Unless you were living under a rock this season, you would know that the Tampa Bay Lightning had one of the most historic seasons in NHL history flushed down the toilet in a four-game sweep at the hands of… *checks notes* THE COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS?
How did this happen? The Lightning were a dream team. The most feared team entering the playoffs. The model for success. Tampa Bay ran away with the President’s Trophy. They finished ahead of any other team by a whopping 21 points. And yet, 62 wins and all I got was this lousy t-shirt. What has to be considered the biggest collapse in NHL playoff history (no Presidents trophy winner has ever been swept before), there is nothing to do now but laugh. Wear it like a badge of honor. Move on. You’ll probably hear the coaches and the players be saying this a lot going into next season. “We have to move on”.
So just what exactly does “move on” mean for this club?
Easy Answer vs. The Hard Truth
The easy answer is to blow it up. Fire head coach Jon Cooper. Trade Tyler Johnson. Get rid of Ondrej Palat. Blow up the core and bring in some new faces. Whatever it is that works in the season, isn’t translating to the end goal. Winning a Stanley Cup.
The hard truth is that this team may have just floated into the playoffs without a worry in the world whereas Columbus was fighting for their playoff lives for weeks before the playoffs started. The hard truth is that maybe sneaking in under the radar and playing meaningful games down the stretch is better for a clubs mentality.
Playing the Lightning wasn’t even fair for most teams this year. No lead, big or small, was safe against them. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos laid waste to the NHL and for the most part, they did it on separate lines (yes there were many many power play points together). I heard many different people tell me down the stretch that these meaningless games wouldn’t translate well, and I brushed them off telling myself this team was playing great hockey regardless of the score and they couldn’t be intimidated.
The Lightning were very intimidated in the playoffs and aside from early in Game 1, they couldn’t even take the lead in a game. They were down and out before the game even started it seemed. Something was off. Brayden Point seemed almost invisible which is a shocking statement in itself, and he wasn’t alone as no bolt looked really dominant. Kucherov got suspended on a boneheaded play and the only thing he could hit was the crossbar.
Were the people right? Was this a result of a team that experienced no turmoil in the season? They didn’t experience many ups-and-downs, even when they lost Andrei Vasilevskiy for an extended period of the season. The hard truth is that Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman were out of action. That’s essentially Tampa’s first pairing out of the series. With the two defencemen out and lacking in solid depth options, Jan Rutta was thrust into a big role and to me was the black hole of the series. This collapse isn’t on Rutta but he was almost always stuck on the ice for untimely goals. Which begs the question, what was Braydon Coburn doing in the stands for games one and two? He was only a veteran defenceman with 132 playoff games under his grizzled belt and the Lightning were injured. The hard truth is the coaching staff and analytics saw Jan Rutta as a better option. I don’t think Coburn wins the Lightning this series had he played in the first two games, but I truly think he could have helped that sinking ship in Game 1 and just maybe turn this into an actual series.
I thought Mikhail Sergachev played solid, rising to the occasion and looking calm for the most part. But it was not enough. The craziest thing I will type all year: The Lightning could not score a goal. Call it the NHL playoffs, call it dumb luck, but the hard truth is that nine out of 10 times the Lightning would have cruised to round one victory and played Boston for a trip to the cup (sorry Carolina).
Jon Cooper Isn’t Going Anywhere
Cooper had all the contract leverage going into the playoffs. With one of the best seasons in NHL history in the books, it was clear Jon Cooper was going to be re-signed long-term and before the playoffs began the extension was announced. A lot of fans wanted to see the team wait to see the playoff results first before paying up, but in a fast-paced coaching world (remember Jon Cooper is currently the longest-tenured coach in the NHL) it would not have been a wise decision to tempt fate and have him potentially walk away from this team for nothing. I will admit, upon defeat I said it. I said it loud. “Fire Jon Cooper”. I was his biggest critic. However, as time had started to pass I think the way he coached all year should have translated into the playoffs and I don’t doubt that going into next year either. This was a huge anomaly or a true showing of the parity around the league and a true testament to “anything can happen, all you have to do is make the dance”.
Jon Cooper will remain behind the Lightning bench going into next year, and its the right move. That being said, Cooper deserves some serious blame here. He was massively out-coached by Columbus bench boss John Tortorella and failed to make necessary changes to their game as the Blue Jackets forecheck drove Tampa into the ground. One thing Jon Cooper would have loved in this series, as mentioned earlier, was a healthy Victor Hedman. Big Vic was not half of himself and probably shouldn’t have played games one and two, to begin with. Hedman dealt with concussion symptoms stemming from a late-season hit in Detroit which ultimately ended his season. Nikita Kucherov may have been the Lightning’s MVP during the year, but this team was not going to win a cup without a healthy Hedman. All things considered, I think Jon Cooper has earned himself a hiccup after many deep runs with this squad.
Changes On The Back End
There are going to be some big changes on the blue line next year and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, and Braydon Coburn are all unrestricted free agents and they will not all be back. I do think it’s possible we see newly minted Lightning GM Julien Brisebois bring back one of these veteran defencemen, but the question is who? Stralman’s health has come to be an issue, Girardi wasn’t god awful but as the NHL continues to get faster, the faster I want to move on without him. I thought Coburn had his best season in years, and his skating and skill training he worked on paid dividends. If he’s willing to take a cheap tag on a two-year deal, Coburn makes the most sense to me. The Lightning simply can’t overpay for veteran pairings and if the cost is not right, Brisebois will likely look into the UFA pool for a cheap, shrewd signing. In addition, he could even dip into the farm system.
