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2016: Top 10 Moments for the Tampa Bay Lightning

The past year has had ups and down for the Lightning, but there have been fantastic moments to celebrate, too.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

With 2016 coming to an end, it seems appropriate to do a retrospective on the year for the Tampa Bay Lightning. While the team lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins, there were plenty of moments to be happy about. So what better way than to count down the top 10 moments?

#10 - Stamkos rips a 103.9 MPH shot in the All-Star Game Hardest Shot competition

Stamkos wouldn’t win the Hardest Shot competition in the 2016 All-Star Game Hardest Shot competition, but he put up one of the best speeds of any of the forwards participating. After registering a 98.5 MPH shot on his first attempt, Stamkos made an adjustment and ripped one at 103.9 MPH with his slap shot.

#9 - The hiring of Todd Richards as assistant coach

Todd Richards was brought in as an assistant coach at the start of the 2016-17 season. The Lightning’s power play had become an abysmal creature that need to be put out of his misery. Richards was the answer. In his past stops as a head coach, he put up impressive power play numbers and put his team in the top 10 for power play multiple times.

In head coach Jon Cooper’s first full season with the Lightning, the power play was middle-of-the-pack, 15th in the NHL with a 18.1% power play percentage. The following season it stayed about the same at 18.7% and moved up to 14th in the league. 2015-16 saw the power play percentage plummet to a mere 15.8% and 27th in the league.

With Richards taking over the power play, he has instituted a better system. While heavy pressure on puck carriers has been effective at slowing the power play down, the Lightning have utilized a better entry system to gain the zone more often and in different ways.

Players are also a little less set in their positioning and there is better, faster puck movement as well as more of a willingness to shoot the puck at the net. Even with Stamkos being out of the line up, the Lightning have improved their power play to 3rd in the league with at 22.6%.

#8 - This Stralman Spin-O-Rama Backhand Goal

In the middle of a seven game winning streak in January, Anton Stralman had an amazing spin-o-rama backhand goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins to tie the game.

Sidney Crosby is well known for having one of the best back hand shots in the league, so it’s fitting that this goal came against his team. I happened to go to the player lot after this game. I asked him if he was channeling Crosby on that back-hander, and he gave a nice chuckle.

In that game, we also had this happen...

#7 - Vladislav Namestnikov records first career hat trick

Namestnikov was a part of Steve Yzerman’s first full draft with the Lightning in 2011. He was selected 27th overall in the first round out of the OHL. He played two more seasons with the London Knights before moving up to the Syracuse Crunch. With only half a season worth of NHL games under his belt, he moved to the Lightning roster full-time in 2015-16, scoring 35 points in 80 games with 14 goals.

While more of a playmaker than a goal scorer, he has a nice shot and he showed it off with this hat trick against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The first goal came two minutes into the game as he beat Marc-Andre Fleury on the glove side off a rush down the right wing side. The second goal came on a deflection in front on the power play off of a Victor Hedman point shot. He’d finish off the hat trick in overtime by banging home a Nikita Kucherov rebound.

#6 - Brian Boyle does the chicken dance

In game two of the first round of the playoffs, there was a massive line brawl to finish the game that included Justin Abdelkader pounding on Mike Blunden. Blunden was down on the ice and Abdelkader continued to raise up and drive punches down into Blunden’s head, cutting his face with his visor. Knowing that he would likely face retaliation, Abdelkader taped up his hands for game three of the series to have an excuse to not fight and answer for his actions.

Game three ended with another fracas that found Brian Boyle tangled up and ready to go with Abdelkader while every one else paired off around the ice. Abdelkader used the his excuse of taping his hands to not answer the bell because he would have received a match penalty for fighting with tape on his hands.

With Abdelkader chickening out of the fight, Boyle gave us this great chicken dance taunt that caused many fans to show up for Game 5 with chicken masks and posters for the glass at warm-ups to taunt the chicken. Game 3 would be the only game of the series the Lightning would lose, and ultimately got revenge on Abdelkader by sending him to the golf course early.

#5 - Bishop’s Game 5 shut outs

Ben Bishop came up big during the first two playoff series of 2016. Unfortunately, an injury in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals forced him to miss the rest of the playoffs and brought Andrei Vasilevskiy into the starting role. Vasilevskiy helped the Lightning push the Penguins to game seven, but ultimately lost the series after having led 3-2.

To get to that point, the Lightning had two great series against the Detroit Red Wings and the New York Islanders. The Lightning lost game three to Detroit and lost game one to the Islanders. And then they won both series in five.

