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Lightning Round: Introducing a bracket to choose the best team in franchise history

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Now that March is over, let’s do a bracket.

Edmonton Oilers v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images

With sports paused, we have to find something to do around here at the blog. Writing about the future seems silly because no one has any idea what will happen. We could speculate on whether the season will resume, or what will happen in free agency, or the draft, or anything else. But honestly, what’s the point? We don’t know any more than you do.

If we can’t write about the future, and nothing is happening right now, the only place we can go is the past. And honestly, serious analysis seems exhausting to even consider and anything that gives sports an undue sense of importance seems out of place.

So instead of doing that, we thought it would be fun to spend a few minutes every day remembering some guys. If you’re not familiar with the idea of remembering some guys, an art David Roth (one of the best sportswriters in the world) mastered at Deadspin (RIP), the basic idea is we’re going to look back wistfully on past eras.

The format we’re going to use is a bracket where we vote on the best team in Lightning history. Each day, we’ll put two Lightning teams against each other and vote on which one we think is best. Like any voting process, this will work best if we gets lots of participation. If you’re too tired to read the articles, you don’t even have to do that. Just vote. No one is judging here. You don’t have to justify why you think the 97-98 team is better than the 2008-2009 team. If you lean back in your chair and smile remembering Dino Ciccarelli and Rob Zamuner, that’s all the justification you need.

If you’re a newer Lightning fan and don’t remember any of these guys, that’s ok too! That’s the other reason we’re doing this. We know lots of people have started following the team in the last five years and some of you probably aren’t even old enough to remember much of the 90s. As disconcerting as that is for me personally, fear not. We still want you to vote!

Each article will introduce the two teams so that you can learn a little bit about the history if you’re interested. Or, just vote for the recent teams because who even cares about what happened in 1996.

The bracket will take a bit of a funky format because the Lightning have played 27 seasons including this one. That means five teams get byes in the first round. To seed the teams, we ordered them by how deep they went in the playoffs. For teams that exited in the same round, we sorted within those groups by how high in the standings the team finished during the regular season. This year’s team is included even though the season isn’t technically over but we’ll address that when we get to it in a later post. That approach gives us the following bracket.

Best Lightning Team Bracket

With the introduction out of the way, let’s get into our first matchup. Today, we’re voting on the Lightning’s 2009-2010 team against the group from the franchise’s second season in 1993-1994 in a matchup of the 17 and 16 seeds respectively. On paper, this is one of the closest matchups of the opening round. The Lightning finished 23rd in 1994 and 25th in 2010 but expansion between those years means the two finishes were nearly identical relative to the size of the league. While neither team was particularly good, both are from interesting times in franchise history, particularly related to the ownership groups.

2009-2010 (34-36-12, 25th place)

Let’s start with the somewhat recent history of the 2009-2010 team, which was the last season before Jeff Vinik bought the team. Unlike the previous two seasons, one of which we’ll cover tomorrow and was one of the worst and most embarrassing in franchise history, the 09-10 team was at least respectable. Rick Tocchet coached an overmatched roster into playoff contention. Below are the stats for that roster via Hockey Reference.

The team was particularly weak on the blue line with late career Mattias Ohlund logging over 1500 minutes, Andrej Meszaros playing 1600+, and Victor Hedman in his rookie year not yet the player we know him to be now.

The forward group was top heavy with Steven Stamkos, Vinny Lecavalier, and Marty St. Louis as the obvious top three. But even among that trio, looks are a little deceiving because despite only being 29 years old, Vinny had already begun what would be a rapid descent out of the league. He was still a good player but not the one from his prime and in fact, this would be his last time playing close to a full season.

In net, Mike Smith had his best season in Tampa playing 41 games and posting a .916 save percentage. That wasn’t a particularly strong number for that era but it was good enough to keep the team competitive.

Despite their limitations, the team played well as a whole and contended into the final month of the season. Given the state of the franchise at the time, that was impressive. Under the ownership of Oren Koules and Len Barrie’s OK Hockey group, the team plunged to depths unseen since the franchise’s fledgling days in the 90s. Koules and Barrie turned a team that was less than five years removed from a Stanley Cup victory and had been a consistent contender including making the playoffs the two seasons prior to the ownership change into a joke franchise.

Thankfully, that era ended immediately after the 09-10 season when Vinik purchased the team and hired Steve Yzerman to be the general manager. From there, the team climbed back to respectability and is now one of the model franchises in the NHL.

1993-1994 (30-43-11, 21st place)

From the relatively recent past, we go to, in Lightning terms, the long long ago. The 93-94 season was the second in franchise history and if we’re going to be critical of the OK Hockey group, we can’t ignore the wild west coast of Florida days from the franchise’s early history. I have not seen a comprehensive recounting of what exactly was happening off the ice in Tampa during the time the Espositos, Phil and his brother Tony, were running the franchise. But what we know is that the team was ostensibly owned by Kakusai Green, a Japanese golf resort company owned by Takashi Okubo. To avoid saying something libelous, I’ll quote a 1997 Sports Illustrated article describing the situation.

