Monday, September 28, 2020

Eight times it almost went bad for the inevitable Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning are one win away from a Stanley Cup. And in a way, it feels like this was always inevitable. The Lightning have been the best team in the league, or close to it, for a big chunk of the last decade. They went to the final in 2015 with a young roster of developing stars, and ever since then you’ve been waiting for the season where it would all come together. That’s finally happened, just like we all knew it would.

Almost. They’re still one win away. And that means it could still go bad.

If that’s not a pleasant feeling for Lightning fans, it’s hardly a new one. This team has had more than a few moments in their recent history where things could have fallen apart. A bad result here, or a bad decision there, and the story could have been very different.

That’s the thing about those inevitable championships. When you actually look back at the path it took to get there, they start to not feel so inevitable after all.

So today, while we wait to see if Tampa Bay can close it out, let’s head back to the 2013 offseason. The Lightning have just finished their third season under Steve Yzerman, and it’s been a bad one. They finished 28th overall, missing the playoffs for the second straight year. But some pieces are already in place. A fresh-faced Jon Cooper has taken over as coach, Ben Bishop has been acquired at the trade deadline, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman are just entering their prime, and Nikita Kucherov is ready for the NHL after lighting it up in an AHL audition.

In hindsight, the ascent of the Lightning already feels preordained. But was it? Let’s look back at eight times it could have gone bad – and which current teams might be able to learn from it.

2014: Martin St. Louis wants out

The situation: As bad as those 2012-13 Lightning had been, St. Louis still led the league in scoring to capture his second Art Ross. After 13 seasons in Tampa, he was probably the most popular player in franchise history. But in a surprise, he was left off of Team Canada’s roster for the Olympics, a decision that Lightning GM Yzerman was in charge of. The decision created a rift that couldn’t be healed, and St. Louis made it clear that he wanted out.

How it could have gone: The Lightning could have held their ground and kept an unhappy star. Yzerman could have insisted that St. Louis relinquish his no-trade clause to facilitate the best possible trade. Or the whole thing could have turned even uglier than it was, poisoning a young team’s room.

What happened instead: Yzerman traded St. Louis to the only team he wanted to go to, sending him to Rangers for Ryan Callahan and draft picks. It wasn’t a bad trade, but it certainly wasn’t the kind of haul you might expect for a reigning Art Ross winner. Still, Yzerman got the deal done and the Lightning turned the page.

Who could learn from it: The Golden Knights, who have their own beloved franchise icon who might be on the way out after a rift with management. The Marc-Andre Fleury situation isn’t exactly the same – he’s feuding with the coach instead of the GM, and he insists he doesn’t necessarily want out. But there are some parallels, and it may be in the Knights best interest to follow the Lightning model: Find an amicable exit, accept whatever you can get in return, and let everyone move on to the next chapter.

2014: The early exit

The situation: The 2013-14 Lightning have been a pleasant surprise, overcoming the St. Louis story and an injury to Stamkos and making the playoffs for the first time in three years, earning a winnable matchup against the Canadiens. But the offense went cold and Bishop was hurt, and that added up to an early exit in the form of a four-game sweep.

How it could have gone: The disappointing showing could have led to the team taking a step back the following year. Worse, management could have overreacted to one series, deciding that a rebuilding team may not have as much cause for optimism as it seemed.

What happened instead: The Lightning shrugged off the loss and stayed the course, and a year later they were playing for the Stanley Cup.

Who could learn from it: The Rangers, a young team that made a surprising postseason appearance (albeit under vastly different circumstances) only to be quickly swept aside with a key goaltender sidelined. Disappointing, sure, but no need to panic.

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