It’s been a few days since the Colorado Avalanche defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning to win the 2022 Stanley Cup, and with that distance, it seems an appropriate time for a postmortem. Given that I’ve been one of the more critical voices concerning the underlying issues of the team, I feel it’s best I divulge where I was right and wrong about the team. This doesn’t denigrate what the Lightning accomplished this season, they’re one of the greatest champions of this era of hockey, and no one can take that away from them.
Where I Was Wrong
Tampa Bay won’t make it out of the Atlantic bracket in the postseason
Given the Lightning’s inability to resemble any ounce of consistency during the final month and a half of the season, I was highly skeptical of them getting past Toronto and Florida through the first two rounds. My skepticism only increased after Toronto’s Game 1 rout; however, how they responded for the remainder of the series provided some welcome optimism that there was something special about this group.
They weren’t as talented as the 2020 or 2021 teams, but they knew how to elevate their play at the right time, and against a Toronto team that can’t get out of their own way and a Florida team that has yet to prove much in the playoffs, it was more than enough to secure another berth in the Eastern Conference Final.
They won’t make the Final again; too many things have to go right
This segues back to the previous point, but given how playoff hockey has far more variance than other sports I found it difficult to fully believe they could make a third consecutive final—especially with who they would have to go through in the first two rounds. Add in Tampa Bay’s underlying issues, and making a third trip looked improbable.
However, my opinion changed after making the Eastern Conference Final. I felt it was a near guarantee once we found out it would be a flawed Rangers team going against them. Some will point to the fact Tampa Bay didn’t beat New York during the regular season as a reason to be skeptical, but I had little doubt the Lightning would beat the Rangers. First, regular-season match-ups mean literally nothing in the playoffs. Second, Tampa Bay was just a better team; they had more experience, more talent throughout the lineup, and a bounce-back ability that would negate New York’s.
Their underlying issues will plague them at critical moments
There were signs—Game 1 against Toronto, Game 1 against New York, Game 2 against Colorado, but they found ways to overcome most of these issues.
It became more apparent in the Final against the Avalanche, but I always felt Tampa Bay’s slower defensive core and less offensively dangerous third line would be issues. For most of the playoffs, they weren’t. Yes, Colorado exposed them, but that doesn’t mean I get any credit for having this opinion beforehand. They made it to the Final for a third straight year—that’s a success no matter how flawed their roster was this season.
Ross Colton won’t score 20 Goals
I was always bearish on Colton’s ceiling. I felt he was a 15-goal 30-point player in the NHL—a good player to have, obviously, but expecting 20 goals would be a stretch goal in any circumstance.
Well, Colton went out and scored 22 goals and 39 points in the regular season. Pretty damn good if you ask me. Yes, he got really hot during the final month of the season, but hot streaks happen and the goals count all the same. That shouldn’t belittle his accomplishment.
He only registered 9 points (5 goals 4 assists) in 23 playoff games (which ties into the depth scoring issues in the middle of the lineup that became apparent in the postseason), but overall everyone should be ecstatic at the season Colton had.
Nick Paul isn’t going to add much to the team
When Julien BriseBois traded Mathieu Joseph for Nick Paul I felt it was a solid trade. Joseph wasn’t progressing anymore, so, a change of scenery might be good for him. Paul was a big forward who could bring some heftiness to the middle of the lineup.
What we got was a freight train of a player in Paul. I don’t even think I need to explain how fantastic he fit into the middle of Tampa Bay’s lineup to anyone. It was clear as day to anyone who watched him play. Aside from Lightning management, I don’t believe anyone expected this level of play out of him. If BriseBois can get Paul to sign for a discount, sign him as soon as possible.
Where I Was Right
They’re not winning a third straight Cup
I had this opinion from the moment we lost Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow, and Blake Coleman in the offseason. The team wasn’t as good and would be far more reliant on Andrei Vasilevskiy and timely scoring to win close games. All of that came to pass this postseason, and while having a Hall of Fame-worthy netminder makes everything easier when the pressure amps up that doesn’t mean the team was good enough to win a third straight championship. Colorado showed where this team was lacking, and none of it was really surprising to me. However, there are some bright spots that should bode well moving forward.
Vasilevskiy will remind everyone why he’s the best in the world
There was still a surprising amount of talk concerning Vasilevskiy’s playoffs. “Oh, he has a great team in front of him/He’s really not that good/He’s just big, that doesn’t mean he’s a good goaltender/etc”. He, rightly, didn’t receive a Vezina nomination for his regular-season performance, but make no mistake about it—Andrei Vasilevskiy is the best goaltender on the planet and he made that very apparent in every series in these playoffs.
He had some poor performances strewn about, but his ability to lock in after a loss, in a crucial moment, or in an elimination game gave Tampa Bay a chance in every game. That’s why he’s the best and will continue to be the best until another goaltender outright outplays him for a series victory. He’s the biggest reason Tampa Bay marched their way to a third Finals berth.
Lightning fans aren’t used to having a homegrown goaltender being this transcendent. We’re watching a legendary player here, folks. A truly special career is unfolding in front of our eyes.
Stamkos is going to have a great year
I’ve admitted in the past that Steven Stamkos’ injury history had me worried about his playing ability as he moves through his 30s.
However, I felt that with a full offseason to just train and not rehab, the Captain would bounce back. It was similar to the high ankle injury that Ondrej Palat endured a few years ago. It took a while for Palat to stop rehabbing all the time and just train. Take into account all the injuries Stamkos has dealt with the past few years and it was blatantly clear he fully healthy for the first time in a long time. The fact he went out and had a marvelous season just reinforces the importance of being fully healthy.
With Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov missing extended time it fell on the former 60-goal scorer to carry the offensive load and he did just that with the best individual performance of his career—106 points (42 goals 64 assists).
He went on to have a strong postseason as well with 11 goals and 19 points in 23 games. He was already a Lightning legend in his own right, but Stamkos elevated himself this season and reminded us why he is such a special player.
So, more wrong than right, which, isn’t a bad thing. It just goes to show how skeptical I was entering the season given how the roster was constructed (and how much importance I placed on the Gourde line’s impact). But how exactly should we grade this Lightning season—all things considered:
A third straight cup final, a feat no team has accomplished since the 1980s Oilers. Going up against four 50-win teams in a single postseason—the only team to do so ever. Thwarting challengers who thought they could win in Toronto, Florida, and New York. Making a juggernaut Avalanche team sweat more than any other team in the postseason? Yea, that’s a damn good season no matter which way you cut it.
They didn’t win a third straight cup to really solidify a dynasty but make no mistake, this Lightning team is a historic group. They’re not done yet either, the core is still in place and they clearly aren’t letting age dictate their performance level. If BriseBois can continue making shrewd moves in contract negotiations (big ones coming up next offseason) and trades then there is no reason to believe Tampa Bay is finished.