Why the shroud of secrecy? In a lawsuit filed last year in Tampa federal court by Ganis against Lightning ownership, management and former team lawyer David LeFevre, Okubo is described by one potential Japanese source of financing for Tampa Bay as a ”gangster.” In Japan there is a mob organization called yakuza, which has been known to enter the sports world, most notably to launder money through such enterprises as golf courses. Stephen Wayne, the New York lawyer who has handled Tampa Bay’s search for a buyer for the last 14 months, contends that any implication that Okubo is involved in organized crime is ”entirely unfounded.” Adds Phillips, “We deny the charge tenfold.”

Regardless of the veracity of the “gangster” allegation, questions remain about the Lightning’s tangled finances, about Kokusai Green’s business practices and about whether the NHL sooner or later will feel compelled to do something about the Tampa Bay ownership—or will just keep praying that the Lightning will get sold and the problem will go away.

On the ice, the 93-94 team, like the inaugural team from the season before, was more competent than expected. Just by not being the worst team in the league, the Lightning were off to a better start than most expansion franchises before them. Terry Crisp did well behind the bench considering the circumstances in his second of five plus seasons in Tampa.

Brian Bradley continued to be the best offensive player on the team although he wasn’t able to replicate his 42 goals from the season before. The team signed Denis Savard and Petr Klima prior to the season but both were classic examples of adding older players in free agency who wouldn’t be able to live up to expectations. Savard would be traded the next season while Klima would remain in Tampa for two more years including a particularly rough 26 point season during the strike shortened 94-95 season.

While the two forwards gave the team some name recognition on offense, the biggest signing was goalie Daren Puppa who would become a franchise fixture for the next seven seasons including a Vezina nomination in 95-96. He declined after that season and never played more than 26 games again but his role in the team’s first playoff appearance made him a part of the team’s history forever. But in that first season in Tampa, he posted an .899 save percentage, which was about average for a starter in those days. He would get better each of the next two seasons culminating in his career year.

Chris Gratton made his NHL debut playing a full season as a rookie after being drafted 3rd overall in 1993. He’s most noted for being selected one pick after Chris Pronger and right before Paul Kariya and Scott Niedermayer. Gratton had a long NHL career including a career high 62 points with the Lightning in 96-97 but it’s hard not to look at that draft and wonder what might have been.

The Vote

Now for the fun part. Tell us what you think. Which of these teams should advance to the unfortunate fate of going up against the Cup-winning team of 2003-2004 in the second round? We’re not providing any specific criteria. Just vote for which team you think is best either based on what you remember or what you’ve read about the history.

Poll

Which is the better Tampa Bay Lightning team?

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    1993-1994
    (10 votes)
  • 76%
    2009-2010
    (32 votes)
42 votes total Vote Now

Today’s News and Notes

NHL dot com is doing some redrafts and in the 2008 edition, they put Drew Doughty ahead of Steven Stamkos, which is about par for the course when it comes to the league’s official media making lists. You might remember their rankings of players by position that they do every summer as also being good for a few laughs.

On Saturday night, Blues prospect Scott Perunovich won the Hobey Baker Award as the best NCAA hockey player.

Perunovich was second in the nation with 34 assists and had six goals in 34 games, becoming the first defenceman to lead the National Collegiate Hockey Association in scoring. He was drafted by the Blues in the second round in 2018.

”He is a difference-maker, that’s for sure,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “He’s the type of impact player who can take control of a game. He’s had a tremendous season — and a tremendous three-year career here — and is certainly deserving of this award.”

Also on Saturday, the Los Angeles Kings announced they signed defensive prospect Cole Hults to a two-year entry level contract. Hults was a fifth round draft pick of the Kings in 2017.

Hults most recently played NCAA-level hockey at Penn State University, completing a junior season in which he registered a career-high eight goals and 30 points, while tying his career-best assist total with 22.

Throughout his career with the Penn State Nittany Lions, Hults scored 17 goals and added 61 assists over 111 games.

He leaves the program as its all-time leader in goals, assists and points, and helped lead Penn State to their first two NCAA tournament bids in 2017 and 2018.

The Islanders appear to finally be on the verge of signing goaltending prospect Ilya Sorokin.

Calling Sorokin’s arrival “long awaited” is a bit of an understatement on Eronko’s part. Selected in the 15th round of the 1983 NHL Draft (or in 2014), the 24-year-old Sorokin has been cutting a swath through the KHL for the last five seasons, picking up several armloads of individual awards, setting a bunch of records and winning a Gagarin Cup championship in 2018-19.

But his arrival on these shores has been an ongoing mystery. He signed an extension with CSKA a couple of years ago, where his wallet and trophy case could stay pretty fat. Meanwhile, it feels like the Islanders have been greasing the skids for his landing for years, signing his friend Semyon Varlamov to a four year deal and generally dancing around the subject of signing him. In order to maximize the money and minimize (if not, completely eliminate) his time in the minors, Lou Lamoriello would have to get creative in how he structures Sorokin’s contract, provided he actually wanted to sign one.

In terrible news this weekend, Edmonton Oilers forward Colby Cave passed away after suffering a brain bleed earlier in the week. Cave was just 25 years old and is survived by his wife Emily. Frank Seravalli at TSN collected memories of Cave from around the league.

“His leadership qualities were beyond his years,” Sweeney wrote in a statement. “When he arrived at development camp and in Providence for the 2015-16 season, he exhibited Patrice Bergeron-like characteristics, on and off the ice. Driven and committed to be an NHL player, Colby was also uniquely unselfish with his own NHL dream, helping his teammates and his coaches, game-by-game and day-by-day.”