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Are the Lightning strong enough to keep their window open?

Tampa Bay’s potential to win a Stanley Cup depends on your view.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos works out in the weight room during testing on the first day of training camp. The Bolts hope to strengthen their chances of winning the Stanley Cup. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
Lightning center Steven Stamkos works out in the weight room during testing on the first day of training camp. The Bolts hope to strengthen their chances of winning the Stanley Cup. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Oct. 2

All the pieces are aligned with the Lightning: The league’s best goalie. The league’s best playmaker. One of the league’s top goal scorers. One of the league’s top defensemen. Plus a supporting cast worthy of its own superlatives.

Yet, when last season ended with an embarrassing sweep in the first round of the playoffs, people wondered if the Lightning were running out of chances to win the Stanley Cup.

Just how wide open is their window?

If you’re looking at their stacked roster, you might say the window is half open. If you’re looking at the missed opportunities, you might say it’s half closed.

Either way, the reality is that the Lightning are not in their final act and could have years more to win the Stanley Cup, maybe multiple times.

“A lot of people panicked about Washington for all those years,” NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire said. “I think Tampa has a far more wide-open window than Washington did when they won it (in 2018).”

Players such as Victor Hedman have also cited Washington as a team that had high expectations and ups and downs before winning. From the 2007-08 to 2016-17 seasons leading up to their Cup-winning one, the Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy three times and won their division seven times, making they playoffs all but one of those seasons. But they never got past the conference semifinals in the playoffs.

Hedman is adamant that the Lightning’s window is not closing, stressing his belief in the Lightning as a winning team.

“We’ve been close, but it’s all about taking the next step,” he said, “and there’s no place I’d rather be than being here with these guys.”

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77), center Steven Stamkos (91) and head coach Jon Cooper will be key to the team's bid to win the Stanley Cup. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

The number of missed opportunities can make it feel like time is running out.

The Lightning have been contenders since Jon Cooper’s first full season, 2013-14. When they made a somewhat unexpected run to the Stanley Cup final in 2015, the future seemed to include Cup wins. The team’s key pieces were young and in the early years of their careers.

It hasn’t worked out that way. The Lightning made it to the Eastern Conference final in 2016, missed the playoffs in 2017, lost to the Capitals in the conference final in 2018 and then won a league record-tying 62 games last season before collapsing in the playoffs against the Blue Jackets.

The Lightning this season finds itself in the odd position of being the joke and the favorite, of having Cup expectations again and also needing to prove themselves.

“Tampa is still the measuring stick for everybody,” McGuire said. “Forget what happened last spring. They just have to do it in the playoffs.”

The Lightning’s leaders are not the young bucks they were in 2015, but they still can produce at high levels. Steven Stamkos, who turns 30 in February, posted a career-high 98 points last year and had his first 40-goal season since 2014-15. Hedman, who turns 29 in December, is one year removed from winning the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman and was a finalist last season.

Then there are the younger players. Andrei Vasilevskiy, 25, is an elite goalie coming off a Vezina Trophy win. Nikita Kucherov, 26, led the league in points last season with 128, showing off skill and vision most players can only dream of possessing on his way to winning the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP.

Brayden Point, 23, scored 41 goals last season and established himself as a star center. Anthony Cirelli, 22, is one of the league’s better defensive centers. Erik Cernak, 22, came on as a strong defensive defenseman. Mikhail Sergachev, 21, is making his way to the top pairing with Hedman.

That’s a lot of pieces.

The Lightning have kept their window open by consistently adding young talent, and tweaking and shifting their core while keeping it largely intact.

“The story of this nucleus is not over,” general manager Julien BriseBois said.

Such consistently high expectations and scrutiny can take a toll on a team, but the Lightning aren’t worried about that. They have players who are used to it.

Stamkos, the first overall pick in the 2008 draft, and Hedman, the second overall pick in 2009, have been in the spotlight their whole NHL careers. Vasilevskiy played in three world junior championships. Ryan McDonagh was the center of attention as captain of a losing Rangers team.

“Some teams you worry about,” McGuire said. “I don’t worry about Tampa.”

If the Lightning has all this going for them, why haven’t they won the Cup?

For McGuire, it comes down to a tough conference. Three of the past four Cup champions have been from the Eastern Conference. Twice in that stretch, the Lightning lost in the conference final to the eventual champion.

There are good teams to compete with this year. The Maple Leafs will be very good and desperate for the Cup themselves. The Bruins and Capitals are always difficult. The Penguins are likely to bounce back after being swept in the first round last year. The Panthers are much improved.

Largely, the Lightning will control their season. All that’s left for them is to win the Cup.

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