Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts column is a touchstone in the hockey community. Every week, the Sportsnet writer gathers information from around the league. We will expand on his thoughts, especially those that involve the Lightning. This is Raw Charge’s Thinks about Thoughts.
The Tampa Bay Lightning factored directly into two of Friedman’s thoughts this week. This can be either good or bad depending on what he is thinking about, and this week it’s a little of both.
“No more taking anything for granted”
Friedman’s first thought about the Lightning mentioned an unnamed player saying, “No more taking anything for granted. We’ve learned our lesson. We thought our skill would get us into the playoffs last year.”
Several members of the organization have expressed similar thoughts.
Ryan Callahan spoke about the team being hungry:
Callahan on #Bolts missing playoffs last season: "Guys are hungry. We weren't happy about last year."— Bryan Burns (@BBurnsNHL) September 14, 2017
General Manager Steve Yzerman commented on the new attitude:
Most of the team had experienced nothing but success since coming into the league. During the Jon Cooper era, the team had made the playoffs every year, been to the Eastern Conference Final twice and Stanley Cup Final once. Many experts picked them to return to Final again in 2016-17. With that type of constant success and accolades, it’s easy to see why they took things for granted.
But there was an odd beginning to the season. Whether it was having so many players participate in the World Cup or the lengthy summer contract negotiations for Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, the season seemed to get off to a bumpy start. Even when the team was winning games early in the year, it didn’t seem to have the same tenacity that had been a hallmark of the previous two seasons’ squads. For one thing, it seemed like they were always chasing a lead.
The malaise that set in after Steven Stamkos was sidelined left the team in a position that they were unable to recover from despite a valiant effort at the end of the season. All season long, they were like a racehorse that was stalking the lead. You kept waiting for them to start their finishing kick, but when they did it was too late and they were left out of the money at the finish line.
Perhaps the long summer has served to humble the players a bit and get them back to the style where they don’t give games or periods away. It could also be something that Chris Kunitz adds to the clubhouse. The concept of being a “leader in the room” can sometimes be derided, but a player like Kunitz, with four Stanley Cup rings, has the gravitas to stand up in the locker room and let the team know when they need to get their act together.
Also, Kunitz’s role as an outsider might bring a new voice to the team. The general makeup of the Lightning hasn’t really changed much over the last three or four seasons. When they went into their funk last year they most likely thought they would pull through because, well, they always had in the past. Maybe if they had a voice saying, “this isn’t good, we need to start winning now” in December, they would have gotten their act together sooner.
Friedman’s second thought revolves around the first roster moves made in camp, the release of Cam Darcy and Brian Hart from their contracts. He points out, as Geo did in his post about it, that waiving the two players brings the numbers of players on contracts to 45, five short of the maximum number allowed. “Flexibility is always good,” he writes, a sentiment that reflects Mr. Yzerman’s cap-managing strategy fairly succinctly.
The talent pool between Syracuse and Tampa right now is extremely deep. It would have been a battle for Hart and Darcy to even make the Crunch roster this year. With the number of players the Lightning need to evaluate in camp, any playing time the two would receive during the preseason would cut into prospects that have a better chance of making the team. There really was no reason to keep them around. It sounds harsh, but it also allows the players a chance to latch onto another organization.
Now should a prospect who doesn’t have a contract make the team, like say maybe Michael Sergachev, the Lightning can sign him and still have slots available. These slots can be used during the season either to fill in for injuries or to trade for a veteran NHL player during the final stretch of the season. He has both cap flexibility and roster flexibility to make adjustments to the team, something not every general manager has the luxury of doing.
Speaking of cap flexibility, Friedman spends a portion of his column on Toronto and their slightly awkward relationship with injured forward Joffrey Lupul. Despite failing a team physical, Lupul implied on social media that he was healthy and that the team is keeping him on LTIR not because he is still injured, but because they don’t want his $5.25 million cap hit on the books. He has since apologized for “causing a distraction.”
Friedman insinuates that some other owners may not be happy with Lou Lamoriello finding yet another cap loophole, but at the same time, how far do they want to push it should they need to use the same tricks in the future to lessen the damage of an unwieldy contract?
The Lightning have avoided any injury shenanigans that have drawn the ire of other teams or the league, but with the number of long-term contracts they have, the governance of LTIR manipulation is something they are sure to keep their eye on.
Finally, Friedman opened the column with a discussion he had with former Leaf Jason Blake who is dealing with the same version of leukemia that former Lightning center Brian Boyle was recently diagnosed with. From what Blake has to say about dealing with the situation, it is something that is manageable and Boyle should be able to enjoy a lengthy career in the NHL.
Our thoughts go out to Boyle and his family. While his tenure in Tampa was brief (only 2 and ½ seasons) he made a huge impact with fans and in the community. His mocking of Justin Abdelkader in the 2016 playoffs will live on in Lightning history forever. So will his Game 3 overtime winner that same spring.