TAMPA — This was supposed to be the season the Lightning raised a Stanley Cup banner. Instead, it feels as if it might be raising the white flag.
Goalie Ben Bishop traded Sunday. Veteran forward Brian Boyle traded Monday. Hard to imagine a postseason run without them. Don't be shocked if another big name such as Tyler Johnson or Valtteri Filppula is dealt before Wednesday's NHL trade deadline.
No one with the Lightning is going to come out and say this season is over. They can't. The pride of a hockey man says that as long as there's a pulse, there's a chance. And there's still plenty of talent and a long way between now and being officially eliminated from playoff contention.
But, let's face it, this season feels over, Monday's 5-1 win over the Senators notwithstanding.
That Stanley Cup parade is on hold. Time to think about the future. Even Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman knows it.
"Ultimately, our goal is to win the Stanley Cup, whether that is this year or next year or beyond, our goal is to do that,'' Yzerman said. "I want to make the playoffs. We're going to do everything we can to make the playoffs. But I'm going to make my decisions on what gives us the best chance of winning a Stanley Cup, whether that's now, a year from now or two years from now.''
Everything the Lightning is doing, everything it might do in the next day, is being done with the future in mind.
These moves are about clearing cap space for next season, creating room to re-sign current core players such as Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat and, someday, Nikita Kucherov. It's about making room to add the defenseman or two that everyone knows this team desperately needs.
These moves are about getting something for Bishop and Boyle — a couple of soon-to-be unrestricted free agents — before losing them for nothing. To miss the playoffs and get nothing for those two would have turned this season from bad to worse.
Yzerman must think about the future because the present, even with Bishop and Boyle, simply wasn't working out.
All season, Lightning fans have been holding on to this hope that Tampa Bay would stop hitting the snooze button and eventually wake up from a seasonlong slumber. But it just hasn't happened. It's late February and the Lightning remains miles from looking like a team that could scare anyone in the playoffs.
"It's disappointing in the fact that what we had in Tampa, our expectations for this year weren't met,'' Boyle said after his trade. "That's probably the most disappointing part of it.''
It's hard to think about how fun the two deep playoff runs were and how this season has thrown cold water on it all.
While Lightning fans might feel as if Yzerman is breaking up the band, this would be a good time to remind everyone that the band has been pretty lousy this season. It's not like this team is on pace for 100 points. If you were picking teams with the best chance of winning the Cup, the Lightning would come in about 20th place. Maybe not even that high.
The Lightning went for it this season. It pushed all its chips to the middle of the table. But as of Monday, it was holding a bunch of crummy cards. Might as well fold and get ready for the next hand. That's why more moves could be coming.
"There are long-term objectives that need to be addressed,'' Yzerman said. "If they can be done now, they will be done now.''
There's still a solid core of players here. There's no reason to believe this team can't compete for a Stanley Cup as soon as next season. But it simply couldn't continue with the status quo.
"Our roster is likely to change between now and the opening of the season next year,'' Yzerman said. "What it exactly looks like, I don't know now. But we're going to have to make some changes.''
Coach Jon Cooper and the players said all the right things Monday. They are still trying, still playing as if the playoffs are possible. That's their job.
Yzerman's job is to do what's best for the organization. That's exactly what he's doing.