While there were positives to draw upon in the Lightning's remarkable late-season run, the bottom line is it failed its goal of reaching the playoffs.
For a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, that's a sobering, stinging feeling that will last all summer.
"We as a team, we got humbled a little bit," general manager Steve Yzerman said.
As the Lightning heads into a longer-than-expected offseason, the message delivered to players was to not take anything for granted. Even their jobs. Yzerman said there will be roster spots available going into next year, with needs filled internally, through trade or free agency.
"We took a step back here this year and we will explore all different, every way we possibly can to improve our team," Yzerman said.
There's not as much uncertainty as last summer, when the whole hockey world didn't know if star center Steven Stamkos would re-sign. But there are three key restricted free agents — Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson — and about $18 million in cap space. Yzerman said he expects to be able to sign all three.
But there will be at least one player lost to Vegas in the June 18-20 expansion draft, with the Lightning's protected list telling on what it views as its core. And with Yzerman saying the biggest problem this season was allowing too many quality scoring chances, expect Tampa Bay to continue its years-long search for a top-four defenseman, most likely through trade.
The long summer will help the likes of Stamkos, Johnson and Ryan Callahan get healthy.
But coach Jon Cooper said the team must take advantage of this time to rest, refocus and re-dedicate to making sure this doesn't happen again.
"This wasn't good enough, that has to change," Cooper said. "We've set a standard here that is extremely high. And I guess this, to me, was our mulligan."
Here are some key offseason questions and decisions:
Can the Lightning keep its core?
Yzerman said he expects he'll be able to re-sign RFAs Johnson, Palat and Drouin. It be interesting to see how he does so with about $18 million in cap space, while also adding a backup goalie (potentially Peter Budaj) and filling out the bottom six. Johnson and Palat just finished three-year bridge deals at $3.3 million and are likely to seek long-term deals. Drouin, coming off a breakout 21-goal season, will receive a significant bump from his $894,000. That one will likely be the toughest negotiation. All three expressed interest in returning. "The restricted free agents, we do have some control over the situation," Yzerman said. "It just comes down to do you end up in arbitration or are you able to work out a long-term deal."
Who will be protected in the expansion draft?
The Lightning will lose one player to Vegas in the June 17 expansion draft. Deciding on which seven forwards and three defensemen to protect will be tough, especially on the blueline. You'd think the forwards would be Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Callahan (unless he'll waive his no-move clause for purpose of expansion), Drouin, Johnson, Palat and Killorn (or Vladislov Namestnikov); Brayden Point, a first-year pro, doesn't need to be protected. On defense, you'd protect Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and either Braydon Coburn, Jake Dotchin, Slater Koekkoek or Jason Garrison; my bet would be Dotchin, who spent the second half on the top pair with Hedman. Or Tampa Bay could work out a pre-draft deal so Vegas doesn't pluck a certain player. Vegas had reps at a lot of Tampa Bay games down the stretch.
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Can the Lightning acquire a top-four defenseman?
The Lightning reportedly tried to acquire Kevin Shattenkirk from the Blues in January, nixed by the pending unrestricted free agent, who likely wants to see what else is out there this summer. Expect some conversations between Tampa Bay and other teams to heat up around the draft. Maybe the Lightning can pry Ryan Ellis from Nashville, or one of the young Ducks right-shot defensemen. But to get an asset like that, Tampa Bay would have to pay a hefty price.
Will there be a coaching change?
Of course not. There shouldn't be. Yes, the Lightning did underachieve, as Yzerman put it. It missed the playoffs. But Yzerman praised how Cooper and his staff creatively managed using 37 different players in the lineup. Plus they spent most of the season without one of Tampa Bay's top players in Stamkos. The team didn't fold down the stretch, going 19-6-5 in the final 30 games. "We all learned a lot coming in," Yzerman said. "For Coop and his staff, we'll be in these situations again, injuries, slumps and all that. I know we're extremely disappointed we didn't make the playoffs, but our players, coaching staff, did everything they could."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTImes_JSmith.