Less than a year ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning were surrounded by uncertainty and controversy. But thanks to great leadership, it’s blue skies for this team in 2016-17.
The last time the Tampa Bay Lightning played in the Center of the Hockey Universe™, there was a fair bit of drama surrounding them. It was late March and their star player, one of the most dynamic scorers of his generation, was on the cusp of becoming an unrestricted free agent and leaving for nothing. And their top prospect was toiling in the minors after leaving the team and demanding a trade.
The fact that the Lightning played so well despite the chaos that surrounded them is a testament to the strength of the franchise. And the fact they were able to do it and still get to the Eastern Conference final last season made them better and stronger. So when they came into Toronto Tuesday with a 4-1-0 record and all kinds of accolades following them, there was almost no drama in their wake. As we all know, Steven Stamkos decided to stay and take an eight-year deal for less money than he would have earned on the open market and the prodigal son, Jonathan Drouin, found his way back into the fold, to the point where he wants to sign an extension with the Lightning and be there for a long, long time.
“Yeah, the boring Tampa Bay Lightning,” joked Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “It’s rare.”
A team that many people expect to be at or near the top of the NHL standings this season has already made it to the top of a pretty prestigious list. ESPN The Magazine recently ranked the Lightning the No. 1 franchise among the 122 in North American professional sports in its Ultimate Standings, which it bases its rankings on fan surveys and financial analysis in terms of how it rewards its fans for the time, money and emotion they invest in the team. And of course, it all starts at the top. Seven years ago, Jeff Vinik purchased the team and the arena for less money than he spent to buy the hotel across the street from the rink. Since then, he has transformed the Lightning into the model franchise in terms of community involvement and engagement, and it has helped that the Lightning have played 43 playoff games the past two years and are one of the league’s top contenders. And in Steve Yzerman, they simply have one of the best GMs in the game, one who simply does not blink when it comes to contract negotiations.
“It was tough and I know it weighed on (Stamkos),” Cooper said. “And as much as we were sitting here saying, ‘Oh, it’s just white noise, blow it off, don’t worry about it,’ for sure it had an impact on him.”
The good thing now, though, is it’s just all about hockey for these guys. Stamkos signed, went to the World Cup and was productive and hit the ground running this season. Combine that with the fact that the Lightning has an opportunity to do something special this season and that it has a bright future and it’s a good time to be a part of this organization.
“It’s one of the top places to play in the NHL for sure, and it’s not just because of the great weather,” Stamkos said. “You look at the team we’ve been able to assemble and the guys that are willing to sign on and stay with this core bunch of guys because of the talent that we have and the runs we have made and the experience we’ve gained and we want to see that to the end. That’s pretty rare in today’s sports that guys want to stick together and whether it’s take a little less money or in Kuch’s (Nikita Kucherov) case take a bridge deal, that’s pretty special from an organizational standpoint and a player’s standpoint, to be part of a group that wants to be together.”
And nobody knows about that better than Stamkos, who was reportedly offered $10 million a year to go to Buffalo, which would have paid him $2 million more for one fewer year than the contract he signed with Tampa. Toronto was also in the mix and intrigued him, but in the end, he decided to stay where he would be most happy and have the best chance to win a championship. The questions followed him and Yzerman all last season, but to their credit, neither allowed them to affect his performance.
“There really wasn’t that much drama around here, to be honest with you,” said veteran winger Brian Boyle. “One guy might have felt it, but the rest of us didn’t.”
But almost nobody in the organization was free of it. There were questions about Cooper and his handling of players in light of Drouin’s departure and Stamkos’ unwillingness to sign early. When Cooper signed a contract extension last season, it seemed to indicate that the organization had backed their coach and drawn a line in the sand with some of the players. But it turns out they all ended up on the same page and the organization is stronger for it.
“I take some consolation in the fact that guys don’t think you stink,” Cooper said, “and if they do, they don’t say that publicly.”
Are things perfect for the Lightning? No, because they’re not for anybody. This organization is going to have to figure out what to do with goalie Ben Bishop and in addition to Drouin, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat will be restricted free agents at the end of this season. And there’s only so much cap room to go around. But the Lightning’s experience with these things and a steady hand at the rudder give you the impression they will persevere through it.
“It’s all about hockey now,” Cooper said.