Through 58 games (including the 6-0 blowout of the Dallas Stars on Valentine's Day), the Bolts are 43-11-4, good enough for 90 points. For context, last season’s 113 points set the franchise record for most points in a single season. This year’s Bolts are nine points ahead of their pace. They should shatter the franchise records for most points and wins in a season. Nikita Kucherov is set to roll past Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier’s single-season records in assists and points. Andrei Vasilevskiy currently sits above Ben Bishop record .926 save percentage from 2015-16. Brayden Point needs seven more power play goals to pass Steven Stamkos’ 24 PPG campaign in 2009-10.
Oh, and they have a 15-point lead over Calgary for first place overall.
Now, if you’re like me and have been a Tampa Bay sports fan for the last 10+ years, you no doubt have one question: how will it fall apart this year? Sure, this is perhaps the greatest sports team ever assembled in the Bay area, but we know better than to get our hopes up.
I’m here to help, and by help I mean offer unlicensed therapy. Let’s examine each of the five previous seasons since this core was put together and see what this team can learn from past mistakes. At the very least, we can take the element of surprise out of the impending disappointment.
Record Through 58 Games Played: 33-20-5, 71
End Result: Swept by Montreal in the First Round
- Stamkos leg fractured in Boston on November 11th, misses 45 games
- Martin St. Louis traded at the deadline to the New York Rangers for Ryan Callahan
- Ben Bishop sets franchise record in wins (37) and save percentage (.924%)
- Bishop injured during the last week of the season, misses playoffs
Lessons to be Learned:
There are a few obvious ones from this season; don’t lose your top goal-scorer to injury for half of the season, don’t lose your starting goaltender to injury right before the playoffs and whatever you do, don’t leave your captain off Team Canada if you're picking an Olympic team.
But there was a fairly significant positive to come out of this season. The best storyline of was the emergence of rookies Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, who joined forces with St. Louis after Stamkos was lost to injury. The trio formed a formidable top line in the absence of the Lightning’s top center, combining for 102 points in his 45 games missed. Johnson set a franchise record for rookie goal-scoring with 24 (later broken by Yanni Gourde) and Palat finished second on the team in scoring with 59 points. Both players finished 2nd and 3rd in the Calder voting behind Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon.
The point is, they were given an opportunity in a bigger role and flourished, establishing themselves as important pieces in the lineup. So the lesson is, don’t be afraid to give younger players big minutes. We have all ready seen this in the deployment of Erik Cernak and Anthony Cirelli; perhaps it would be a worthy gamble to push a Mathieu Joseph or Mikhail Sergachev up the lineup down the stretch.
Record Through 58 Games Played: 35-17-6, 76 pts
End Result: Eliminated in six games by the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals
- Triplets line of Johnson, Palat and Kucherov is created on October 24th in Winnipeg
- Braydon Coburn acquired from Philadelphia at the deadline
- Bishop sets new franchise record in wins (40)
- Stamkos plays his 82nd game
- Lightning play in 26 playoff games, tied for most all-time in a single postseason
Lessons to be Learned:
We learned several things from this season. A good one is that experimenting different line combinations is always a good idea because you never know when you’ll find magic. We also learned to invest in glove technology that lines the inside with bubble wrap. And in hindsight, maybe you shouldn’t bury a highly skilled winger on the fourth line.
But the biggest takeaway from this season is that experience is overrated. Johnson entered the playoffs with a scant two points in four career playoff games, accrued in an abysmal four-game sweep at the hands of Montreal. He went on to lead the postseason in goals (13) and tied with Chicago’s Patrick Kane for the lead in points (23). In fact, of Tampa Bay’s top five scorers, only Stamkos had more than four games of playoff experience. Kucherov, Johnson, Palat and Alex Killorn were all new to the challenges of a deep playoff run, yet all prospered in a top-six role. Bishop had yet to play in a playoff game, let alone a Game Seven, yet he stopped all 52 shots he faced in the two winner-take-all contests. So while teams often have conservative approaches when using rookies in the playoffs, the Bolts should trust that their inexperienced players (probably) won’t miss a beat.
