Wouldn't you know it, I got the bad draw on Secret Santa again.
I couldn't get someone easy, like a mother-in-law or a probation officer. No, as fate would have it, I am obligated to come up with a holiday gift for the Tampa Bay Lightning. And keep it under $15.
Honestly, what do you get for a team that has nothing?
I suppose I could go practical and pay off some of its Barry Melrose debt. Or maybe a gag gift is more appropriate when your record is a joke.
Eventually, after much deliberation, I think I have figured out what the Lightning needs most. Needs more than goals. More than a power play. Even more than a good defenseman. (Okay, maybe not more than a good defenseman.)
Today I offer the Lightning perspective.
Of all the Lightning's faults this season, a lack of perspective may be the most devastating. It has been in short supply since before the start of training camp, and it has colored everything the franchise has done.
The fact is, this was not a very good team two months ago, and everyone but the Lightning seemed to know it. The owners thought they had spent their money wisely. The general manager acted as if he had built a Stanley Cup contender. The coaches seemed to feel the weight of expectation. And the players were left with no direction.
Look, it wasn't going to be anyone's fault if the Lightning struggled this season. It was the worst team in the NHL last season for a reason. The farm system had gone dry, and payroll balance was out of whack. A bigger shock would have been if the Lightning was actually a serious contender in the Southeast Division.
But by failing to recognize reality, the franchise created unreal expectations.
Four games into the season, Melrose had called out his stars. Ten games into the season, general manager Brian Lawton was talking about the importance of an upcoming road trip. Sixteen games into the season, ownership agreed Melrose needed to be fired.
And from the moment the season began, the Lightning has been trading, waiving, threatening and demoting at a frantic pace. It is trading players it just acquired and acquiring players it just waived.
And it's shocked to be in last place?
I mean, in what universe do you take the worst team in the league, change coaches, remake half the roster, cut training camp short so you can open the season in Europe, then expect a better start than 5-7-4?
I never thought I'd type these words under any circumstance, but honestly, here is what the Lightning really needs to do:
Follow the example of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Like Oren Koules and company, Stuart Sternberg bought a last-place team with limited revenues and an apathetic fan base. But unlike Koules, Sternberg did not act like he carried a miracle cure in his pocket.
Sternberg and his management team developed a plan, and they stuck with it. They stuck with it when Lou Piniella complained. They stuck with it when the Rays lost 101 games in 2006. They stuck with it when certain newspaper columnists (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) suggested they needed to be more aggressive.
Because the plan was sound, and because they resisted the urge to panic, the Rays won the American League championship in Sternberg's third season in control.
So can the Lightning pull off a similar turnaround? I don't see why not.
All it takes is a little more stability, a little more patience and a lot more direction. Management needs to stop making roster moves as if it's in a fantasy league. Coaches need to stop calling out players every few days.
They need to figure out the kind of team they want and begin working toward that goal in a realistic manner.
And let me give them a hint: They're not going to get the job done by the weekend.
I'm sure plenty of players on this roster are not going to be around when the Lightning does begin to win consistently, but that doesn't mean you need to take a cleaver to the locker room every time you lose a shootout.
Give it a little time. It's ridiculous to evaluate people every few days. I'm all for having high expectations and showing the fans you care, but there's a big difference between passion and panic.
Anyway, I know it's not much of a gift.
But you have to understand, I did have a spending limit. Plus, I didn't have much time at the mall.
And besides, you have to keep these gift things in, you know, perspective.