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.
Today’s match-up features the first team in the organization’s history to make the playoffs against a bad team with a bright future.
1995-96 Lightning (38-32-12, 11th place)
This probably isn’t the best Lightning team in franchise history, but it might be the most important. It’s also the team that indered itself to the community in the early years. For a small market team in a non-traditional market they desperately needed to make it to the postseason.
Some of the luster was wearing off as the team had yet to have a winning season. A promising (and lockout shortened) prior season had flamed out as the Lightning ended with six straight losses. Construction was dragging on their new arena and it’s opening was pushed back a year, forcing the team to scramble to extend their lease on the ThunderDome. They were able to, but at twice the cost of the previous season’s rent.
Finances were starting to be an issue and another losing season could be detrimental to the organization. Original Bolt Marc Bergevin, a clubhouse leader, wasn’t happy with the effort of some of his teammates and asked for a trade. Goaltender Daren Puppa, the team’s MVP the previous season, was going to arbitration and rumors had him on the trading block.
General Manager Phil Esposito went to work. He traded for Brian Bellows to boost the offense (it worked as Bellows potted 23 goals). Bergevin was granted his wish and shipped out to Detroit as part of a deal that brought Shawn Burr to the Lightning. At the same day Esposito traded for David Shaw and signed him to a three-year deal.
Bill Houlder was brought in to help with offense from the blue line (his 28 points was second among defensemen). The organization went all in on Roman Hamrlik as the face of the franchise, signing him to a lucrative four-year contract. The 21-year-old responded with his best season, racking up 65 points (16 goals, 49 assists).
Most importantly, Esposito came to an agreement with Puppa. On the eve of their arbitration hearing, they agreed to a deal that would pay Puppa $1.7 million for this season and $1.9 for the next. The contract also nixed a deal that Esposito was working on the backend that would have sent Puppa and Ben Hankinson to St. Louis in exchange for Curtis Joseph. Joseph would end up in Edmonton and Hankinson would be part of the Bergevin deal to Detroit.
Another rumored deal around the draft had the Lightning and Blackhawks working a deal for Jeremy Roenick and Tony Amonte for Chris Gratton and Aaron Gavey. Esposito was not interested as he told the St. Petersburg Times, “I wouldn’t pay him $5-million a year. Maybe he’s a 1-million-dollar player. I don’t even think he deserves that much. It’s not even because of the money. I’m not a big Roenick fan.”
It wouldn’t be the last time “Chris Gratton” and “Chicago Blackhawks” came up in the same sentence. A year later his trade to the Blackhawks for Ethan Moreau, Steve Dubinsky, and Keith Carney would be voided by the league in the infamous smudged fax incident.
The Lightning went into the season without Roenick or Joseph, but things still worked out rather well. Alex Selivanov exploded for 31 goals, Petr Klima bounced back with a 22 goal season while Gratton had 17 of his own. The offense was slightly below league average, but a strong power play (20.8%) and a stingy defense (3.02 Goals Allowed) was enough for them to be in the playoff race for most of the season.
The team had a perfect blend of veterans like Brian Bradley and John Cullen along with a young nucleus of Hamrlik, Gratton, and Daymond Langkow. Most of all they had Puppa in net. The 30-year-old went 29-16-9 with a 2.46 GAA and 5 shutouts. His 32 goals saved above average and 80 adjusted goals allowed were both second in the league to Dominik Hasek.
In the end, despite a topsy-turvy March, they ended up sneaking in, edging out the defending Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils on the next to last day of the season. Their reward - a first round match-up against the Philadelphia Flyers. Hampered by injuries and up against a rampaging Eric Lindros they managed one win in a raucous series that saw them set a league-attendance record of 28,183 fans in Game Four (a record that still stands for a playoff crowd).
2000-01 Lightning (24-47-11, 29th place)
For the first time since that 1995-96 team, there seemed to be a little hope in the organization. This team wouldn’t be confused with a good team by any stretch of the imagination. Still, there were glimmers of the future.
Instead of losing with old, washed up players they were losing with youth. At an average age of 24.6 they were one of the youngest teams in the league. Their leading scorer, Brad Richards, was just 20 years-old. So was their captain, Vincent Lecavalier who had another 20-goal season despite missing some games due to injury.
A scrappy, undersized forward named Martin St. Louis, picked up in the summer for almost nothing, started his road to the Hall of Fame with 18 goals and 22 assists. Running alongside him was fellow winger Fredrik Modin with a team-leading 32 goals.
Still, the team was missing two key ingredients. They would come later in the season. In the beginning of January, the organization parted ways with head coach Steve Ludzik and replaced him with assistant coach John Tortorella.
The big deal was that the Lightning outbid most of the league to acquire Nikolai Khabibulin, the Coyotes goaltender in the midst of a two-season holdout. Following a 3 1⁄2 hour car ride with Phoenix’s GM Cliff Fletcher, Rick Dudley agreed to send Paul Mara, Mike Johnson, Ruslan Zainullin, and a second pick to the Coyotes for Khabibulin and Stan Neckar.
After some speculation that the Lightning might flip him at the trade deadline, Tampa Bay signed him to a three-year $14.75 million deal (with incentives it could reach $22.25 million). At the time it was the richest contract in team history. He only made it into two games that season, but the future was set for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Now for the fun part. Cast your vote for which of these teams should move on to the second round. The first team to reach the playoffs vs. a team on the ascent, but still kind of bad.
Which is the better Lightning team?
This poll is closed
News from the hockey world
The NWHL is coming to Toronto. The league announced that the first expansion team will be joining the league for the upcoming season. Like the rest of the sports world, the start of the NWHL season is still up in the air.
While they are looking at next season, the NHL still isn’t done with this season. Gary Bettman revealed a few more details in regards to the league’s restart should they get the all clear. It would involve four cities (located in NHL cities, not neutral sites), three games a day, and no fans to start. He also confirmed that the players would need some sort of training camp before competing.
The Athletic’s site-wide work of playoff fanfic continued with the Lightning meeting the Boston Bruins in an epic seven-game, second round match-up. The series had everything, Brad Marchand being a jerk, Tim Peel getting injured, Steven Stamkos facing his demons in Boston, and a Brady/Gronk cameo.
A recently filed lawsuit against the Tampa Bay Lightning alleges that an employee was “subjected to disparate, discriminatory, and harassing treatment based on her sex”. The organization has no comment on the story.