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.
We’re nearing the end of the first round and it’s been chalk down the board with zero upsets and not very many close contests. With the disparity between how bad most of the early teams were and how good the recent incarnations of team are, that’s not very surprising. Today’s match-up should follow the same trend unless...
Well, let’s face it. Last season’s team is extremely polarizing. It hurt a lot of people. Will the backlash from a spectacular playoff failure result in an election upset? Only time (and your votes) will tell.
2018-19 Lightning (62-16-4, 1st place)
Is there anything we can say about this team that hasn’t been said before. From the drop of the puck in Tampa in early October (a 2-1 shootout win over Florida) until the final save in Boston (a 6-3 win over the Bruins) the Lightning chalked up 60 other wins while only tasting defeat 20 times.
Nikita Kucherov scored all of the points (128) while Steven Stamkos played in 82 games for the first time since 2014-15 and responded with a career-high 98 points of his own. Brayden Point chipped in 92 points of his own. All three players scored more than 40 goals. Tyler Johnson (29) and Yanni Gourde (22) were next on the scoring list as the Lightning proved you can outscore your problems.
No team is perfect, but the Lightning were probably as close as a modern team can be. Complaining about the defense is like saying your Rolex is too heavy. Yeah, there were some question marks about it, but it was good enough to get the Lightning a top seed heading into the playoffs.
Then they decided to have a bad week. It didn’t help that their top two defensemen were hurt. When Jan Rutta has more ice time in a series than Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman doesn’t suit up at all, you’re going to have a bad time. It also didn’t help that Coach Cooper didn’t realize how deflating the Game One loss was to his team (blowing a 3-0 first period loss will rattle anyone).
The scoring dried up (Erik Cernak led the team in points with 3, ‘nuff said). While Andrei Vasilevskiy was merely mortal and couldn’t bail his struggling teammates out. Nikita Kucherov lost his cool and was suspended for a game after a bad hit along the boards. Steven Stamkos didn’t find the back of the net until the fourth game of the series. Everything that could go wrong, short of Amalie Arena buring to the ground, went wrong.
So, how will the playoff flameout (in a season where all four top seeds lost in the first round) affect the legacy of this team. Make no mistake, this was the greatest regular season team in franchise history. A strong argument can be made that it’s the greatest regular season team during the cap era in league history.
Which made the first round sweep even more spectacularly painful. Is a great regular season team that has a dumpster truck fire of a post season “better” than a good team that made the playoffs and caught fire (aka the 2010-11 team)?
Dang it, just writing about this team made me sad again.
1998-99 Lightning (19-54-9, 27th place)
In terms of the percentage of points earned over the course of a season, this is the second worst team in franchise history (.287) narrowly beating out the 1997-98 team (.268). In truth, this team may be one of the worst teams in NHL history despite the points. While the first piece of the Stanley Cup team of 2004 debuted on this team, there wasn’t much else to be happy about during this season.
This team was a long, long way from the Stanley Cup. Although, the Greatest Trophy in Sports (TM) did make an appearance in Tampa as the Lightning hosted the 1999 All-Star Game and Lord Stanley’s chalice made an appearance at Fan Fest. Proof is in the picture:
Jorts - check
Knock off Lightning jersey - check
Young, college graduate not beaten down by life yet - check
There were some bright moments in that dark season along with hosting the All Star game. After all it was the rookie season of a certain franchise icon. After months of hype including the infamous “Michael Jordan of hockey” quote from new owner Art Williams, Vincent Lecavalier player his first season in a Lightning uniform. It went...ok.
As an 18-year-old playing in the height of the clutch-and-grab era he put up a respectable 28 points (13 goals, 15 assists) with the bulk of those points (16) coming after the All Star break. Head coach Jacques Demers showed restraint with his young charge, limiting him to around 13-14 minutes a game throughout the season.
John Cullen fulfilled his vow to come back from missing a year of hockey due to his battle with cancer. After missing more than a year, he returned to the ice on October 9th against the Florida Panthers (the Lightning lost). Though his comeback only lasted four games (one tie and three losses for the team) his inspirational battle earned him the Masterton Trophy.
