The season's coming. The ice is down in the Tampa Bay Times Forum. The rookie camp and tournament have bled into training camp and preseason. It's getting close, and we're going to be giving you a look ahead at the upcoming 2013-2014 season, starting with a look back at how we got here.
I wanted to just post this delightful video as the 2012-13 season review and call it a day, but John said I had to use words and stuff.
But let's face it. It was a weird, bad season almost from the start, with the kinds of nonsense and disruption that makes one want to punch a clown.
The 2012 off-season seemed promising at first. The Bolts acquired a new, young, talented goaltender in Anders Lindback and shed two others -- Sebastien Caron (remember him?) and Dwayne Roloson. They upgraded the blue-line with Sami Salo and Matt Carle, who -- whatever else they may be -- are better than Brett Clark and Mike Commodore. And they brought in forward depth with B.J. Crombeen and Benoit Pouliot while letting Ryan Shannon skate off into the sunset.
And then they waited. And they waited. And they, like the rest of us, waited. Somehow, unfathomably, infuriatingly, October didn't come.
The less said about that the better, I suppose. It does nothing but drive up my blood pressure and give me a headache.
There's little question, of course, that the lockout affected the Lightning. Reduced to player-managed skates and charity tournaments, no one really got up to game speed except the few guys who wrangled a spot in Europe (or the ECHL - Hi, Nate!)
And after all the emotional ups and downs of a mechanical bull on Five Loko, there was resolution, resulting in a condensed 48-game season, starting with a six day camp before the race began on Jan. 19.
But every team in the league had to deal with these complications - starting cold,a compacted schedule. It's not that all of this hurt the Lightning more than others. It simply was the backdrop for what was to come.
Optimism was high in the opening weeks. Either that or we were. I haven't found any predictions that saw the Lightning as bad as they ended up being and very few that questioned their progress from 2011-12. The Boltosphere, after less a week of games, was predicting top of the division and even top of the conference finishes. Scott Burnside of ESPN.com predicted "It may be in the seventh or eighth hole, but we like the re-vamped Lightning to return to the postseason." The Bleacher Report (yeah, I know) said "With a roster full of talent and an unstable division, the sky is the limit for the Bolts this season." Only nhlnumbers.com seemed to have real skepticism, and they ranked the Lightning 18th of 30 teams.
Initially, things seemed to be on track as the Lightning set a blistering pace out of the gate. Six wins in the first seven games. Plan the parade! Unfortunately those wins weren't built from sound fundamentals but rather on high shooting percentages. And shooting percentage is a fickle, fickle beast.
Reality set in soon enough. Frankly I don't have the heart to recap the exact course of the tumble the Lightning took. By late March it was bad enough that the team was in fourteenth in the East. Anders Lindback went down with one of those notoriously tricky-to-heal high ankle sprains on March 21. The Lightning faced the Ottawa Senators two days later in what turned out to be the most significant game of the season.
After falling behind by 4 goals in the first two periods, the boys were unable to complete a third-period comeback. As the Senators scored the final empty-net goal, the camera just happened to be focused on Tyler Johnson, whose two goals in the third period had sparked hope. I will never forget his face when he realized it was over. He just deflated.
More than just the game was over. The Lightning relieved Guy Boucher of his coaching position that night. Emotionally, I've always said that if you're looking for a reason that Boucher was let go after that game, it was Tyler Johnson's face. Not him specifically, but what that moment meant. The team had given up and stopped reacting to losing. Johnson, only in his fifth NHL game, reacted with the disbelief that there would be no comeback, His reaction read like the same one that you would see if this loss had been suffered by the 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals or 2012-13 Syracuse Crunch. None of the veterans on the roster reacted in the same fashion - it was another game, another loss, ho-hum - it seemed, and the contrast was devastating.
Logically, however, it was the fact that there was no reason for the Bolts to be as bad as they were, no reason that that roster couldn't control the puck more than 43% of the time at evens. This wasn't a new development. It had been there for more than a year and was getting worse. Something had to change, so Steve Yzerman thanked Guy Boucher for his service and went in a slightly different direction.
The Jon Cooper era began March 27, and there was some improvement. Not a lot and not the kind of improvement that has a clear and easily ascertainable cause, but improvement. It still wasn't enough. It was becoming obvious that Mathieu Garon and Cedrick Desjardins weren't going to be getting it done in net, so at the 2012 NHL trade deadline Yzerman traded fan favorite Cory Conacher to Ottawa for goaltender Ben Bishop.
It'd be nice to say that the team was and is saved now, but naturally that's not true. Yes, Bishop put up a .917 save percentage, but it was over only nine games, one of which was a shutout. To illustrate how much one game can affect a goalie's numbers in that small a sample, take away that shutout and Bishop had a .902. There's no way to tell what's the anomaly: the .917 or the .902. Or both. The Lightning still gave up 33.5 shots per game during that nine game spanand still gave up 2.7 goals per game. They still lost twice as often as they won.
Thus the Lightning ended up with a top three draft pick and I ended up wondering why I made myself sit through that. The reason, of course, is that I'm a fan, which requires some level of irrationality. And because we know, all of us, that the Lightning's pipeline and thus its future look so very, very good, despite how awful the present was treating us.
That's the true story of the 2013 season. Now... let us never speak of it again.