Perspective: What this visit to the playoffs means to the franchise
In the summer of 1983, the Detroit Red Wings drafted Steve Yzerman fourth overall. Since that draft, the Red Wings have missed the playoffs only twice, and are enjoying a dynasty that is just as strong today as ever. A dynasty contributed to by Steve Yzerman on the ice, off the ice and everywhere in between.
May 25th, 2010. The Lightning hire Steve Yzerman to replace Brian Lawton as General Manager. A landslide of speculation takes place, from the naysayers forecasting doom and gloom, to the at-the-time over-ambitious claims the Lightning were immediate Stanley Cup favorites. Despite much of the talk being overzealous and borderline irresponsible, there was a renewed interest in the Lightning. An air of intrigue. A sense of ... respectability?
In one fell swoop, the Lightning became the talk of the town. Not just Tampa, but the NHL as a whole. Instantly departed were the painful memories of "The Cowboys", obstinate coach Rick Tocchet, and three years of outright mismanagement. When it came to news about the Bolts, the question immediately changed from "what now?" to "what's next?"
Fans and foes alike watched in amazement as Yzerman rattled off several key offseason moves: unloading defenseman Andrej Meszaros and his bulky contract, signing depth forwards Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim, and trading dead-weight defenseman Matt Walker and a draft pick for the always dangerous Simon Gagne.
Through the course of one season and trades here and there, Stevie systematically piecemealed together a team that battled much of the year for the Southeast Division title, and now prepares for its first playoff series since 2007. After three years in the cellar, laughable publicity stunts, and stretches of painfully bad hockey, the Bolts are back in the dance. Presumably for years to come.
What does it mean? Short answer: quite a bit.
Revenue! I've certainly taken my opportunities to take jabs at the fair-weathered nature of the Lightning fan base. But the renewed interest from the OK-era attritioned fans, and even those hopping on the bandwagon for the first time, provide a financial boost to the team. Now, Owner Jeff Vinik has more money than most third world countries and has stated that dollars are not an issue when it comes to this team, and there's no reason what so ever to doubt that. But, the NHL financial landscape is fragile at best and on the constant verge of complete breakdown at worst, especially when it comes to Canadian fans' favorite target - teams in the south. With the economic status of the US, the league, and the constant lobbying for bigger contracts by the NHLPA, every single team in the NHL needs as much money as it can take in. Our Lightning included.
During the team's previous most successful tenure, 2002-2007, the Lightning finished in the top three in attendance in the NHL every year. You better believe the boys like playing in front of a packed house. Wouldn't you?
Experience! Of the Lightning's projected lineup, only about 50% of the players have NHL playoff experience. Head Coach Guy Boucher has none, nor do important young franchise cornerstones Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. Bouch isn't going anywhere in the near future, nor is Stamkos or Hedman . The lessons these guys are going to learn the next few weeks are going to be invaluable. Invaluable to their careers, invaluable to fans, and invaluable to the franchise going forward.
The game of hockey changes this time of year and the margin of error shrinks, if not outright disappears the instant the first puck is dropped in the playoffs. Stamkos' one-timers that miss the net and send the other team on an odd-man break the other way turn into goals in April and May. Hedman's lazy turnovers in his own zone turn into goals most of the year, but can be especially deadly in April and May. Boucher's occasional ill-advised line combination experiments turn into scoring chances and goals for the other team in April and May. It cannot be overstated: the learning curve some of our key personnel are about to endure is absolutely vital to their development.
And then there's momentum. There's the on-ice momentum - at an absolute high winning 7 of 8 to finish the regular season, highlighted by shutting the door on the Carolina Hurricanes' season. There's the momentum towards Mr. Vinik's oft-used desire to be a "World Class Organization," as the franchise is proving to be well on its way with this year's return to the playoffs. And finally, there's the momentum building towards Steve Yzerman's dream: his second NHL dynasty. Bucking the circus-like atmosphere was the crucial first step in creating a Lightning dynasty. Qualifying for the playoffs was a very close second. In just one season, he's done both.
After a solid paycheck, most players want just two things - to play in front of great fans and to have a legitimate shot at the Cup every year. Those are key negotiating factors with high-profile free agents, to the health of any sports franchise, and to the creation of a dynasty. Through strategic acquisitions, cerebral reaction to changing circumstances, and often times just plain common sense, Yzerman has the ball rolling. Momentum indeed.
Throughout this season, my personal goal for the club has remained the same: a winning record. The team has achieved that and so much more. In many ways, the achievements are just beginning to pile up and that is where perspective becomes so important. There's excitement, interest, potential, and in some ways irony surrounding this team right now. But we have to remember that the 2010-2011 version of the Tampa Bay Lightning has already been an undeniable success.
A first round sweep at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, or a Stanley Cup title matters not. This team is on its way. Enjoy what's going on with this team. Enjoy the ride. Enjoy the process. The organization is clearly 'All-In' for the long term. Are you?