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Drama On The Horizon, Tampa Bay Lightning 2016-17 Edition

In every team’s season, some drama must fall. Injuries, trades, unexpected slumps from normally reliable performers. Every team in every sport faces those challenges every season. That’s pretty much the point of competitive sports; not let’s see who does the best job of assembling a roster of talent, but let’s see whose roster of talent can best handle the obstacles thrown their way. Some of the drama the Tampa Bay Lightning have faced over the last few years falls outside of the definition of standard sports adversity:

  • In late 2013, less than two years after leading the Lightning to the Eastern Conference Final and after a 6-1 record to begin the season, (then) 41-year-old head coach Guy Boucher was fired by general manager Steve Yzerman because “Philosophically, without being specific, there’s a difference between myself and (Boucher). … I have certain beliefs as a manager of the team what I want to see, and unless I’m prepared to go behind the bench and do it my way, I can’t instruct the coach to do it the way I want it done.”
  • In March of 2014, seemingly out of nowhere, Stanley Cup hero, captain and acclaimed ‘heart and soul’ of the franchise Martin St. Louis demanded, and was granted, an immediate trade to the New York Rangers.
  • In November of 2015, former first round draft choice (number three overall, in 2013) Jonathan Drouin demanded a trade, was later sent down to the minors, refused to report to a game and was eventually suspended.
  • Prior to the start of last season, goaltender Anrei Vasilevskiy was sidelined due to surgery for a blood clot in his left shoulder, a condition considered a freak occurrence in terms of hockey injuries. In April, just seven months later,Steven Stamkos missed time after having surgery due to a blood clot near his right collar bone.

All things considered, having to deal with issues like these along with the aforementioned standard-issue adversity, the Lightning have responded extremely well. They missed the playoffs in 2012-13, but the team’s record was 13-17-1 with only 17 games remaining in the lockout-shortened season when Boucher was fired. They won the Eastern Conference championship after St. Louis left in 2014 and Drouin and Vasilevskiy were major reasons why they made it as far as the Eastern Conference final last season, despite the absence of Stamkos down the stretch.

So they’ve proven they can handle things when they get weird. Wouldn’t it be kind of nice to see how they deal with “normal” circumstances? Maybe not! Some teams aren’t comfortable being comfortable. Maybe that’s who these guys are. Maybe they need the proverbial bubbling pot to make them as good as they are. In that case, rest uneasy drama fans. Here are four potential scenarios that might make them happy and the rest of us nuts.

  • Nikita Kucherov – Let’s start with the situation that actually currently exists, although it may never even get to the point where it would qualify as a distraction. After all, the only thing that resulted from Stamkos’ status all last year as a potentially unrestricted free agent who could just walk away and leave the Lightning with nothing was little more than some sweaty palms at the trade deadline, and most of those were in Toronto. Still, a player who has been as consistently reliable as Kucherov, especially in the postseason, with an unresolved contract situation is going to make people uneasy. Even if it’s only fans and even if it gets wrapped up soon.
  • Ben Bishop – Yzerman mentioned the importance of having two quality goalies, equating it to how it’s become a necessity for a NFL teams to have two top-caliber quarterbacks. Bishop put a finer point on it by using the nearly-unbeatable Montreal Canadiens before Carey Price got injured last season that became non-factors afterward as an illustration. Keeping Bishop and Vasilevskiy together as a tandem as long as possible is the ideal situation. But the eventual expansion draft and simple salary cap reality means that ideal is a short-term reality at best. As Trevor said, Bishop’s time in Tampa Bay started ticking down as soon as Andrei Vasilevskiy signed his three-year extension. By all accounts, Bishop is a great team guy and has been very supportive of Vasilevskiy’s efforts to develop and adjust to being an NHL goaltender. Bishop is also a guy who would play every single night if he had his way. Bishop is going to leave town sooner than later and Vasilevskiy is going to take away some of his playing time before that happens. There’s nothing to indicate Bishop will sulk or otherwise handle that poorly but it’s going to be something he hasn’t dealt with before and that he will have to manage.
  • Jonathan Drouin – From the moment whatever clicked and made Drouin decide to drop his demands and get back to playing hockey, he did so like a man possessed.  Eleven goals and two assists in the 17 games (total) he played in Syracuse, two goals in the final two regular season games after being called back up to the Lightning, and five goals and nine assists in 17 postseason games. Undoubtedly, he was fueled, at least to some extent, by an “I’ll show them” mentality, and that’s fine. Hey, whatever it takes to get fired up, right? The question is, to what degree was that mindset a factor? Because if everyone is happy that he’s with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the foreseeable future, which is what appears to be the case, that mindset will fade at some point. At which point, skill and hard work and some other sources of motivation have to kick in. Basically, we’ve seen Drouin pout and not produce and we’ve seen him get angry and produce at a high level. What will we see from Jonathan Drouin with nothing to prove aside from continued improvement as a highly skilled hockey player?
  • Something/Someone else – Nobody could have predicted the bizarre scenarios that have presented themselves as potential stumbling blocks to this not only this team, but the franchise itself (forget trying to make sense of the Marty St. Louis debacle, I still don’t understand how they survived Kokusai Green and playing NHL games in an actual barn). Whatever the next thing is, if there is a next thing (and there probably will be), that drama is probably much more likely to present itself with little or no warning than it is as something that could be predicted in advance.
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