Things change; Thoughts on the end of an era for the Tampa Bay Lightning

"Marty, you're the last one out... Turn out the lights." - USA TODAY Sports

It hit me on Sunday that an era has ended in Tampa, and the path forward doesn't feel as certain as it once did.

Being a site manager on SB Nation, I have a job to do with overseeing the day-to-day coverage of the Tampa Bay Lightning here on Raw Charge as well as overseeing a staff of writers (sharing assignments, editing, etc.) I'm sitting here on the evening of what was a glorious spring Sunday in Tampa Bay and I'm a little lost.

Over the last week I've been covering things without much time for thought or feeling; trade deadline fodder, game previews, being alert for news... And then the Martin St. Louis trade. From a site manager perspective, I was doing this-and-that (planning, writing, promoting, discussing) in the moments leading up and after #26 was traded to the New York Rangers for Ryan Callahan, a 2nd round draft pick in 2014, a 1st round draft pick in 2015 and other conditional selections.

Re-reading that last section, I wrote it in a news reporting type of fashion. It's almost distant, isn't it? To throw in the details like that makes it seem more aloof, really. Doling out the facts like those comes with the job; keywords, details, etc.

I've let thoughts of mine on the trade be known in Saturday's "Answer This!" column, and I could elaborate on those thoughts, but that's beating a dead horse. In recent days I'd already posted two articles in suggesting there could be more to the rumors than Olympic-snub stuff and my encouragement for Marty to speak up and admit things. I've seen the pro-MSL arguments, I've seen the volatile reactions to the trade - those who blame Steve Yzerman, those who blame Marty, those who blame the Rangers; there are probably people who are out there who blame members of the Lightning roster, or Jon Cooper, or the city of Tampa... Everyone's reacting and everyone's got their little piece of vitriol to share over what happened March 5th. I've seen it, I've read it, and I've spewed it in some instances in private.

Right now, though, the reality is sweeping over me as a fan. It's not that Marty is gone; it's that the core that I'd latched on to from the past decade-plus, every single member, is gone.

I'm not trying to invoke the 2003-2004 Lightning team specifically here, but the core group of that era that materialized over a span of time from the late 1990's until last Wednesday. Under all sorts of circumstances and eliciting all types of reactions from the fans, they've moved on.

Fredrik Modin was traded in a cover-your-ass move by former general manager Jay Feaster to try to solve the inconsistency in goal for the Lightning. That felt like the very start of the dominoes tumbling for the Bolts. Next went Pavel Kubina because finances just didn't work anymore (hat tip to Pavel for coming back though, and best wishes to him in retirement). Then Brad Richards, in another "this'll solve it!" trade for a goalie was sent to Dallas. Dan Boyle followed a few months after in the most heinous act of ego and hubris by a Tampa Bay Lightning owner. That same owner signed Vincent Lecavalier to a mammoth contract that would lead to Vinny's ouster in Tampa some five years later via compliance buyout. And now Marty; Marty's gone.

They're all gone.

I believe in what Steve Yzerman is doing with the Lightning regarding long-term building, a team that produces talent from within through development. I totally believe in that, but one thing that it causes is much like what the concept of moneyball causes in Major League Baseball - increased uncertainty. Perhaps blaming uncertainty on the current development scheme is wrong, as you've seen the talent and what each respective member of Tampacuse can do for the club.

The problem here is that I don't know which players are so integral and so vital that they'll be around long term; part of the plan is to have depth enough to make players expendable when they're no longer cost effective, when they're expendable due to other players in the system, or just aren't pulling their weight.

I don't know the Tampa Bay Lightning core anymore, who Steve Yzerman will tool the team around. I don't know which rookies this season are long-term answers for the club, and that troubles me.

A discussion of opinion by fans and blogger-types such as the guys over at Bolt Prospects would say they think so-and-so is in the cards long term; that they're certain that this guy or that guy is going to be around for a while in Tampa for sure. Assistant GM Julien BriseBois, on the heels of the 2012 Calder Cup championship won by Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate, remarked that there were quite a few players on that team who could play in the NHL at that very moment.

I think everyone knows it that these guys can play in the NHL - some of them don't thrill you with what they can do while others are fun to watch - but they're all contributing at the NHL level. Not every member of that 2012 team, but enough to prove BriseBois right.

I still can't identify this care beyond NHL veterans Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and goalie Ben Bishop, and part of that is on the very concept of depth and development and players being expendable because they are bankable assets.

I thought Cory Conacher was going to be playing in Tampa for a very long time; I thought wrong. I, and others, thought Dustin Tokarski was going to be the first home-grown, long-term goaltender (backup or starter, it matters not) in Lightning history. We were proved wrong on that one too. Brett Connolly has had his name thrown around constantly as a trade cog this season, and I've seen other members of the Syracuse Crunch and Crunch alumni in Tampa mused about as trade cogs.

"We could move so-and-so to get a top-4 defenseman or a young defenseman who will grow into a top-4 role; we could trade so-and-so for forward help in the wake of the loss of Steven Stamkos to injury earlier in the season. Why not move Tyler Johnson now while he has value, or Ondrej Palat, etc?"

Perhaps some of this will be settled in the offseason when Yzerman starts offering new contracts to restricted free agents, or offering contract extensions. Then again, short-term contract (a year, two) will continue the uncertainty. Perhaps Jonathan Drouin or Slater Koekkoek will step in to Tampa next season and make waves? But will either of them be thought as untradeable, integral pieces to the Lightning or mused about as trade chips for the next patch-up job with the Lightning lineup?

Here's a thought that's even more painful to contemplate on Jonathan Drouin: Is he being trained as a center in order to be an eventual replacement to Steven Stamkos (for when Stamkos is next a free agent - 2017 - if his contract demands are too rich)?

Change is a constant in this world, that's something you can bank on. It takes a degree of faith to make a commitment to someone or something that hasn't shown you everything you want from them or it. It was that faith that endeared Vinny Lecavalier to fans during the dark times of the late 1990's, it was that faith that gave us hope when Brad Richards came onto the scene in 2000-01 and started making waves. Faith is what we had for Martin St. Louis all these years; what he'd bring to the rink every single night in all sorts of personal physical conditions; you could put stock in Marty playing and contributing when hurt, sick, or pissed off.

That faith continues in the booming snapshot of Steven Stamkos, the mobility and capability of Victor Hedman, and the steady hand of Ben Bishiop (as well as the responsible play of Nate Thompson.) While I like what I see with Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Radko Gudas and other rookies and second-year Bolts, it's still not clear which members will become mainstays with the club (or invested in as such by Steve Yzerman.)

While player development and internally-produced depth embraces the concept of tomorrowseason to the fullest degree, it does leave you to wonder a little more which of these young guys you can, and the club will, make a long-term investment in for the years ahead.

In a way, it feels like we have a new team on our hands, with every tie to the old guard having exited the stage... The thing is there isn't anything new about the guys who are playing for us now. We've seen what they can do all season and we know what they're capable of.

Still, it doesn't quiet erase this empty feeling inside. It's not about the loss of Martin St. Louis as-so-much the loss of ties to the Lightning's success of the past. But we move forward, and we'll find the answers to things as we go...

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