The best thing about having a team-issued credential to cover the Lightning is that I'm a Lightning fan, and I like to believe that being a credentialed member of the media allows me to be an ambassador on behalf of fellow fans who will never get to experience the game of hockey that way. Through this weekly column, I'll be sharing peeks behind the magical media curtain with you. Today, we're going to talk about what comprises a successful season.
I led off last week’s column with this:
“It’s the big question right now; will the Lightning make the playoffs? There’s really nothing else to discuss right now.”
That’s still true (even more so, actually) a week later, so this is something of a continuation on the theme of making the playoffs and whether or not that’s enough to consider a team’s season a success.
Ultimately, it’s subjective. Some people think anything short of a championship is a failure. There are college football fans who feel that if they only win a game against their rival, the season wasn’t a total loss. For some, finishing at .500 or above counts as a success. For others, it’s making it to the playoffs. A lot of people feel that the Buffalo Bills’ four consecutive AFC championships between 1991 and 1994 all add up to one colossal failure because none of them led to a Super Bowl win.
Since it is subjective, open to individual interpretation, nobody is wrong. But fans who can’t be satisfied with anything less than a Stanley Cup are setting themselves up to be disappointed almost all of the time.
It’s a simple mathematical equation. There are 30 teams in the NHL. Soon, there will be 31 and eventually (probably), 32. If all of them were equal heading into every season, which can never happen, and a cycle resulted in every team taking turns winning the Cup, you’re looking at your team winning once within a span of every three decades. Since that kind of equal opportunity rotation is never going to be the case, a championship season can literally be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. And even something that rare is a best-case scenario in many instances.
So how does all that apply to the Tampa Bay Lightning, specifically this year’s team? As most Lightning fans are aware, this team was heavily favored by many, if not most, prognosticators to contend for this year’s Stanley Cup. Measured against that metric, scraping just to get into the postseason means the season is a failure as of March 17, 2017. That could change over the next couple of weeks, of course but right now, they’ve severely underachieved against the projected popular expectations.
However, from within the organization itself, general manager Steve Yzerman is always very careful at the start of every season to go on record stating that the only goal is to make it into the playoffs, with the unspoken assumption that a nice, long run can occur once that happens. That sounds like the modus operandi of the Detroit Red Wings, with whom Yzerman played the first 15 and worked in the Detroit front office for another four of a current NHL record-tying 25 consecutive (albeit likely to end this year) seasons in the playoffs. Under those terms, as of March 17, 2017, there’s a good chance this season could very well be declared a success, extending the Lightning’s own franchise-best streak to four consecutive “successful” campaigns.
Where you as an individual fan fall along this spectrum, or even below it, is entirely up to you and what you define as success and failure. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting your team to win it all. That is kind of the point of this whole fandom thing, after all. You should never feel that you need to lower your expectations and demand less than the best from your team... as long as you understand that it’s virtually impossible for any team to deliver at that level all the time, or even often, and that you can live with that.
Personally, I’ve been a Lightning fan long enough to remember that when Wendel Clark (who played all of 65 games during his lone season as a Bolt) made the 1999 all-star team for the game played in Tampa, it was a cause for celebration (we didn’t have a single representative at the 1998 game). My standards have changed over the years; by the time the Lightning had three representatives at the 2003 all-star game in Sunrise, the team was trending up and my sights were set on bigger prizes than that.
I guess the point of this is I would advise fans to set reasonable and flexible standards when it comes to what success for the sake of maintaining sanity and enjoyment of the game itself.