The icing on the cake was Ben Bishop pitching two shut outs to end the series and give the Lightning some rest. The first was an impressive 1-0 victory at home against the Detroit Red Wings where he faced 34 shots and four penalty kills.

After the Lightning lost the first game to the Islanders 5-3, the Lightning came back hard. They won the second game of the series at home in convincing fashion 4-1. The two games in Brooklyn though would both require overtime with the Lightning coming out victorious. With their will completely broken, Bishop pitched another shutout on 28 shots and two penalty kills while the Lightning put up four goals on the Islanders to seal the series victory.

#4 - Yzerman clears cap space

It was a move that was coming and had to be done for the good of the franchise. After undergoing surgery to repair an abductor muscle in January 2015, Matt Carle was just not the same player. He never got back to being the puck moving defenseman he had been previously.

In 176 games with the Lightning prior to that injury, he had 67 points. After his injury, he had 13 points in 77 games. He was scoring at half of his previous pace with the Lightning. With a $5.5 million salary cap hit and two years remaining, the only remaining course of action was to buy out his contract. This resulted in the $5.5 million cap hit and roster spot over the next two seasons becoming a $1.833 million cap hit over the next four seasons.

On a personal note, Carle was always a very friendly player when I met him. He is a good person, and it was sad to see him leave Tampa this way. He signed a minimal contract with the Nashville Predators for the 2016-17 season, but decided to retire after playing six games with Nashville.

#3 - Lightning franchise record winning streak

The Lightning went on a tear after having the season nearly scuttled by injuries, controversy, and inconsistent play. The Lightning went on a seven game win streak from January 8th to January 21st. They followed that up with a 9-game streak starting a month later that set a franchise record for wins in a row.

The winning streak started at home with a 6-5 shootout win against the Winnipeg Jets on February 18th. It’s fitting that the final win of the streak came in 4-3 overtime win at home against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 5th. Six of the nine games came on the road. Those two games were the only overtime games during that stretch.

The Lightning scored 3.66 goals per game during that stretch. While that is a good scoring pace in the NHL, it wasn’t an exceptionally high number. The most impressive part is that their opponents only averaged 1.77 goals per game and included a single shutout against the New Jersey Devils. The team also did almost all of their damage at even strength as well with only three goals out of the 33 coming on the power play. The team had only a 9.6% power play percentage. By comparison, the penalty kill was superb only allowing three goals on 28 opportunities for a 89.3% kill rate.

#2 - The Jonathan Drouin Saga came to an end

The 2015-16 season was rocky, to say the least, for Drouin. After initially starting the season on the top line with Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan, and having a hot start through the first five games, Drouin cooled off in the scoring department. An injury took him out of the lineup, and when he came back, he found himself with a reduced role.

Drouin requested a trade through his agent, and that trade request became public when he was demoted to the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL. He initially went to Syracuse and played a handful of games. After starting off with a flash in his first game for the Crunch, he cooled off and didn’t contribute much offensively. Prior to a game against the Toronto Marlies in Toronto, Drouin refused to play for the Crunch. He was suspended without paid and returned home to Quebec to await a trade.

While it seems that Yzerman did make a good faith effort to trade Drouin, he was not willing to give him away for nothing. A number of ideas were floated around about this player or that, but other teams balked at his demands. The trade deadline came and went and Drouin was still a member of the Lightning organization.

After that, Drouin had a change of heart. He returned to Syracuse and played his tail off. With Steven Stamkos going on injured reserve due to a blood clot, Drouin returned to Tampa with a chip on his shoulder. With Cooper reevaluating his needs and giving Drouin more of an opportunity to play heavy minutes, Drouin flourished. He scored a goal in each of his first two games back to finish the regular season.

In the playoffs, he continued that run and helped propel the Lightning to the Eastern Conference Finals. He had 14 points in 17 games including a three-assist effort in the game 4 win over the Detroit Red Wings. With the air cleared, Drouin became an integral part of the Lightning and its future. He is currently tied for fourth in scoring on the team with 21 points. His totals would be higher except he has missed eight games due to injury, including a concussion.

The real question now will be how high he goes in scoring this season. Being on the final year of his entry level contract, he’ll be eligible for a new contract come this offseason. Hopefully his signing will be a highlight for 2017’s top moments.

Honorable Mention - Brayden Point makes the opening night roster

Before we get to our top moment of the year, we’ll get to an honorable mention that didn’t quite make the list. A surprise addition to the Lightning’s roster for the 2016-17 season was young Brayden Point. Rarely has a prospect under Steve Yzerman made the NHL roster without paying his dues in the AHL first. Brett Connolly and Drouin both played as 19 year olds without any AHL experience. Nikita Kucherov had 17 games in Syracuse before moving up to the NHL full time.

