Over the next few weeks, we’re running a bracket to determine the best Tampa Bay Lightning team in franchise history. Each day, we’ll put two of the 27 teams since the inaugural season in 1992-1993 up against each other to determine a winner until we’re left with who the community thinks is the best version of the Lightning.
Yesterday, in our first matchup, the 2009-2010 team soundly defeated the 1993-1994 team with 76% of the vote. That means the 09-10 group will go on to face the presumptive favorites, the Cup winning 03-04 team in the second round. Here’s a look at the updated bracket.
In the second day of our bracket, we’re featuring two teams from the relatively recent past but with very different outcomes. The number 24 seed 2008-2009 team faces the number nine seed 2013-2014. This represents one of the most lopsided matchups in the bracket as the 08-09 team, which is one of the most embarrassing in franchise history, goes against the 13-14 team, which was the first full season under head coach Jon Cooper and the beginning of the current era of sustained success.
2008-2009 (24-40-18, 29th place)
Depending on your particular taste in what makes a season embarrassing, 2008-2009 might be your choice. This technically wasn’t the worst season in franchise history as the team finished in second last place, which is better than their multiple last place finishes in other seasons. But this year has some particulars that make it a contender for worst ever.
To start, the general environment around the team was awful under the ownership of the OK Hockey group fronted by Len Barrie and Oren Koules. They bought the team before the previous season and promptly turned them into the worst in the league. In between that awful first season and the nearly as bad second season, the owners turned the team into a joke.
They made trading Dan Boyle into a carnival sideshow. The ran off Jay Feaster who had been the best General Manager in Lightning history to that point and has returned to the organization as a leader in the community hockey development department under Jeff Vinik. Most galling, they replaced Cup winning head coach and local icon John Tortorella with Barry Melrose. It might have been the right time to part with Tortorella but how it happened was distasteful. They shunted aside the greatest coach in team history without any ceremony of acknowledgement of what he meant to the franchise. Replacing him with Melrose was an even bigger insult. He hadn’t coached in years and was an unmitigated failure having to be replaced with a real coach after just 16 games.
For me, the Melrose hiring was the low point in recent Lightning history. I wasn’t old enough or paying close enough attention to experience the full depths of the worst teams of the 90s. But when the OK Hockey Group made the TV guy the head coach, the franchise seemed almost hopeless. And Melrose wasn’t even the good TV guy! He was the guy ESPN trotted out during the Cup Final to do four minute SportsCenter spots after they ignored hockey the rest of the year. Yes, he had success behind the bench in the early 90s but that was so long ago in a completely different era of hockey that anyone could see bringing him to Tampa would fail spectacularly. And it did.
After the Melrose flame out, Rick Tocchet took over as head coach. He wasn’t able to salvage the season as the team still finished near the bottom of the standings. But he did lay the groundwork for a bounce back season the next year, which would mercifully be the end of Barrie and Koules as Jeff Vinik purchased the team in 2010 and brought them back to respectability.
2013-2014 (46-27-9, 12th place)
After a disappointing 12-13 season that saw Steve Yzerman fire Guy Boucher in March, the Jon Cooper era started for real in 13-14. He coached the end of the previous season as well but this was the year that the Lightning began to look like the group that has produced the longest period of sustained success in franchise history.
Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Alex Killorn all established themselves as roster regulars in Cooper’s first full season. Ben Bishop became the starting goaltender after Yzerman landed him in exchange for Cory Conacher during the previous season. In addition to the new faces, Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos were both still in their early 20s and playing like young stars. Veterans like Marty St. Louis, Valtteri Filppula, and Sami Salo provided support to the youngsters.
The team had a strong season finishing second in the Atlantic Division. But that strong finish ended in disappointment in the playoffs. The Montreal Canadiens swept the Lightning in the first round giving a bunch of players and a coach who had experienced mostly success in the AHL a taste of the opposite early in their NHL careers.
While the first round exit is one of the most prominent memories from this season, probably the two most significant didn’t have much to do at all with the playoffs. The first is the end of Martin St. Louis’ time in Tampa. This was the season of the Olympic drama where Steve Yzerman as General Manager of Hockey Canada did not initially select St. Louis for the team. That would eventually change as the winger made the team due to injuries to other players but during the NHL season, he formally requested a trade out of Tampa. Neither he nor Yzerman has said much about the circumstances but it seems coincidental for the request to come immediately after the Olympics kerfuffle.
Yzerman obliged, shipping St. Louis to the New York Rangers in exchange for Ryan Callahan, a 2015 first round pick, a 2014 second round pick, and a conditional 2015 7th round pick. The deal would ultimately prove beneficial to both teams as St. Louis contributed to a deep Rangers playoff run that season while Callahan would become a leader in Tampa Bay. Though Callahan would sign a contract that would become one of the worst in the NHL, the Lightning front office managed to navigate successfully around it and moved it in the summer of 2019 to create cap space when Callahan was forced into retirement by a series of injuries.
The other moment that stands out from that season is Steven Stamkos’ broken leg. For most of us who were watching or saw the replay the next day, the image of Stammer crashing into the net is imprinted on our hockey brains. This was the first of several injuries that have cost Stamkos so many games over his NHL career. He missed four months after suffering the injury in early November and returned to the team just after the St. Louis trade.
While the playoffs didn’t go the way the team wanted, the 13-14 regular season showed us the potential in this group of players and head coach. They would take that to the next level the following season making the franchise’s second Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Now for the fun part. Tell us what you think. I think we all know which way this is going to go and I certainly showed my hand in the write ups. But if you have a soft spot for the 08-09 team or other memories of these seasons, share them in the comments. We can’t cover everything in these short blurbs and there’s plenty of other stuff to get into regarding these two seasons.
Which is the better Tampa Bay Lightning team ?
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Today’s News and Notes
The Ottawa Senators signed Jonathan Aspirot to an entry level contract yesterday.
Hailing from Mascouche, Québec, Aspirot spent his junior career with the Moncton Wildcats, serving as their captain in the 2018-19 season. After going undrafted and attending a couple of the Senators’ development camps, he was signed to a two-year AHL contract last off-season, which has now been voided by signing an entry-level deal.
As a 6’0”, left-shot defenceman, he joined the semi-regular rotation of Belleville’s blueline as their 6th/7th defenceman, being paired with a wide variety of circulating partners. He scored 16 points in his 44 games last season while accruing 39 penalty minutes.
Drew Doughty seems to be the first prominent NHL player to suggest that he doesn’t think the season will resume.
The star Los Angeles Kings defenceman said Monday it’s going to be difficult for hockey to get back this season, even just to hold the playoffs and hand out the Stanley Cup.
”Honestly, I don’t see how the season is going to return,” Doughty said. “I really don’t. We have no idea when this virus is going to be over.”
In some positive health related news after so much bad news in that area recently, Dale Hawerchuk completed his final round of chemotherapy yesterday and we wish him all the best in staying healthy.
Hawerchuk, 57, took a leave of absence from his head-coaching job with the OHL’s Barrie Colts last September and announced shortly after that he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. In early January he had a successful gastrectomy.