Record Through 58 Games Played: 32-22-4, 68 pts
End Result: Eliminated in seven games by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals
- Jonathan Drouin sent down to Syracuse, requests a trade.
- Anton Stralman suffers long-term injury in last weeks of the season
- Stamkos injured again, this time a late-season blood clot
- Drouin returns from Syracuse for the playoff run
- Bolts lose Bishop in Game 1 of the Conference Final
Lessons to be Learned:
Look, injuries happen, but sheesh this was a series of unfortunate events for the Bolts. To their credit, they handled it well, going 8-2 and cruising to their second straight Conference Final without their best forward and second-best defenseman. Then they managed to push the eventual champs to a seventh game without that aforementioned best forward and their star goaltender. So the moral here is don’t let key injuries hurt your confidence.
The biggest lesson, however, is the virtue of forgiveness. Drouin made his return to the NHL on April 7th, playing in the final two games of the season. This of course came after a very public falling out with the team; he was not producing and had been pushed way down the lineup, so Yzerman sent him down to the AHL in order for him to find his game. Drouin refused to report to Syracuse, hoping to force a trade, but Yzerman did not budge.
Drouin scored in both games upon his return, an occurrence that seemed to solidify his savoir status. He jumpstarted the offense and played a big part in getting the Bolts back to the Conference Final, most memorably scoring a beautiful solo goal to tie Game 7 against Pittsburgh. So in conclusion, always be open to forgiving those that have wronged you.
Record Through 58 Games Played: 26-24-8, 60 pts
End Result: Missed the playoffs
- Everyone got hurt. Literally everyone
- Brian Boyle, Valtteri Filppula and Bishop are dealt around the deadline.
- Seriously, everyone got hurt
Lessons to be Learned:
It do be like that sometimes.
But seriously, there isn’t much the Lightning could have done about this season. I was not kidding about everyone getting hurt; nobody on the team managed to play in all 82 games. Only ten appeared in 70 or more. Stamkos once again fell victim to a long-term injury, seeing his season end after just 17 games. By the time they got back to full strength, the Bolts were in a deep hole and had all ready sold off their pending UFAs. That they only missed out on a playoff spot by a single point was all the evidence needed to not overreact. So the lesson here is, when the going gets tough, don’t dwell on it because it was just an anomaly.
Record Through 58 Games Played: 39-16-3, 81 pts
End Result: Eliminated in seven games by the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Finals
- Ryan McDonagh and JT Miller acquired from the Rangers
- Franchise single-season record in wins and points, first Atlantic Division Title
- Kucherov hits 100 points, 3rd Bolt in franchise history to hit triple digits
- Lightning beat Bruins in 2nd round 4-1, hold them scoreless at 5v5 in all four wins
Lessons to be Learned:
There’s a lot to like about this season. Vasilevskiy proved he was ready to be a full-time starter, earning a third-place finish in the Vezina race. This was a victory for Yzerman, picking the right time to move on from Bishop, so the Lightning learned to not be afraid of turning the reigns over to the young understudies. The Bolts finished the season poorly, going 6-6-1 and almost allowed Boston to catch them for first place in the Eastern Conference. So another lesson is don’t get complacent until you have clinched the division title.
But as good as the regular season was, all fans will remember is the postseason, specifically how it ended. There are a few theories that explain the capitulation Tampa Bay suffered against Washington in the Conference Final, but they all come back to the offense drying up. The Lightning were shutout in Games 6 and 7 despite having substantially more shot attempts. The optimistic fan might say they ran into a hot goaltender; the pessimistic fan would blame the top players for failing to produce. It is certainly a combination of both, but I think the lesson to take away from that series is to have a quicker trigger finger. Head Coach Jon Cooper was reluctant to shake things up too crazy with his line combinations, something that in hindsight he should have budged on. Hopefully he learned his lesson and will have a shorter leash when the stakes are high.
Looking for more Tampa Bay Lightning coverage? Check out Five Lightning Home Games You Don't Want To Miss Down The Stretch.
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Cover photo by author.