In the final days of the regular season, the Tampa Bay Lightning players reflect on the ups and downs of a very tumultuous year. For the sake of clarity and fluency, I have omitted extraneous uses of the phrases “you know,” “obviously,” “and,” “so,” and “but.”
Steven Stamkos: Yeah, well I mean, it’s going to be an interesting summer regardless, I think. We need to and would love to re-sign the guys that are Restricted Free Agents (RFAs) [Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat] but that’s not for me to do. I think the management kind of has the core in place that they’ve kind of mapped out. It’s a little easier when you can just build around that, I think.
It’ll still be interesting with the [Vegas Golden Knights] expansion draft and everything that’s going to happen. I think guys kind of know where they stand. It should be interesting to see. I think we’re pretty confident in the nucleus that we have here and what we can do by adding guys around that.
Question: Speaking of RFAs, what do you think of Jo’s [Drouin] progression this season after taking off during the playoffs last year?
Stamkos: Yeah, no. We saw why he was so highly touted and drafted as high as he was. We knew the skill set was there. I think this year you saw a more mature Jo - mature in his personality, mature in his game. He’s always been a very confident guy out on the ice. There’s some games where he just took over and it was fun to watch.
Stamkos: He’s a big part of this core, in my opinion. Again, he’s a guy that took a big step forward last year in the playoffs, improved it this year with the play that he had. Hopefully he can continue that. He just has that ability to be a game-breaker. Not too many teams have multiple guys on the ice that can do that and I think we’re one of the lucky few that does.
Question: Steve, after all you’ve been through physically the last few years, has it been tough to stay positive?
Stamkos: Well there’s certain times that it’s tough. You go through your career and you don’t envision these things happening. You don’t expect them to, but they happen. It’s nine years in the league for me now. Your first five or six years you go through scot-free and you think, “Okay, this is great. You’re never going to get hurt. You’re never going to have to deal with that stuff.” But when you go through it, it’s definitely frustrating.
I’ve been hit pretty hard the last couple of years with the two injuries [broken tibia in 2014; torn meniscus in 2016] and then the medical condition [vascular thoracic outlet syndrome in 2016] there. It’s frustrating. You hope that this is the end. I mean, things happen in three’s. Hopefully that’s it. I’m sick of not being able to be out on the ice with the guys.
You do learn a lot about yourself, your mental toughness when you go through something like this. To rehab and come back, there’s nothing tougher than having to do that. The easy part is playing the game. You’d love to never have to deal with anything. You come to the rink and you put the work in and you play. That’s the fun part. I want to get back to that after this summer. Like I said, training and some more rehab, that I can get back to where I was before the injury.
Question: You said during the last couple of playoff runs, you never know when you’ll get a chance to get back [in the playoffs]. Does this season put in perspective how hard it is to get there, even with a team as talented as you guys have here? It’s not going to be a given that you guys are going to be [competing in the playoffs].
Stamkos: No, for sure. That’s why you have to play the 82 games. People obviously had very high expectations for our team, but you need so many things to go right other than you just playing well. Injuries play a big part - you need to stay healthy, which we weren’t able to do this year and that hurt us.
Like I said, it’s way too hard to just come in and expect that you’re going to make the playoffs. This league is too competitive. I think we were only three points off last year’s pace. We were second in the [Atlantic] Division last year, [Eastern] Conference Finals. Now we’re going home.
That just goes to show you how much every game means. I know it’s an old cliché, but all those games mean something. You come down and you’re out two points because you had a bad night. You just shrug it off at the time, but it comes back to bite you.
I think we learned our lesson this year with that, especially at the beginning - digging ourselves a hole it’s too hard to come out of. You have to take advantage of it at the beginning of the season.
Question: One of the main goals coming into this season was to improve on the power play and you guys did. I don’t know if you finished number one, but you were right there all season at the top. Is there one area this team needs to improve on for next year so this doesn’t happen again?
Stamkos: We’ve always harped on our defensive game. I think we realize we have the firepower up front to score goals. Since Coop [head coach Jon Cooper] has come in, it’s always been about defending first. We went through some tough stretches this year. We were giving up four or five goals consistently a game. That’s not what made us successful in the playoffs the past couple of years. It’s about defending.
I think you look at the stretch that we went on to end the season, how many quality games we have where we only gave up one or two goals. That’s the mindset that we have to have. For me it’s a little easier said than done when you’re watching and not playing. We know what this group is capable when we compete defensively and let the offense take over. We’ll have to continue to focus on that.
I think it was a learning year for a lot of guys with the amount of young guys that came up. For a guy like Brayden Point to have his rookie year, play so well, and get so much better. Vasy [Andrei Vasilevskiy] takes over the number one role and how he handled that. Those are just going to be positive things to reinforce throughout the summer and are only going to help us moving forward here.
Question: Do you feel Victor Hedman took a step too? I know he’s been good the last several years, but as far as being part of the Norris trophy conversation.
Stamkos: Yeah, I mean Heddy’s a horse. I think it doesn’t surprise us in this room because we know what he is. From an offensive numbers perspective, he was so good on the power play that that helped spike the numbers for sure. That’s where I think for him, he gained a lot of confidence, was quarterbacking that power play. Really utilizing his shot and his passing ability.
Stamkos: I think it was a big year too for a lot of guys, and Heddy being one of them, where they took on more of a leadership role because unfortunately we had a lot of leaders that were out of the lineup. That was something that I think Heddy wanted to evolve into. He took a step forward in that. You guys maybe don’t necessarily see that stuff in the room. We all know what Heddy can do on the ice. He’s one of the best defensemen in the world. We’re lucky to have him. He took on more of a leadership role and I think that helped his game too. He was counted on more, relied upon more. He stepped up.