Years from now, when we look back on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2016-17 season, the one word that will come to mind is disappointment.
Not the career-best seasons for Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman. Not the emergence of Andrei Vasilevskiy as the starting goaltender. Nor the breakout year for Jonathan Drouin. Even Brayden Point’s impressive rookie season will be a mere footnote. While these are all positives, they can’t mask that prevailing feeling of disappointment.
The reason these performances are footnotes? A team that had Stanley Cup aspirations fell fall short of its goal after coming so close the previous two seasons.
Entering the 2016-17 season, many pundits, including the writer of this article, envisioned the Lightning hoisting Lord Stanley’s chalice. Those expectations were justifiable. Captain Steven Stamkos left money on the table by not testing the open market, signing an eight-year deal to stay in Tampa. Hedman inked an eight-year extension to stick around. Alex Killorn signed a seven-year contract. Kucherov signed a three-year bridge deal worth just under $4.77 million annually. A bargain for a player of his talent.
In other words, the band was back together for one more run. There were no major subtractions. The core was still intact. After three straight playoff berths, two of which saw the Lightning make it to the Stanley Cup Final and Eastern Conference Finals, this looked like their year.
However, some warning signs began to show early in the season despite a 10-6-1 start
The Bolts developed a nasty habit of surrendering the first goal of the game. On multiple occasions, they fell behind 2-0. Digging themselves out of early holes became a common occurrence. Over the coure of the season, Tampa Bay allowed the game’s opening goal a staggering 49 times, fourth-most in the NHL. The only teams to allow the game’s first goal more often? The Los Angeles Kings (51 times), Vancouver Canucks (53), and Colorado Avalanche (58). All teams that missed the playoffs. The Canucks and Avalanche finished the season 29th and 30th in the NHL standings, respectively.
In addition to giving up the game’s opening goal a majority of the time, the Lightning’s defensive play left a lot to be desired. Too often, they gave up way too many quality scoring chances. Turnovers became common in all three zones. Defensive lapses often led to quality opportunities for the opposition. A sense of complacency was growing with the Bolts, a feeling that they could flip the switch at any time and they’d be fine.
The goaltending, featuring Vasilevsky and the since-departed Ben Bishop, both struggled for much of the first half of the season. Coming off a season in which he was a Vezina Trophy finalist, Bishop never got into a groove early on. Vasilevskiy showed flashes, but was also inconsistent. Despite these early flaws, the Lightning had a winning record in mid-November. Then the injuries settled in. Anton Stralman missed a handful of games. Jonathan Drouin also missed some time. However, that would pale in comparison to what happened to their captain.
On November 15th, in a game at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Stamkos left early on with a knee injury and did not return.
It was a seemingly innocent play and didn’t appear to be all that serious, but tests revealed that Stamkos suffered a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. The prognosis was that he’d be out 4-6 months. He wouldn’t suit up again this season. Before the injury, Stamkos was playing some of the best hockey of his career, showing phenomenal on-ice chemistry with Kucherov.
Soon after, Ryan Callahan, who underwent offseason hip surgery, re-aggravated his hip and missed time. He would miss several games, came back, but was shut down for good in early February after missing another month. He would only play in 18 games.
Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johsnon, Cedric Paquette, Kucherov, and Point would all miss time at some point between December and late January. Bishop suffered what appeared to be a groin injury on December 20th and didn’t return until January 12th.
The struggles of Bishop and Vasilevskiy exposed some of this team’s defensive flaws, and their penalty killing also went through a rough stretch. Vasilevskiy went through a rough stretch in late December and early January when he started nine consecutive games, the longest such stretch of his career. He had a stretch of four games in which he gave up 20 goals.
In addition, Tampa Bay wasn’t scoring as many goals as they had in the past. They became too reliant on their power play to produce offense, a departure from the previous couple of seasons when the power play was a weakness.
All of that, combined with the complacency and inconsistency that plagued them from game to game and sometimes period to period, led to the Lightning going 12-18-5 during a 35-game stretch following Stamkos’s injury. Head coach Jon Cooper seemed dumbfounded by his team’s effort at times, mixing and matching lines just trying to find something that would stick.
The month of January featured a four-game skid in which they lost four straight games and allowed 22 goals. A six-game road trip saw them only gain six out of a possible 12 points. The Lightning were losing games to teams in which they had no business losing to.
Against the three worst teams in the league (Arizona, Vancouver, and Colorado), Tampa Bay went a combined 1-5-0. On February 4th rolled around, the Bolts were 22-24-6 for a total of 50 points. Once a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, the Lightning now found themselves in last place in the Eastern Conference.
Following a three-game losing streak that carried over from the All-Star break, the Lightning were in desperate need of something to give them a spark.
Something to put them back on track and help forget about the disappointment of the season’s first half. That spark came from J.T. Brown. In a game against the Anaheim Ducks at Amalie Arena, the fourth-line firecracker got into a fight with Joseph Cramarossa, punctuating it with an MMA-style takedown at the end. That bout set the tone for the Bolts in a 3-2 shootout win over the Ducks. A 5-0 win over Los Angeles followed. Next thing we knew, the Lightning were on a 5-0-2 run and this team was feeling pretty good about itself.
The goaltending got itself back on track, as Bishop was playing his best hockey of the season. Vasilevskiy turned in better performances when called upon. Point returned after missing 14 games with an upper-body injury and began to assert himself on the scoresheet after running into some bad shooting luck early in the season. Drouin’s highlight-reel plays and near-misses were a treat to watch.
But most of all, Kucherov went on a tear, finishing the month of March as the NHL’s First Star of the Month. His 22 points in March set a new franchise record for most points in a month. Kucherov’s hot streak began just before general manager Steve Yzerman became a seller at the trade deadline. Yzerman traded away Bishop and centers Brian Boyle and Valtteri Filppula in separate deals, bringing back picks, prospects, and salary cap space.