The Lightning had brought in some veteran players to help support the young franchise center, most notably Quebec Nordiques star Wendal Clark. Coming off a season limited by injuries, Clark signed a one-year $1.2 million deal with the Lightning to show that he could still play in the NHL. That he did, putting up 42 points (28 goals, 14 assists) in just 65 games. He was the Lightning’s All Star representative and achieved what he most likely had set out to do - play well enough to get traded to a contender. At the trade deadline he was shipped out to Detroit for prospect Kevin Hodson and a second round pick (that the Lightning used to draft Sheldon Keefe).
Give new owner Art Williams credit for opening up the checkbook. Along with Clark, the Lightning also signed veteran Benoit Hogue and traded for goaltender Bill Ranford and Craig Janney. Once they agreed to a contract with Lecavalier (it took a bit) the Lightning’s payroll was in the middle of the pack. Sadly, their performance remained at the bottom of the standings.
The spending spree earned General Manager Phil Esposito a sacking. Just a few games into the season Williams fired both Phil and his brother Tony and instated Demers as head coach and General Manager of the Lightning.
After working their way up to a .500 record (6-6-2) on November 8th, the bottom fell out. They kicked off a nine-game losing streak with a 10-2 demolishing at the hands of the Rangers. Game two in the streak was just as bad as they lost 8-1 to the Avalanche. Who would have figured Kjell Samuellson (who broke his foot prior to the Rangers game) the key to the defense? Winless streaks of seven and eight games would follow throughout the season.
Their offense was bad, their defense was worse, and they couldn’t find a goaltender to save their lives. Six different players tried to stop pucks in net for the Bolts and they all struggled. Corey Schwab led them with 8 wins. Collectively they had a 3.52 GAA and a .891 Save Percentage.
Demers traded all of those big contracts Esposito had brought in over the summer. The GM didn’t stop there. In total, from December to March, Demers traded away 14 rostered players in exchange for a cash considerations, Chris Gratton, Alexandre Daigle, and a pocketful of magic beans.
One player he didn’t acquire was goaltender Roman Turek, despite having a deal in place. Art Williams had enough of owning a hockey team after just one season and was in the process of selling the team to Bill Davidson. Unfortunately, the deal wasn’t done as the draft approached and Williams refused to sign on off on the Turek deal (rumored to be for Darcy Tucker or a high round draft pick) just in case he still owned the team next season.
The Lightning ended up with the top pick in the 1999 draft, aka the Sedin Twins draft, but they didn’t use it. Instead they traded it to Vancouver for the fourth overall pick and two third round picks. Tampa Bay then traded the fourth overall pick to the Rangers for Dan Cloutier, Niklas Sundstrom, and a 2000 first round pick. Honestly, based on the names in the draft outside of the Sedins, they probably made the right call.
Just an absolute disaster of a season from start to finish.
Now for the fun part. Cast your vote for which of these teams should move on to the second round. This will be an interesting test for Lightning fans. Do you continue to punish the playoff failure by not allowing them to even exit the first round? Or does the spectacular regular season still count for something?
Which is the better Lightning team?
This poll is closed
News from around the league
We’ve hit the “let’s rewatch some AHL games and try to figure out some advanced stats” portion of the sports pause. Soon we will be analyzing newspaper reports from the 1950s to try and figure out Camille Henry’s xGF%.
Also on The Athletic, Pierre LeBrun discusses some teams moving on with hockey-related business during the pause. The New Jersey Devils interviewed Gerard Gallant (virtually) for their open head coach position.
LeBrun also has details from the Board of Governors call from this week. In short, nothing new. The league continues to consider all options, including playing at multiple neutral sites, but at this point the situation is way too fluid for any one solution. The NHL does have one extra obstacle that some of the other leagues don’t have. Larry Brooks talked to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly about how the league would handle players coming back from Europe.
The NHL is proceeding with their draft this week and it should serve as a template for the other leagues on how to conduct (and broadcast) a virtual draft. The NHL draft is scheduled for the end of June and there is talk that the NHL may still hold it even if the 2019-20 season hasn’t been cancelled.
It would be interesting to see how the league deals with conditional picks if the season isn’t officially over (just think of the hoops the Vancouver pick that the Lightning traded has to jump through).
Speaking of drafts, the 2021 should still happen on time. Lauren’s series of the top prospects continues with Chaz Lucius. He’s already 6’ and 172 lbs, so he may be too big to be a Lightning forward, but he does sound like an interesting prospect to keep an eye on over the next season (whenever it starts).
Keep hanging on and washing those hands.