Here’s a sentence we never thought we’d write in February:
The Tampa Bay Lightning are a long shot to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and must adjust their trade deadline approach accordingly.
Exiting the all-star break the same way it entered (with a one-goal loss), Tampa has dropped four of its past five, including a 5-3 defeat to the basement-dwelling Arizona Coyotes. So consistent is the club’s inconsistency in 2016-17 that it has a scant 6.1 per cent chance of making the post-season, according to Sports Club Stats.
“You’ve got to switch to playoff mode right away. Play every game like your playoff life’s on the line. That’s what it is for us,” says No. 1 defenceman Victor Hedman. “That’s our mindset for the rest of the year.”
Flash back to October: Eight prognosticators on Sportsnet’s esteemed 17-member committee picked the Bolts to not only make the playoffs but lift the Stanley Cup this June. With six points and six teams standing between the Lightning and a post-season berth, that panel (present company included) is looking more Blue Ribbon than blue ribbon.
Excuses are plain if Tampa wants to use them.
An incredible 12 Lightning players were selected to their countries’ World Cup rosters, chopping an off-season already shortened by a trip to the 2016 Eastern Conference final.
Ben Bishop — so often referred to as the team’s MVP by coach Jon Cooper during Tampa’s impressive 2015 and 2016 runs — has been just OK. Ditto Andrei Vasilevskiy, the younger and more contractually obligated of the goaltending duo. And the blue line’s holes have been evident.
Despite being a decent possession group (51 per cent, five-on-five) and a middle-of-the pack team in shots allowed, Tampa’s 2.9 goals allowed ranks 23rd league-wide and its combined save percentage of .904 ranks 21st. The offence and power play are fine but the penalty kill (also 21st) hasn’t been good enough.
They’re not healthy enough, either. Bishop went down for a spell. Ryan Callahan has played just 18 games, and Steven Stamkos — off to a hot start with 20 points through 17 games — has been out with a knee injury since Nov. 16. There’s still no date for the captain’s return.
ManGamesLost.com calculates the impact of sidelined players on a team’s record. Only five clubs have been hurt more by key injuries than Tampa, and only one of those (Montreal) has managed to hang on to a playoff spot through their health issues.
Hedman says Stamkos’s spirits remain strong in rehab. He’s not around the club daily but is as much as possible, trying to feed off the camaraderie.
“It obviously sucks seeing a player and friend go through what he’s gone through. He’s been through tough battles the last few years, but he’s been an amazing pro. He’s our leader still,” Hedman explains. “He’s done such a great job being around the guys, keeping his spirits up and working hard to get back. He’s an unreal person.”
General manager Steve Yzerman, so lauded for his productive off-season, has said he has no interest in mortgaging the future to scrape into the playoffs with rentals.
It pains Yzerman to lose. He wants another defenceman but who doesn’t?
With, say, a month of Stamkos coming down the stretch, Tampa has rally potential, especially in a flat Atlantic Division where it’s Montreal and the rest. That and the Lightning’s plethora of core players on expiring contracts make them the most interesting team to watch on March 1.
The GM has a handful of forward spots to fill for next season, and top-sixers Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Drouin, and Ondrej Palat are all due raises. Yzerman got Nikita Kucherov to sign last-minute for a $4.77-million cap hit in the fall but keeping the next trio at such reasonable costs will be next to impossible, especially if the salary cap remains stagnant as expected.
If Tampa isn’t knocking on the door in a few weeks, the GM needs to know whom he’s likely to lose. Toss in four must-protect expansion draft exemptions — Hedman, Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula, and Callahan (who hasn’t been asked to waive his no-move clause and go unexposed) — and things get even more complicated.
“We have our core and I want to add to that core,” Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith a couple weeks ago. “Over time, your core has to change. That’s the reality. You can’t afford to keep everybody. They age, they mature. Are players untouchable? Yes. Because I want to build around the core.
“But at some point, to address needs, if there’s something really good out there, you’re probably going to have to give up something really good in order to do that.”
Dealing a player like Johnson, Drouin, or Alex Killorn — all skilled twentysomethings without trade protection — is an option if Yzerman decides to go the bold-move route, but we see Tampa waiting until the last minute.
If the Lightning’s playoff chances remain at six per cent on March 1, the asking price for Bishop drops and Brian Boyle, too, could be rented.
Despite the brave face and good faith, at that point it’ll be best to admit this just wasn’t Tampa’s year.
“We’ve got to make sure frustration doesn’t set in,” Hedman says. “I have all the trust in the world in our team. We know what it’s going to take to get out of this. Obviously, we’ve got to show that on the ice.”