Even with those trades, the Lightning kept winning games. A 12-2-3 stretch put the Bolts squarely back in the playoff race. Vasilevskiy grabbed the reins in the crease, and for the most part, showed he was ready to be a full-time starter in the NHL. Injuries to Johnson, Vlad Namestnikov, and Paquette didn’t do much to damper this team’s run. The Bolts continued to be competitive despite a string of call-ups from Syracuse of the AHL. However, the Lightning were going to have to be near perfect and get help to get into the playoffs.
Despite some huge wins over the final month, including thrilling come-from-behind wins over Chicago and Florida and huge road wins over Boston, Detroit, Toronto, and Montreal, the Bolts also had a few big letdowns. A 5-3 loss at home to Arizona. That awful 5-0 defeat to the Maple Leafs at Amalie Arena. An ill-timed 4-0 shutout loss in Boston that effectively crushed their playoff hopes.
Tampa Bay went into the season’s final weekend needing Toronto to lose twice, the New York Islanders to win once, and to beat the Buffalo Sabres in the season finale. Unfortunately for the Lightning, their second half rally proved to be too little, too late. All they could do was watch helplessly as Toronto clinched the East’s last playoff spot on the season’s second-to-last day. That feeling of disappointment from early in the season came flooding back for Lightning fans.
Despite the letdown of not clinching a playoff spot, there are some bright spots with this team.
Kucherov proved to be one of the biggest bargains in the NHL, setting career highs in goals (40), assists (45), and points (85). He finished in a second-place tie in the NHL in goals and fifth in points. Hedman also set career highs in goals (16), assists (56), and points (72), setting multiple franchise records for defenseman scoring. He also led all NHL blue-liners in assists and finished with the second most points among all defensemen.
Drouin finally broke out with 21 goals and 53 points in 73 games. His creativity brought Lightning fans to their feet on a nightly basis. When Drouin got the puck on his stick, chances are you were gonna see a highlight-reel play. Point was a revelation in his rookie season, going on a tear in the second half of the season. He finished with 18 goals and 40 points in 68 games. Point made the team straight out of training camp after it was expected he’d go to the AHL, proving that he belonged in the NHL on a nightly basis.
Jake Dotchin was recalled from the AHL in January and proved he belonged in the NHL. The 2012 sixth-round pick was paired up with Hedman, allowing Anton Stralman to slide down to the second pairing. The move gave the Bolts more depth on the blue line. Dotchin’s presence gave the team some much-needed balance and grit on the back end.
There were times when Vasilevskiy showed the inconsistencies often seen in a young goalie. That began to change once he took over the starting job after the Bishop trade. His play over the final six weeks of the season was a huge reason why this team nearly made the playoffs. Just remember, he doesn’t even turn 23 until July. He’s not even close to hitting his prime yet.
So what’s next for the Lightning?
Despite the furious rally the Lightning made in the second half of the season, it doesn’t mask the disappointment that comes with missing out on a playoff spot. Especially when they were a Stanley Cup favorite. Although a fire sale is unnecessary, some tweaks are needed. The Lightning are still in desperate need of another top-four defenseman. Tampa Bay faces some decisions when it comes to restricted free agents, as Palat, Johnson, Drouin, and defenseman Andrej Sustr are all RFA’s.
At this point, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Sustr wasn’t tendered a qualifying offer. A year after making progress as a bottom-pairing defenseman, his play slipped significantly this season. Drouin will almost assuredly be given a brand new contract. One of their toughest decisions remains with Palat and Johnson.
Palat’s two-way play has been invaluable during his tenure with the Bolts. When healthy, Johnson remains a productive player, but at the age of 26, we might have seen him hit his ceiling. The emergence of Point just might make Johnson expendable. With Johnson also dealing with injuries the last couple of years, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get traded for defensive help.
Backup goalie Peter Budaj, acquired from the Kings in the Bishop trade, is an unrestricted free agent. I wouldn’t be surprised if he returns to be a mentor for Vasilevskiy and provide him a rest when needed. Yanni Gourde and Gabriel Dumont are UFA’s as well. I expect Gourde to be back due to his knack for scoring clutch goals and Dumont to return due to his faceoff ability.
Besides their free agents, the Lightning have decisions to make in regards to June’s expansion draft. The Vegas Golden Knights piece together their team from June 18-20. The other 30 teams must submit their protected lists on June 17 at 5 pm EST. Every team must protect either seven forwards, three defenseman, and a goalie or eight skaters and a goalie. Any player owning no-movement clauses like Stamkos, Callahan, and Hedman must be protected. Players completing their first or second seasons at the end of 2016-17 are exempt.
It we assume the Lightning go with the 7-3-1 format and the roster doesn’t change, the protected list could look like this: Stamkos, Callahan, Kucherov, Drouin, Johnson, Palat, Alex Killorn, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn/Jason Garrison, and Vasilevskiy. If Callahan elects to waive his NMC, the Bolts could protect someone like Vlad Namestnikov instead. It’s hard to envision Vegas taking Callahan due to his recent hip surgeries, his age, and his salary.
You won’t find Slater Koekkoek or Dotchin on this protected list, due to the fact they haven’t played enough NHL games to meet the exposure requirement. Meaning the Lightning could end up losing one of the following to Vegas: Namestnikov, Paquette, Garrison, Sustr, Coburn, Brown, or Erik Condra.
While this team had some bright spots throughout the season, there’s no doubt that the 2016-17 was a disappointment for the Tampa Bay Lightning. If the Bolts are to get back to the postseason next year, here’s hoping they learned a valuable lesson from this season: every game counts, even the games in October and November.