Tampa Bay Lightning
Familiar faults lead to familiar result for Lightning
What a long, short season it turned out to be for the Lightning.
From the beaches of Naples for training camp, Tampa Bay rode the wave of a 6-1 start, only to see the season crest early and come crashing down on Saturday as the Lightning finished the season sitting in 28th place.
Along the way, the same suspect defensive-zone play and questionable goaltending that plagued the team last season crept up once again and the high-flying offense — which featured the top two scorers in the league in Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos — was not enough to mask the team's shortcomings.
It cost head coach Guy Boucher his job on March 24 and sent Tampa Bay in a new direction with Jon Cooper taking over with the organization less than two years removed from a run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
To say seeing a team with so much talent on paper stumble so badly is a disappointment is a supreme understatement.
“It's easy to go back, and I know we had a 6-1 start … but I knew once we got on the road we'd get a better feel for exactly where we stood,'' St. Louis said. “For whatever reason we just didn't get it done. We can find many reasons why, but at the end of the day it's the guys in (the locker room), and we didn't get it done. You have to look yourself in the mirror, be honest with your year and bring it next year.”
This season was not supposed to end like this.
Not after Tampa Bay acquired goaltender Anders Lindback from Nashville to help plug a big hole, not after free-agent defensemen Matt Carle and Sami Salo were brought in to shore up the blue line.
This was supposed to be a bounce-back season in which Tampa Bay battled for a playoff spot, if not a division title, after last season's disappointment.
Instead the Lightning's defense hardly saw any improvement, giving up 3.06 goals per game — 26th overall — after allowing 3.39 per game last season, last overall.
That, more than anything else, is why Tampa Bay again missed the playoffs and will be Cooper's biggest task to correct when training camp opens in September.
And though Cooper ended up behind the bench for the final 15 games of the season, there was not a lot of time to work on implementing his system and style of play. With the compressed schedule, there were a total of eight days in which the team practiced after Cooper was named head coach.
But, despite the lack of time working on the ice — there was a lot of video work with the players — there was enough to get a head start on how Cooper's teams play. There were signs of the puck-possession style Cooper wants to see, there were changes to the defensive-zone coverage, and fans saw some of the creativity he allows his players to have in the offensive zone.
“I think puck possession, we are definitely better at it,'' Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier said. “I love that type of game, playing in their zone and not being one-and-done in their zone. Keep the puck, make plays at the right time but be smart about it. I think we have gotten a lot better at it.''
Because Tampa Bay wound up 28th overall in the standings, the Lightning will pick no lower than fourth in the June 30 draft and will have a 14.2 percent chance of landing the first overall pick. That means Lightning fans will hear the names Seth Jones, Jonathan Drouin, Nathan MacKinnon and Aleksander Barkov mentioned many times between now and the draft.
“Unfortunately you don't want to be in this position but … if you are going to miss the playoffs you might as well hit a home run and miss the playoffs and we kind of did that,” Cooper said. “But the worst pick we are going to get is fourth, and there are four pretty good (players) at the top of the charts, and you start thinking about next year and the draft is part of next year.”