Three Eastern Conference Finals appearances in six years and one Stanley Cup Finals appearance in that same span.
One angry young player demanding a trade after being sent the Lightning’s minor league affiliate.
A Star player who could have taken more money to leave, but instead took less to finish what he started.
A lot of things have gone into making Tampa Bay a premier hockey destination for free agents, but at this point have the Lightning hit the proverbial “Glass Ceiling”?
Last season following losing out on the Stanley Cup to the Chicago Blackhawks they returned nearly their entire roster from the previous season. The only player that didn’t return was Brenden Morrow who was replaced by a similar yet younger Erik Condra. In this off-season the Lightning were able to lock up Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy to extensions, but have yet been able to lock up Nikita Kucherov. The Lightning had quite the shock when Jonathan Drouin returned to the team following an injury to Stamkos. In the limited time that Drouin was on the NHL roster the perpetual rift between the team and his camp seemed to be repaired. Shortly after the team was eliminated from the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion, Drouin released a statement saying he had withdrawn his trade request.
Coming into the 2016-2017 season the team could very well adapt the motto “Cup or Bust”. This will be the final season you see this amazing core group together before the expansion draft and upcoming offseason. Drouin, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Brian Boyle and even Ben Bishop will be due pay increases. Unlike this season Steve Yzerman won’t be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat and secure most if not all the players without contracts at the end of the season. Drouin, Palat and Johnson will be restricted free agents much like Kucherov is this season. The Lightning may be able to keep one of the triplets and Drouin, but that’s it. Boyle may be a guy who would take a big discount to stay with this team.
This more than any season is “Cup or Bust”, they HAVE TO win it this season. If the Lightning are unable to capture the grandest prize in the hockey world the following season could see a MUCH different roster. Sure after the expansion draft the Callahan’s and Filppula’s will still be around due to their no move clauses, but the youthful core will be gone. Brown and Namestnikov signed new two year deals so they’ll still be here. Those two aren’t top six forwards, Namestnikov has the best chance to crack the top six as he spent a little time their this season.
The word “Re-Building” gets thrown around a lot in the sports world. If the Lightning are unable to win the Cup they will in essence be re-building once again. They say one or two players in sports don’t necessarily make a team, but in hockey losing Drouin, Palat, Johnson and Boyle will really hurt.
Bishop’s time in a Lightning jersey is on a clock that started ticking the minute they signed Vasilevskiy to that three year extension. While fans hate to lose a true number one goalie, Vasilevskiy is the future of this team and carries a lot smaller cap hit then what Bishop currently does. In a salary cap world the NHL became following the 2004 season keeping a team together gets harder every year. Bishop will be gone sooner rather than later and so will one or two of the triplets. The Lightning have done a great job building their minor league system, but they won’t replace those the team are unable to sign, but fans could be surprised. No one expected and undrafted free agent to contend for the Calder Trophy (Johnson) or Onderj Palat to emerge as one of the better two way players in the league. There could be a diamond in the rough for the Lightning, but most players take a year or two to adapt to the NHL. One way or another this has to be a “Cup or Bust” season. This has to be the team to win another cup for Tampa Bay. They have no excuses anymore, there are no more distractions, now’s the time to get it done and bring Stanley back to the Bay Area.
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