For many of the franchise's previous seasons, minor league players who were called up often were just bit players who filled a hole but weren't looked at for much more than that. The plan, in the past, when building the club had been to sign NHL level free agents, draft players (who either immediately stuck or never contended for a roster spot), or acquired NHL roster players via trade. Honing the talents of prospects and actually producing NHL ready players just hasn't compared with how the Bolts organization operated in days gone by.
The fact players called up from the AHL during the 2013 shortened NHL season that ended up displacing the club's top draft pick at the start of the 2013-2014 season, Jonathan Drouin...well, it seemed to be a sign to some that management didn't know what it was doing; it defied belief.
Yet for those who followed the prospects on both of the AHL Calder Cup Final teams from the recent past, they were well versed in the players who had been cultivated in the minor leagues - forwards Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik, and defensemen Mark Barberio, Radko Gudas, and Andrej Sustr - so they knew there wasn't cause for alarm. How ready those talents were for the NHL was the only thing in question going into the season.
Tampa Bay started last season with a trial by fire of games in October against the elite of the NHL -- the Boston Bruins (twice), the Chicago Blackhawks (twice), the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Los Angeles Kings. The club, helped along by goalie Ben Bishop's stellar play (which made up for defensive lapses and breakdowns), as well as the efforts by the new guard and old guard as well, went 8-4 in October. They took down Chicago in both contests, stood toe-to-toe with Pittsburgh for much of their contest, and being competitive (but outmatched) in both games against Boston.
While optimism started to build as success and competitiveness continued into November, disaster struck when the Lightning played the Bruins for the third time that season on the afternoon of November 11, 2013. It was unthinkable, unimaginable, and horrific to behold. Steven Stamkos, the team's leading scorer at the time and the lynch-pin on the offense, broke his leg during game play. This wasn't a result of something dirty, this wasn't the result of something intentional, and this was simply a freakish and random occurrence. For many fans in Tampa, and around the league as well, the Lightning season was deemed over. Thank you for coming out, drive home safely, and don't forget to tip your server.
From this point on, the atmosphere of the season changed from unexpected success into a story of perseverance through adversity. The TampaCuse bunch, veterans like Martin St. Louis, Valtteri Filppula, Victor Hedman, Nate Thompson, Teddy Purcell, the rest of the cast of veterans and newcomers, and Bishop's stellar efforts in net as well saved the season. With solid depth management from Steve Yzerman and remarkable coaching from head coach Jon Cooper, the Lightning kept going as different roster challenges arrived in the form of periodic unexpected injuries. Tampa Bay endured and stood as a force near the top of the standings in the Atlantic Division.
Another shadow fell upon the team when it became apparent that not all was well with Ben Bishop after spraining his wrist in a game in Edmonton just after New Year's. He played well enough to keep the team in games - and, in fact, kept posting outstanding numbers - but he frequently dropped his stick as if it hurt to hold it. The team denied anything was amiss, but calls for Bishop to sit increasingly came from the fan base as time went on. Bishop's backup, Anders Lindback, had seemed to lost team confidence early in the season and that was reflected by the club rarely turning to him to give Bishop a rest, even during back-to-back affairs.
This wasn't the last challenge the club would face; the most profound one for the entire franchise invoked itself during the 2014 Winter Olympic break in February. Team captain Marty St. Louis requested a trade.
At age 38, St. Louis was playing phenomenally and it looked as if there was no stopping him. Apparently Marty harbored a grudge against Steve Yzerman, his NHL GM who served as Team Canada's general manager, for not naming him to both the 2010 and 2014 Canadian Olympic hockey teams. Not even being named to the 2014 team as an injury replacement for Stamkos, would let St. Louis forgive Yzerman. Fourteen years of success with the Tampa Bay Lightning be damned, Martin St. Louis could not play for a man who did not believe in him.
Despite the fact he was team captain, despite the fact the Bolts were nearing a playoff berth, despite his rich history with the organization, St. Louis wanted out and the New York Rangers were the only team he'd allow himself to be traded.
The rumors started to swirl in the middle of the 2014 Winter Olympics, and Lightning fans could not and would not even attempt to believe them to be true. This defied what the fans knew of Marty, this contrasted the selflessness and loyalty they knew him for, what we all knew him for. The trade rumor was happening just two months after St. Louis celebrated his 1000th NHL game of his career and the grand honoring of it that took place in Tampa in December 2013 (coincidentally enough, against the New York Rangers).
Marty's request was honored by the team on March 5th, 2014 at the NHL trade deadline. And with that transaction, an era came to an end.
Ryan Callahan and high draft picks in 2014 and 2015 were what the Bolts had sent to them by the Rangers in return for St. Louis. A responsible forward and team leader (he had been team captain for the Rags), Callahan filled a need through responsible two-way play and a strong penalty kill game. He also seemed to click with his new linemates, Ondrej Palat and Val Filppula, which led to offensive contributions from Callahan almost on a nightly basis
While Callahan competently filled the on-ice void that St. Louis left behind, it wasn't certain whether the pending free agent would stick around past the conclusion of the season. In spite of that fact, Ryan helped provide leadership in a dressing room that could've gone astray, even under newly anointed captain Stamkos. He readily cushioned the blow handed to the fan base by the hasty departure of the previous captain and fan favorite, becoming something of a cautious fan favorite within weeks himself.
And, yes, Steven Stamkos returned to the Tampa Bay Lightning lineup four months after his horrific injury. It was a morale boost to have #91 back in the lineup and helped solidify the final playoff push by the club. The Lightning didn't just eek in, but won home-ice advantage in a playoff date with the Montreal Canadiens.
The goaltending situation finally imploded when, late in the season, Bishop dislocated his elbow and was knocked out of the lineup. An ill-prepared Anders Lindback and rookie prospect Kristers Gudlevskis shared responsibilities to close out the season and in the playoffs. As had been an issue off and on for much of the season, defensive lapses plagued the team once the postseason got underway. In simplicity to summarize the Lightning's 1st round of the playoffs injuries and defensive breakdowns were finally too much for the Lightning, and they were swept by the Canadiens.
There are so many little stories to make mention of, and so many we neglect in this summary (like the NHL rookie of the year worthy efforts of Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, who were both runners-up for the award). The simple truth is that a team comprised of first and second year players (and dotted with veteran talent) fought through distractions and adversity before making the playoffs. That's a bar that has been set for this upcoming season - make the playoffs. What challenges are to be faced remains to be seen, but it can only be hoped those challenges and obstructions pale in comparison to 2013-14.