.
And inconsistency reigned. Fans grew leery and hysterical over play and the need for improvement in goal and elsewhere. The odd thing is that Tampa Bay remained in reach of a playoff spot all the while. No one in the Southeast Division seemed to actually want to win the division in 2011-12. The Florida Panthers, revamped and chasing their first playoff appearance in a decade, would go on a run and then cool off suddenly. The Washington Capitals - the titans of the Southeast for the most part of the last half decade - underachieved and ended up firing head coach Bruce Boudreau (who quickly landed on his feet and took over the Anaheim Ducks shortly after his dismissal). Carolina imploded, destined to finish the season in the division cellar, and the former Atlanta Thrasher franchise in Winnipeg played great puck-control hockey but was largely middle-of-the-road in every other area.
No matter how badly the Lightning played with its roster of veterans, the Bolts still were in striking distance of the playoffs. One major factor driving the Bolts was center Steven Stamkos who would be nominated for the Hart Trophy for his efforts after the season. Stamkos snap-shot and discovered chemistry with wing Teddy Purcell was something to rally around.
It was after a humiliating shut-out loss in February against the Ottawa Senators that GM Steve Yzerman waved the white flag, conceding the season and focusing on the long-term. Defenseman Pavel Kubina was shipped off to Philadelphia in exchange for draft picks, center Dominic Moore was sent to San Jose in the same kind of deal, forward Steve Downie was traded to Colorado for defenseman Kyle Quincey, who was immediately traded to Detroit for a 1st round draft pick.
That, along with captain Vincent Lecavalier being felled by a fractured hand, killed morale among the fans - players traded with no roster players coming back in the deals. The most frustrating thing of all was the fact the Bolts didn't just lay down and die. They went 3-1-0 during the homestand that saw Kubina, Moore and Downey traded. They stayed in the hunt... At least for a time.
The trade deadline arrived and instead of further dismantling his roster and positioning himself for the 2012 NHL draft, Yzerman made deals for the immediate future with the team on defense, bringing in Brian Lee from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Gilroy, obtaining Keith Aulie from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for prospect Carter Ashton. Mike Commodore was also acquired, almost as a gift, as a reinforcement on the Tampa Bay blue line.
It was a few days after the deadline that the wheels finally fell off for the Bolts. It was when Mathieu Garon suffered a groin tear that hands were thrown up. Garon, signed as that #2 netminder the previous summer, had been playing as the #1... With him gone, the inconsistency of Dwayne Roloson would take over as starter. That situation alone couldn't be looked at as the key reason the Bolts fell out of contention - the damage had started much earlier in the season - but it was the final nail in the coffin for playoff hopes.
There were bright spots on the season: Stamkos grabbing his second Rocket Richard trophy with a 60 goal effort, becoming the first NHL player to reach the milestone since 2007. He was also the 2nd Tampa Bay Lightning player to be nominated for the Hart Trophy for his efforts. Teddy Purcell notched a career high 65 points (21 goals, 45 assists) in 81 games. Martin St. Louis missed all of five games due to his injury, and managed his ninth consecutive 60 point season (74 points from 25 goals and 49 assists). Tom Pyatt came in with limited expectations and scored 12 goals with 7 assists.
All in all, 2011-12 was a process of regression after 2010-11's successes for the Lightning. Tampa Bay finished with 84 points, tied for 10th in the Eastern Conference standings. The situation in goal would have to be resolved with a potential long-term solution.Changes and stabilization would take place in the off-season... A much longer off-season than anyone anticipated with thanks to the 2012 NHL lockout.