Now that it is over, how is a hockey season to be remembered?
Sweet? Or sour?
For its dominance? For a lousy ending?
For Steven Stamkos’ scoring skills? Or for the way he forgot them at the end?
For those who followed the Lightning along its curving path to the Stanley Cup Finals, there are different ways to reflect upon what we have seen. It was the second-best season in the history of the team, and yet they finished second best. There is something to boast about there. And there is something to lament.
There were big moments by goaltender Ben Bishop. And a few small ones. The world fell in love with the Triplets, but they seemed to run out of health in the late going. There was Victor Hedman, bowling us all over. And there was Hedman, bowling his own goaltender over.
That’s what an unsatisfying hockey season does. It paints an incomplete picture. The players are not satisfied. Should the fans be?
Oh, let’s be honest. Once you get over the disappointment of the final chapter, this was the second-best hockey season in the history of Tampa Bay. It was a thrill ride, a team that squeezed most of its opportunities out of itself. Not only was this a good team, it was a likable team. If your kid wanted a jersey of a dozen players, you would probably simply nod at his choice.
Look, we all love champions. But what we really like is the pursuit of winning. This team did that. It got all the way to Game Six against a great Chicago Blackhawks team. There is no shame in losing to Chicago. They’re smart, and they’re tough, and they’ve been there before. What the Lightning wants to do more than anything is to become the next version of the Blackhawks.
How should Jeff Vinik look at this season? Well, as validation, perhaps. Vinik has done so many things right since he came to town. It’s fair to say he is the most beloved owner in the history of Tampa Bay sports, a man who has asked for nothing but who has improved the product.
Yeah, if you’re Vinik, you could have gotten one more home date out of this season. But that’s quibbling. You have a young, dynamic team, and odds are, ticket sales are going to be brisk for next year.
How should Steve Yzerman look at it? Carefully, probably. Yzerman is an analytical sort, aware of what he has and what he lacks. So while the first temptation would be to stay with a pat hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if Yzerman tries to add a veteran scorer or two. And if he is looking at the Lightning as a potential champion, well, he may want a little more.
Here’s what happened in the playoffs. Teams surrounded Steven Stamkos. Tyler Johnson seemed to be hurt. And once those two were smothered, the Lightning simply didn’t have enough threats. Perhaps a more experienced Jonathan Drouin can help the scoring depth. But there has to be some place to turn on the nights the stars are not shining.
And Jon Cooper? How would Cooper look at this team.
Oh, start with pride. Cooper loves his guys. He loved them last year after they were swept out of the first round by the Canadiens, and he’ll love them after this. He knows more about injuries than the rest of us. He’ll know what Johnson went through, and Kucherov, and Bishop.
But after a while, Cooper will get analytical. He’ll break down the ice, to see where the Lightning succeeded and where they fell short, who can be counted to improve and who might be on the slide. It’s odd. There was a report during the playoffs that Cooper and Stamkos wouldn’t be chummy, but Cooper has said everything right with Stammer. Besides, if a team gets rid of a Stamkos, where in the world is it going to find another one. At first thought, that seems like one of the most foolish deals in the history of the Bolts.
Hey, second isn’t first. And the truth is, the Bolts slowed Chicago down enough to win this series. Think of it: In the last three games, it allowed two goals a game. A high-scoring team should get more than that most nights.
Yes, it is going to be interesting to see the cosmetic surgery that this roster gets. Maybe a tweak here. Maybe an improvement there. Maybe a scorer here.
There is only one thing that most of us are looking for, however.
How long before these guys take the ice again?