TAMPA — Nothing is decided, and not much is known when it comes to the fate of the 2019-20 NHL season. And on the list of societal priorities, that sounds about right.
But more than a week’s worth of hockey games have already been lost, and around here, that uncertainty has a familiar bleakness to it. Particularly for a man who has lived through the dismay of wondering what might have been.
Go back to the spring of 2005 and an NHL labor stoppage. The Lightning were the defending Stanley Cup champions but had not been back on the ice since their Game 7 victory against Calgary the previous June.
Like the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns, the realization that more and more games would be lost and a postseason was in jeopardy played out like a slow-motion, low-budget horror film for then-Lightning general manager Jay Feaster.
“You start off by hanging on any piece of information and any sort of hope or rumor that you hear,” said Feaster, who now runs the Lightning’s community hockey development program.
“You hear, ‘Well, it’s going to be X number of games in the season.’ And then, ‘Oh well, that deadline has passed. Now we can still play this many games.’ As you keep progressing, you realize you’re going to hit a point of no return, and that’s ultimately what happened.”
The crises are different, but the slow creep feels the same. It was mid February when the NHL cancelled its 2004-05 season because of a lockout, saying there was not enough time for training camp, a regular season and a postseason. Regular-season games may not be an issue this time, but the longer quarantines go on, the more time will be needed for players to reacclimate to game conditions.
The other similarity is the potential cost to the Lightning organization. Not economically, for that is being felt everywhere. The deeper cost is knowing that Stanley Cup possibilities are rare enough to be cherished, and Tampa Bay could potentially lose another opportunity.
That’s how it was for Feaster, then-coach John Tortorella and the rest of the organization in 2005. That Cup-winning Lightning team looked like it would come back practically intact (among the core group, only defenseman Jassen Cullimore had left via free agency) to defend its title in 2004-05.
“I used to pride myself in timing when contracts were going to be up, so we didn’t have any of the big three forwards (Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Brad Richards) or (defenseman) Danny Boyle coming up at the same time,” Feaster said. “Everybody had said, ‘Oh, they’ll never exercise their option on (goaltender Nikolai) Khabibulin,’ but we did. He was under contract for the 2004-05 season. But all that went out the window.”
The new labor agreement reached in 2005 changed everything for Tampa Bay. Khabibulin was now a free agent. So was St. Louis. Forward Cory Stillman went from being a restricted free agent to unrestricted. And 42-year-old forward Dave Andreychuk was months from retirement. The Lightning went from being the best team in the NHL in June 2004 to not winning another playoff series for nearly seven years.
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In a lot of ways, today’s Lightning organization feels an even greater urgency. Since 2013-14, no team has won more regular-season games than Tampa Bay. The Lightning have won more than the Capitals, