When the hockey world crowned the Lightning Stanley Cup favorites in the summer, few envisioned this.
Tampa Bay is a mess, fighting for its playoff life as it reached the midseason point Saturday. General manager Steve Yzerman, dubbed the offseason winner for "keeping the band together," said he's earnestly trying to make changes to his roster before March's trade deadline.
"When a team doesn't win, that kind of thing happens," wing Alex Killorn said.
Yzerman has to do something. This underachieving team looks lost, often uninspired. It could use a shakeup. It badly needs another top-four defenseman. If the panic button hasn't already been hit at Channelside Drive, it should be soon.
But making changes is easier said than done.
"If there was something I could have done to this point that would make our team better, I would have done it," Yzerman said. "We'll keep trying."
Yzerman said this trade market is as challenging as he can remember. There's the salary cap, which has remained relatively flat the past few years, and likely will again next season. There's the looming expansion draft in June. And with so many teams within striking distance of a playoff spot, Yzerman said many GMs are uncertain what direction they want to go.
"It's been very, very quiet," Yzerman said.
Yzerman said the Lightning (19-18-4) is fortunate to still be close to a playoff spot, but even that's slipping away. Tampa Bay trails Toronto by two points for third place in the Atlantic, but the Maple Leafs have three games in hand. Saturday's loss to the Flyers dropped Tampa Bay to five out of the second wild card. The Lightning has a hard enough time winning consecutive games much less going on a run, especially with a six-game, 13-day trip looming next week.
You can't discount the injury factor. The Lightning has spent half this season without captain Steven Stamkos, who is out until March following knee surgery. Nikita Kucherov and Anton Stralman have missed time.Ben Bishop is out now. At one point, six of the 12 forwards were sidelined, forcing the Lightning to use 32 different players this season. It makes it hard to completely judge the coaching staff, including coach Jon Cooper, who appears safe while in the first year of a multi-year extension.
But that's not an excuse. Team defense has taken a big step back, from fifth in goals against last season to 22nd (2.81). The Lightning has allowed four or more goals 15 times, including Saturday. The goaltending hasn't been as good, unable to cover for some glaring issues on the blueline. Offensively, the Lightning hasn't gotten much out of its bottom-six, other than Brian Boyle (10), who has been in top-six due to injuries. The saving grace has been the power play, ranked second in the league, but the penalty kill has been bad (24th, 79.4).
What the Lightning can control is effort, urgency, pusback. And there hasn't been enough. Tampa Bay has allowed the first goal in 26 of 41 games. Killorn said there was "no fightback," not enough passion in Saturday's 4-2 loss to the Flyers. If it's not going to be there when a team is desperately battling for playoff position, when will it?
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I asked Yzerman if it's a coaching issue? Is it up to the players?
"It's all of us, we're all in this together," Yzerman said. "This just doesn't happen overnight. Unfortunately it takes time to teach, to learn and apply it. It just takes time."
Time is running out.