Jarome Iginla had a choice to make in free agency in the summer of 2014.
A cap casualty with the Boston Bruins, Iginla had plenty of options; there was no shortage of suitors for the 37-year old scorer who potted 31 goals in 2013-14.
The Lightning, missing out on Iginla, signed Brenden Morrow instead to a 1 year, $1.55 million dollar deal.
Judging on Iginla's comments following his decision, it seemed like there were two factors that were most important to him for where he would play in 2014-15 and beyond: nearness to contention, as he's never won a Stanley Cup; and a thriving youth hockey program in the area for his kids:
Aside from joining a team he believes can compete for the Stanley Cup, family issues were extremely important for Iginla, his wife and three children.
"My kids are 10, 8 and 6 and they're excited to see what the future holds and we discussed different options," he said. "A big part of it is having the family being comfortable and like the destination and enjoy that while being on a team that can contend. Colorado fit perfectly.
"Being able to get term and some stability for my family, but also being able to be part of this team and have a chance as they grow ... I think they can contend and just get better and better. I'm really excited about it."
Both teams made the playoffs in 2013-14 and fell unceremoniously in the 1st round, but a keen eye could have told you that the Lightning's brand of hockey under Jon Cooper was more likely to be repeatable than Patrick Roy's version in Colorado.
Proponents of analytics were predicting Colorado's fall from grace throughout the 2013-14 season as inevitable. Patrick Roy's first season behind the bench in the NHL was blessed with outstanding (unsustainable) goaltending from Semyon Varlamov. The Avs charged to 52 wins and 112 points before getting ousted in the first round by a better 5v5 team in the Minnesota Wild.
In 2014-15, Varlamov was still good, but not a world-beater. The Avs fell to 39 wins and 90 points and missed the playoffs altogether, while the Lightning are in the Stanley Cup Final.
If the most important thing for Iginla was truly his family, specifically, the ability for his kids to play in a strong youth-hockey program without needing much travel, then he chose correctly. Denver has that; Tampa Bay doesn't, at least not yet. Curiously, though, the Lightning hired Jay Feaster as "Executive Director of Community Hockey Development" just days after Iginla chose the Avs over the Bolts. Building a stronger youth hockey presence in the community is a clear goal the Lightning are actively working towards, and one that they've already experienced some success with. A Wisconsin high school senior named Zac Gazzana moved to Florida last year and said this about the quality of HS hockey in Tampa Bay:
"If I would have known how good the hockey was down here I would have moved sooner," said Gazzana, sitting next to the ice at Brandon Ice Forum wearing his Wiregrass Ranch jersey. "The hockey is every bit as good down here as it is up north. And I don't have to trudge through a bunch of snow to get to the hockey arena.
"Now I feel like I should say to my parents, ‘I'm sorry. I had it all wrong.' The funny thing is that I'm a hockey player and I didn't know how good it was in Florida. I think most people have no idea."
Fortunately for the Lightning, missing out on Iginla worked out in the end. It's hard to imagine Nikita Kucherov emerging on Tyler Johnson's right wing with Ryan Callahan and Jarome Iginla eating the top-6 minutes on the right side. If Iginla chooses Tampa Bay last July, "Triplets" might never have happened, and they've carried the Bolts for long streteches. Worse, the Lightning would be on the hook for two more years of salary (assuming the deal offered by Tampa Bay was similar to the one Iginla signed in Colorado) with a lot of important players to re-sign in the near future.
If winning the Cup was Iginla's goal -- as it is for almost every player in the NHL -- it's hard not to look back at the choice like a huge mistake. He's locked in for two more seasons on a team that will likely continue to struggle in a very difficult division, while the Bolts are just entering what looks like a very wide window of contention.