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, we finally got our first team from the 90s into the second round as the first playoff team in Lightning history, the 95-96 team, comfortably eliminated the 00-01 group. Today, we’re guaranteed to get our second 90s team into the second round as our matchup puts the 94-95 team against the 96-97 squad. Before we dig in, let’s check in on the bracket as we officially finish the first round.
1994-1995 Lightning (17-28-3, 23rd Place)
The 94-95 season was the first of three work stoppages over the next 20 years. A lockout at the start of the season limited teams to 48 games. By this point in the franchise’s early history, the Kokusai Green ownership was already desparate for a way out. The team faced IRS investigations and all sorts of financial problems behind the scenes.
On the ice, the 94-95 team wasn’t much better. They finished second last in the Atlantic Division and fourth last overall in the NHL. It marked the third consecutive season since entering the league where the Lightning finished near the bottom of the league.
Brian Bradley was far and away the leading scorer with 40 points in the shortened season. No other player even broke 30 with nineteen year old Chris Gratton coming closest with 27 in his second season after being drafted third overall in 1993. The Lightning first round pick in 1994, Daymon Langkow, wouldn’t make his debut until the following season and would ultimately have a tumultuous stay in Tampa before being traded and eventually finding success elsewhere.
On defense, Roman Hamrlik continued to be the leader but the team lacked much talent behind him on the blue line. In net, Daren Puppa was about league average, which is a decent showing considering the quality of the team in front of him.
During the season, the Lightning shipped out defender Shawn Chambers and forward Denis Savard to New Jersey and Chicago respectively. Neither player brough back much of a return although both would go on to make an impact for their new teams.
The combination of the lockout with an underwhelming roster make this one of the more forgettable Lightning seasons. At the time, things were looking pretty bleak in Channelside. But thankfully, the next season would revitalize the franchise as the team made an unexpected run to the playoffs and gave Southwest Florida its first taste of success on the ice.
1996-1997 Lightning (30-43-11, 21st Place)
We skip the playoff season to focus on the second team in today’s matchup, the 96-97 group. They weren’t able to sustain the success from the previous season falling back to sixth place in the Atlantic Division and missing the playoffs by three points.
Prior to the season, the Lightning made a big move acquiring forward Dino Ciccarelli from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for a fourth round pick. Ciccarelli immediately became one of the best players on the team scoring 35 goals and 60 points in his first season in Tampa. That put him second in points behind Chris Gratton’s 62.
Despite the addition of Ciccarelli to a team that made the playoffs the previous season, the Lightning fell short. The primary cause was injuries. Every team deals with players missing time but the 96-97 Lightning got a particularly bad case of the injury bug.
Arguably the two most important players entering the season were forward Brian Bradley and goalie Daren Puppa. Bradley had consistently been the team’s leading scorer since the inaugural season and Puppa had stablilized the net even earning Vezina votes the previous season. Neither was able to contribute much in 96-97 as Bradley played just 35 games due to concussions and Puppa played just 6 due to a back injury. For both players, these injuries would signal the end of their careers approaching. And without them, the team couldn’t sustain the success from the season before.
Add to those injuries that center John Cullen was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma toward the end of the season and all of that was too much for the Lightning to overcome. Even if they had managed to pick up a few more points and sneak into the playoffs, the likely wouldn’t have been able to do much without three of their best players.
The injuries suffered that season tanked not just that year but the next several as well. Without Bradley and Puppa, the Lightning lacked talent at two key positions and they wouldn’t taste success again until the arrival of the John Tortorella era in the early 2000s.
Now for the fun part. Cast your vote for which of these teams you think is best. This is a close one and it largely comes down to how you factor in the injuries. If you took the Game 1 rosters of these two teams, the 96-97 team wins handily. But if you take the Game 82 rosters, the game would be much closer.
Which is the better Tampa Bay Lightning team?
This poll is closed
Today’s News and Notes
The Columbus Blue Jackets announced that they re-signed goaltender Elvis Merzlikins to a two year contract. He had a strong start to his first NHL season but struggled a little bit as the season progressed.
Elvis Merzlikins’ deal with #CBJ will pay him $3 million in 2020-21 and $5 million 2021-22. AAV of $4M.— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) April 23, 2020
He’ll be an unrestricted free agent when this deal expires. Would have been a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer.
At 26-years-old (27 in August), Handemark is a little older, even taking into consideration his status as a European free agent. He’s signed through 2020-21 with the Redhawks, having served as their captain since 2017. This season, his 38 points (14 goals, 24 assists) led the team and ranked tenth overall in the SHL.
The other factor that likely intrigues the Sharks is his size: the left-handed center is a hulking 6-foot-4 and 209 pounds.
The NWHL announced its 2020 Draft will take place via Twitter starting at 7 p.m. eastern on both April 28 and April 29.
Tuesday will have the first two rounds, while the remaining three will be Wednesday. All six teams will participate, including the recently added Toronto team, for a total of 30 draft picks.
As the newest team, Toronto will have the first pick, and then drop one pick lower each round. The other teams were slotted based on their regular season standings.