Faceoff: Lightning rods of controversy
If you were going purely by the off-ice headlines, you could be forgiven for assuming the Lightning were a franchise in disarray. These days, it seems as if the only weeks that don't bring a new crisis in Tampa are the ones that bring an escalation of an existing one instead.
Start with the ongoing Steven Stamkos saga, which continues to drag on with little evidence of progress beyond the occasional lowball offer. With Anze Kopitar's extension with the Kings now signed and sealed, the lack of a Stamkos deal stands out even more. Until something gets done, fans will be left wondering if the Lightning might be forced to trade their superstar captain—a scenario that already played out once before in Tampa, just two years earlier, with Martin St. Louis.
But the Stamkos situation has been overshadowed this month by the drama around Jonathan Drouin, the talented 20-year-old who's yet to really break through at the NHL level. It's probably fair to go ahead and describe Drouin as an ex-Lightning now, after he walked away from the team's AHL affiliate last week in an attempt to force a trade. What remains to be seen is where he ends up, and how long general manager Steve Yzerman decides to make him wait before it happens.
In the meantime, Drouin is getting at least lukewarm support from his former teammates, including Victor Hedman, the star defenceman who'll need a new contract and big raise of his own next year (and who's represented by the same agency, though not the same agent, that handles Drouin). Between St. Louis, Stamkos/Drouin and Hedman, we may be looking at the ghost of Lightning headaches past, present and future.
So sure, it's tough times for the Lightning—right up until they take the ice. The team has been on fire lately, winning seven straight heading into the weekend and moving to within three points of the lead in the Atlantic. After a slow start that dragged on through the season's first two months, the Lightning suddenly look like the team that went to the final last year, not to mention the team that plenty of us were picking as Stanley Cup favourites.
That win streak came to an end Saturday, when the Lightning dropped a 5-2 decision to the Panthers in an entertaining game that featured plenty of action at both ends. The loss leaves the Lightning tied with the Red Wings for second place in the Atlantic, five back of Florida for the division lead. Not bad for a team that was tenth in the conference less than three weeks ago and out of the playoffs entirely.
And as for the off-ice drama, it could still all work out in the team's favor. Yzerman insists that he'll be able to extract maximum value for Drouin even while his hand is largely being forced, and given how the St. Louis situation turned out, we tend to believe him. As for Stamkos, the Lightning's recent surge probably quiets some of the trade talk that would have otherwise built toward the deadline. After all, if the sniper really is set on hitting free agency, who'd be most willing to sacrifice the future to have him aboard for a stretch drive and playoff push? Only an elite team that had the talent to take a serious run at a Stanley Cup—and right now, that description sounds a lot like the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Race to the Cup
The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
5. Florida Panthers (28-15-5, +19 true goals differential)—After losing four straight, they spent the weekend posting convincing wins over both the Hawks and Lightning to re-establish their top-tier credentials.
4. Dallas Stars (30-14-5, +28)—They dominated everywhere but the scoreboard in dropping a 3-1 decision to the Avalanche on Saturday. Still, they flip spots with the Kings for a very good reason.
3. Los Angeles Kings (30-15-3, +17)—Is that reason "So we could avoid having the exact same top five as last week?" Cannot confirm or deny.