The Lighting will bring back the core four of the Lightning blue line. Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak, and Mikhail Sergachev. That alone is still a scary back end that can all bury the puck and defend well. Eric Cernak was one of the most surprising rookies for this squad. He made the team mid-season and forced the Lightning to trade former first-round pick Slater Koekkoek to the Chicago Blackhawks. He was that good and forced the team’s hand. So that leaves two spots left. Maybe Coburn or Stralman is brought back, and maybe not. Top prospect Cal Foote should battle for an open roster spot in camp. The Lightning are never afraid to carry seven defensemen on the roster and he is the most well rounded and high-upside prospect in the Bolts system.
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And then there are the Erik Karlsson rumors. We all know Tampa heavily pursued the big fish in Ottawa but were unwilling to part ways with Point or Sergachev and the trade never came to fruition. Karlsson was meeting the trainers at the All-Star Game in Tampa and bunking with fellow swede Hedman who fancied him around town. Karlsson wants to play for Tampa, that remains obvious. The question is, how in the world can they make this all fit under the cap?
Although I’m mainly having fun with the idea more than truly expecting it to happen, a lot would have to be ironed out and unless everything lines up perfectly, it’s not going to happen. There is also the question of his health, which is becoming a big concern. How much less would he be willing to take to come to the Bay? And then, of course, how long of a contract does he want? The first domino to fall would likely be Sergachev who could see himself dealt after next year as they would simply not be able to afford him beyond his entry-level deal. If this is the case, and acquiring Karlsson was always the plan, why wasn’t Sergachev dealt to Ottawa, to begin with? Maybe the Lighting only wanted Karlsson as a rental and know this won’t work, but hey, we can have fun with the idea.
One Way Ticket – In and Out
Lightning fans should be excited about Alex Barre-Boulet. Alex Barre-Who? The small undersized and undrafted forward dominated junior league to a title, winning MVP of the season and was signed as a free agent by Tampa. He then dominated the AHL in his rookie season leading the team in goals with 34. In addition, he finished second in points on the team and finished first amongst all rookies in points with 68. Barre-Boulet was the recipient of the Dudley Garrett Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding rookie for the 2018-19 season.
Sound familiar? He is on a similar career path of Lightning’s own Tyler Johnson and even cited that as a reason why he chose to sign with Tampa as multiple teams were extending him offers. The Lightning have given undrafted players a chance and they graduate their prospects to the show better than any other system in the league. In a cap world, where recycling rookies into the roster on entry-level deals is imperative for success, I think he will force his way into the Lightning lineup next year. That means someones has to go.
Lighting tough guy Cedric Paquette may have earned himself a nice little raise and the Lightning may not be able to afford him. I’m not sure if the Lightning bring back Adam Erne either unless he signs a one-year ‘show me’ deal for cheap. Tampa has been desperately trying to find a suitor for Ryan Callahan to relieve themselves of the last year of his $5.8M deal. I don’t think it’s impossible but he likely comes with a cost. Brisebois will have to incentivize other teams to take him with either a draft pick or prospect. My guess would be Taylor Raddysh or Boris Katchouk. The Lightning need every penny to re-sign Point, and teams know this. A team could and should take advantage of Tampa Bay here as that $5.8M for one more year is an easy pill to swallow for a rebuilding team who can snatch a prospect or pick away from them.
I don’t hate the idea of Tampa bringing back Brian Boyle. He provided a great veteran presence and proved to be effective in the playoffs, coming up big when the team needed. But again, every penny counts and the team will not overpay. I would love to see Brandon Tanev from the Jets be signed if not Boyle. Both free agents, whoever the Lightning can afford. Both would help the fourth line. Dare I say the name Brett Connolly who finally proved his worth with the Capitals? The bottom line is the Lighting need another fresh injection of youth and some gritty bottom six help.
Lighting Future Salary Outlook
If there’s one thing Julien BriseBois has learned from former GM Steve Yzerman (who stepped down as GM of the Lightning to pursue his dream job of taking over in Detroit) is that you have to plan ahead. This year its re-signing Point. Next year it’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Sergachev. The Lightning will need to plan ahead to make that work and that means moving dollars.
Regardless of planning ahead, I don’t think the Lighting can stay complacent here. After reaching the Stanely Cup Finals in 2015 and losing at the hands of the Blackhawks, the Lighting didn’t make a single roster change going into the following season. It didn’t work. After being swept in the first round, there has to be changes. I think the Lightning absolutely need to trade one of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, JT Miller or Alex Killorn. They all make within $4.4M – $5.3M with remaining years. In addition, all those deals have some form of a modified no-trade clause. The tough part here is why would any of these players accept a deal out of town on cushy deals with remaining years? Some players have modified lists and could potentially be dealt anyways. But something has to change. Someone has to bite the bullet as this team needs a bit more sandpaper as proven by this year’s playoffs. The Lightning doesn’t need a scrub fighter, they need a 200-foot player that can score, and a player who will work hard and throw his body at everyone and everything come April.
For the first team in years, it seems as though the Lightning will undergo a pretty big revamp. We will say goodbye to some longtime Bolts and see some new faces come next year and I couldn’t be happier for change. It’s time to move on and go get the prize that has eluded them for 15 years.