Connolly and Drouin were special situations. As 19 year olds drafted from Canadian major juniors, the Lightning could only keep them in the NHL or send them back to their junior team. The AHL was not an option for them. Connolly ended up spending some time in the AHL and Drouin’s travails are well documented. Both were also high first-round draft picks.

To have a young player like Point make the team as he did is special, and says something about his skill level. A third-round pick in the 2014 draft, he has made great strides in his game. Prior to the 2015-16 season, he received more pre-season games than any of the other juniors bound prospects the Lightning had. He continued to impress in training camp and earned his spot on the 2016-17 opening night roster.

Unfortunately, Point has suffered an injury and will be out four to six weeks. He has three goals and 12 assists for 15 points in 36 games. For him to come in and produce at just under a half a point-per-game in the NHL in a limited role speaks to his skill. After averaging 14:41 through the first 22 games, he averaged 17:24 in the last 14 games, and 20:12 over the last five games. Cooper gave him power play time and shown confidence in allowing him to play, especially in light of the many injuries the Lightning have suffered.

It seems that Cooper has learned some lessons about handling young players after his failures with Drouin. It also helps that Point hasn’t given him many reasons to be disappointed with his defensive game.

#1 - SIGN ALL THE PLAYERS!

If this part was broken down into individual moments, it would have been half of our top 10 moments. It really just made more sense to group all of these together.

Yzerman and Stamkos finally ended Stammergeddon by signing an eight-year contract worth $8.5 million per year to keep the Lightning’s Captain in Tampa through his prime years. After months of teeth gnashing over the contract situation, Yzerman finally got it over the finish line just days before Stamkos reached free agency.

Yzerman wasn’t finished though, and locked up franchise defenseman Victor Hedman to his own eight year contract worth $7.875 million per year. Hedman was still a year away from unrestricted free agency. By signing him now, Yzerman avoided the distractions that came with the complications surrounding signing Stamkos. Combined with the Stamkos signing, Yzerman kept two of the Lightning’s most important players in the fold for many years to come.

Soon after, Yzerman also signed Andrei Vasilevskiy to a three-year contract worth $3.5 million a year. Vasilevskiy was also a year from free agency, though it was restricted free agency in his case. With Vasilevskiy being the future franchise goaltender, the Lightning locked him up for a very reasonable price.

Cedric Paquette and J.T. Brown were also restricted free agents and both received two-year deals. Paquette got $812,500 per year and Brown got $1.25 million per year. Very reasonable contracts for solid bottom six wingers. These deals are important for a team to lock up useful players at reasonable prices. The expansion draft coming next summer also likely played into both of them receiving two-year contracts in order to satisfy the requirements of exposing players under contract that meet the games played thresholds.

The last three contracts took a little longer to work out. Alex Killorn and Vladislav Namestnikov were restricted free agents and both were eligible for salary arbitration. Initially unable to come to an agreement, both players filed for arbitration. Yzerman worked out deals for both prior to going to arbitration. Killorn signed for seven years at $4.45 million per year. Namestnikov signed for two years for $1,937,500 per year.

The last of the contracts was very stress-inducing for the Lightning. Without the salary cap room to give Nikita Kucherov a long term deal at a salary cap hit that was acceptable to him, it took a long time to work out a short term deal. Kucherov played in the World Cup of Hockey for Team Russia despite his lack of contract. When the tournament came to a close, he headed home to Moscow to train and rest while negotiations continued.

With training camp already under way, it was getting to be worrisome for fans that Kucherov might sign an offer with another NHL team, forcing Yzerman to accept it and trade a player to move salary, or allow Kucherov to walk. The other option was for Kucherov to sign with a team in Russia’s KHL, like his hometown CSKA Moscow.

In the end, the two sides came together on a three year bridge contract for $4,766,667 per year to keep Kucherov in a Lightning jersey. Kuchpocalypse has been delayed for another three years when he will again be a restricted free agent and likely in a position to command a salary that will come close to what Stamkos received. But that’s a worry for another year.

Here’s to 2017

2016 was filled with plenty of highs and lows for the Tampa Bay Lightning and their fans. The highs of having the cornerstones of the franchise kept in the fold were amazing. The lows of losing to Pittsburgh and dealing with so many injuries was crushing. Did we miss any top moments? Let us know in the comments.

I’ll leave you with my favorite toast... Raise ‘em and sink ‘em and let’s have another!

Here’s to 2017. May the Lightning and their fans be happy, healthy, and successful.