That’s it. With the last horn on Wednesday night, the hand shake line, and one final salute to the fans, the Tampa Bay Lightning season was over. The last two games were hard to watch as the Lightning got shut out over the last almost eight periods of the series. Good luck to the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final. I hope they have fun. I also want to pass on a few words of advice I gave to some Capitals fans after the game.... Don’t take it for granted. You never know when you’ll be back. Have fun and enjoy the adventure.
Now, let’s get on with some of my end of the season thoughts. This is going to be more about the entire season rather than focusing down on these last two games.
There’s a good reason why Steve Yzerman has said that they don’t make a Stanley Cup Championship the sole indicator of success for a season. While it is the ultimate goal, Yzerman realizes that it’s really hard to win a championship. The first goal every season is to make it into the playoffs, and then take it from there. Sometimes you’re going to run up against a hot team or a hot goaltender or you’re going to have injuries that keep your team from competing at it’s best. This time for the Lightning, it was bad play in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final followed by Braden Holtby getting red hot in the last two games.
So was this a successful season without a Championship? Absolutely, 100%, yes. They made the playoffs; goal number one. They played great through the first two rounds. They just came up short as one of the last four teams in the playoffs. This team took a big step forward from last season, partially thanks to Steven Stamkos returning from injury. The bulk of this roster will be back next year for another shot at a championship. The year after that though, there could be a lot of changes. And that leads me into my next point...
Stanley Cup Window
Matt Sammon of Lightning Radio fame had a great comment on the post game radio show after game seven. A lot of times we talk about Stanley Cup windows of when a team is in a position to compete for a championship. Sammon said that he preferred to think of it as a sliding glass door for the Lightning. That opportunity is always open, it’s just a matter of it moving one way or the other each season as the roster changes.
Yzerman very much wants to see a long playoff run like the Detroit Red Wings had. He’s drafted and developed and traded pieces along the way in an attempt to keep building the team within. Keep refreshing it as needed. With Yzerman in charge, and with Al Murray backing him up, I have the confidence that the Lightning will indeed keep having a Stanley Cup Sliding Glass Door.
Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos
What an incredible season from Kucherov. After putting the team on his back in 2016-17 and falling short of the playoffs, Kucherov came to play this season. The playoffs ended up being a little bit different with some inconsistency from him and linemate Stamkos. But taken in total, he had the best season a Lightning player has had since the last time Stamkos broke 90 points in 2011-12.
This was definitely an interesting season for Stamkos. Coming back from his torn meniscus, it was a question of how good would he look. He came out strong, but he performed in a much different way than normal. He was racking up assists. For a player that has been the second best goal scorer in the NHL since entering the league, it was a bit strange to see him turn into a playmaker.
Since entering the OHL and then the NHL, he has only finished with more assists than goals three times. His biggest differential was eight more assists than goals in his rookie season with the Sarnia Sting. The other two seasons, he ended with one more assist. And then last season shortened by injury, he had two more assists than goals. But this season? 32 more assists than goals. His 27 goals was his lowest total in a full season since his rookie season.
With his meniscus injury, there’s been a couple sound bites to come out from Stamkos that he’ll never be “100%” again. Between the broken leg and the meniscus, he’ll never be the same health wise as he was before those two injuries. So he’s had to adjust and figure out what his new normal is, his new 100%. The talk with meniscus repair like he had is that it takes 18 months to start feeling fully back. It’s been just about 18 months. Maybe with a lot of that 18 months coming during a season, it didn’t quite get back to feeling 100%. If Stamkos comes back in the fall, rested and recovered fully, and he has that jump back in his step, he could be a scary offensive threat again with Kucherov.
The Young Guys
It was fantastic all season to watch Brayden Point and Mikhail Sergachev develop and grow with every game. We also saw Adam Erne come up and be a contributor before a lower body injury ended his season. Tony Cirelli was an absolute delight. During training camp, he was the guy that I had as a dark horse to make the Lightning roster. He didn’t, but that was ok. He needed some time to adjust to the pro game and the time with the Syracuse Crunch was valuable for him. I don’t see Cirelli growing into a good top six option but he can be a high-end third line center and he proved that the potential is there to keep growing. I expect he’ll be in Tampa Bay to start next season.
There were two big trades over the past year for the Lightning. The first was of course the trade of Jonathan Drouin to the Montreal Canadiens for Mikhail Sergachev. It turned out to be a great move. The Lightning had the depth and skill up front and had even more on the way. Maybe nothing quite as dynamic as Drouin, but talent that would play better defense than him certainly.
The back-end though continued to be a bit of a question mark. Jake Dotchin had provided a glimmer of hope during his call-up to finish out the 2016-17 season. Slater Koekkoek was also a tantalizing, but just out of reach prospect. Dan Girardi was brought in as a free agent, but fans were left with questions surrounding him.
