GLENDALE, Ariz. — Captain Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan emerged from the subdued Lightning dressing room Saturday night wearing sharp suits.
Their presence on this six-game road trip was a bit surprising, considering both veterans are injured and not expected back soon.
But this lost Lightning team could use Stamkos and Callahan now more than ever. And we're not talking about just their play on the ice.
There's clearly a leadership void with Tampa Bay, which is in last place in the Eastern Conference. Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Coyotes, the second-worst team in the league, was the latest indictment against the Lightning. In a game it absolutely had to have, it came out flat and got stomped by an Arizona team that had lost 13 of its previous 15.
Victor Hedman said that kind of effort, which has happened all too often this season, is "inexcusable."
"Disappointing is probably not even the right word," veteran Brian Boyle said. "We've got to do a better job in (the room), I guess, especially the veteran guys. It's got to be way better from the start, maybe in preparation? Obviously, our focus wasn't where it needed to be. That's a hard one to swallow."
If, as Boyle said, the Lightning "didn't respect" the Coyotes, it could be a sign of a bigger problem. There aren't many people a last-place team should look down on. The only teams with more regulation losses than Tampa Bay are Winnipeg, Colorado and Arizona. And those three are a combined 3-0-0 against the Lightning.
Tampa Bay was a preseason Stanley Cup favorite, but it's a shell of that now, one reason general manager Steve Yzerman needs to make a move. It has the lowest points-per-game percentage in the Eastern Conference and would need 49 points in its final 34 games to reach 96, typically a bench mark for a playoff team. That's hard to imagine from a Tampa Bay team (21-22-5) that has won back-to-back games just once in the past two months and has three points in the first four games of this make-or-break trip.
Regardless of injuries, the Lightning — 11-16-4 without Stamkos since his Nov. 10 knee injury — isn't getting enough from its top players, its leaders. Coach Jon Cooper said earlier this season that some players were hesitant to speak up. And though some have stepped up, such as Boyle, it's not always about talking the talk, it's about walking the walk. Show the way. Tampa Bay's best line Saturday was Cedric Paquette, Gabriel Dumont and Michael Bournival. And that's telling.
Goalie Ben Bishop, a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, needs to play like one. He can't give up goals like the first two Saturday, even if he was screened on the second one. Tyler Johnson has too often been a nonfactor in games. Nikita Kucherov, arguably the most talented player on the team, can be too pass-happy. Even Hedman, a first-time All-Star this season, hasn't had his best year.
"It starts with us," Hedman said. "We've got to lead the way out there. Obviously, the leaders on this team have to step up and play better, and that goes with everyone, from goalies to forwards. We're all in this together."
But someone needs to take the lead. And it can't be the guys in suits.
NOTES: Wing Joel Vermin was reassigned to AHL Syracuse, a sign right wing J.T. Brown (upper body) is close to a return. Right wing Erik Condra cleared waivers but had not yet been assigned to Syracuse.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.