Then-Lightning general manager Jay Feaster gathered in a New York hotel suite during the summer of 2005 with agents of his key players. He knew he had a daunting task.
Tampa Bay had won its first Stanley Cup in 2004, but the following season was wiped out by a lockout. A new collective bargaining agreement sparked a $39 million salary cap and scrapped all the Lightning's previous plans. Feaster had already watched star goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin leave via a four-year, $27 million deal in Chicago. Now he had to fight to keep the core together.
"I said, 'Here's our budget, here's the money I have to put in player payroll,' " Feaster said. " 'You tell me how it should be divided. You guys agree so that we can keep the group together.' We all know that's not going to happen."
That Lightning team was the first champion to see its Cup window shortened by a salary cap crunch. Tampa Bay was bounced in the first round of the playoffs each of the next two seasons, and it took a decade to return to the Stanley Cup final (2015). And that 2004 team provides a lesson, and some perspective, on how the current group needs to seize this rare opportunity. The Lightning has returned basically the same team the past three years, but next summer deals are up for several top players. And there's not enough money to go around.
"We all thought we'd have another crack, maybe two, three cracks over five years," said retired forward Brad Richards, the Conn Smythe winner for the Lightning in the 2004 playoffs. "With the salary cap, everything changed. That's happening to other teams, too. You look at Boston. (It) had a good run, and it seems like they're getting salary cap trouble. L.A. has that now. Chicago is doing it, but at least they banked some Cups, and that's probably what the Lightning is wanting to do right now.
"You don't know the window. At least if you bank (a Cup), it's worth it. It's okay when you have a banner in the ceiling."
The big blow for the '04 Cup team was losing Khabibulin. Feaster said he had picked up the team option for Khabibulin for the 2004-05 season, hoping for a chance to repeat, but the lockout nullified that, making the goalie a free agent. "Once Khabibulin left, I never got the goaltending right," Feaster said.
"(Khabibulin) was our backbone," Richards said.
The Lightning couldn't find a consistent No. 1 goalie until Ben Bishop was acquired at the 2014 trade deadline. Now Bishop, a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, could be in his final year in Tampa Bay. There's a June expansion draft looming, and Bishop, with a $5.95 million salary this year, is due to be an unrestricted free agent.
Former captain Vinny Lecavalier and Richards believe the Lightning has a chance to cash in on its core with a Cup or two. Their advice: "When you're in it, you never realize how close and what an opportunity you have, and they've made two runs in a row now," Richards said. "They've still got a young team. I don't have to preach on how big it is. But you always realize it after, and you hope that they can realize it as much as possible (that) the time is now.