Sergachev turned out to be the answer and quite a big answer at that. Being only 19 years old and previously having just a small taste of NHL action with the Canadiens, the Lightning coaching staff brought him along slowly. They controlled his minutes. They limited him to offensive zone starts whenever possible. Cooper did learn one lesson though... he put Sergachev on the second power play unit. Cooper has often used things like the power play as a carrot for young players, leading them on in exchange for playing good defense, but then never giving them the carrot.
Frankly, that has sometimes hurt the team when offensive contributors have been kept off of the power play because they aren’t playing good enough defense at even strength. I understand wanting to motivate your players. But you also have to put the best players on the ice in each situation, including the power play. Cooper seems to have learned that lesson and allowed Sergachev to quarterback the second power play unit almost from the beginning of the year. He took over the first unit when Victor Hedman was injured for a handful of games around the All-Star Game.
Sergachev finished the year with 40 points, a pretty impressive number for a rookie defenseman. Maybe most impressive is that if you took out his power play contributions, he still would have ended up with six goals, 18 assists, and 24 points. For a defenseman, that is very good even strength scoring. He also crushed Radko Gudas’ rookie defenseman franchise record of 22 points.
The other big trade was the one that just squeaked in under the deadline. Steve Yzerman sent Vladislav Namestnikov, Brett Howden, Libor Hajek, a 2018 first round pick, and a conditional 2019 second round pick that becomes a first round pick if the Lightning win the Stanley Cup, for Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller.
Yzerman has always preferred to trade for players with term left especially if they are going to cost significant assets to acquire. Miller was picked up in the trade as a replacement for Namestnikov that gave the Lightning a heavier body in the top nine. He played really well with Stamkos and Kucherov to finish out the regular season, but eventually ended up moved off their line late in the playoffs as the line lost it’s mojo.
McDonagh though was the real gem. A number of fans seemed to be upset because he took a while to fit in. For a defenseman, there is more to learn about the system. It didn’t help that he was recovering from a hand injury when he was traded and needed a few games before making it into the line up. He ended up jelling with Anton Stralman and formed a shutdown pairing for the Lightning. That pairing will likely continue into next season.
The big benefit of creating that shutdown pair that doesn’t include Victor Hedman is that he will be more free to attack lesser opponents offensively. Maybe that leads to a monster offensive year for Hedman that can put him over the top for the Norris Trophy (if he doesn’t win this year). With McDonagh under contract for another season, he’s still around to help the Lightning for at least one more run at a Cup.
The Defensive Corps
The defense is in an interesting spot. Hedman is signed long term. Sergachev is young and under team control for another six seasons. Koekkoek and Dotchin are still decently young and the team can control them for a few more seasons. But the rest? All of their contracts are up after 2018-19. Anton Stralman, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, and Braydon Coburn. Say what you will about each player, but that is a lot of talent that could potentially walk away from the team.
Decisions don’t have to be made yet with any of these players. The one player I could see a decision being made on in the near-future is Braydon Coburn. He’s not quite the oldest of the group with Girardi being slightly older. But he has slowed down a bit. His no trade clause turns into a modified not trade clause this summer. Yzerman could look to move him to clear a little bit of cap space and open up a roster spot for Koekkoek or Dotchin to play more next season.
But any which way, decisions will have to be made within the next 13 months on all four of those defensemen. Who do you bring back? Who can you afford to bring back? With Girardi’s age, I think he might not be back. But Stralman is still young enough that he could be brought back on a two or three year deal. Can Yzerman afford McDonagh’s asking price though? That’s a big question. being able to hang on to him for a while longer could be a big key to keeping that sliding glass door open a little longer.
If Yzerman can’t keep at least one of Stralman and McDonagh around, he’s going to have to dip into the free agent market or rely on some young defensemen. There’s some talent in the pipeline like Cal Foote, Dominik Masin, and Erik Cernak. How soon will they be ready though and can they be ready by the start of the 2019-20 season?
I know everyone out there is feeling kind of deflated right now. Some people are angry. Some people are frustrated. There’s a lot of cries for firing Cooper, firing Yzerman, firing Vinik [editor’s note: who fires the owner? God?], trading away half the roster.
But you know what? This was a damn good season and a damn good team. Yeah, they came up short. A lot of great teams have. Sometimes the bounces just don’t go your way. Firing Cooper isn’t going to solve anything. Trading away half the roster isn’t going to solve anything.
We’ll have another good team next season and we’ll likely be back in the playoffs and challenging for a Stanley Cup once again with a team that will probably look very much like the team that finished out this season.
Thank you fans for joining us all season. If it wasn’t for all of you, we wouldn’t be able to do this. I’ll be spending a few days decompressing, but then we’ll get into summer activities and getting ready for the NHL Entry Draft. See you again at Amalie Arena soon.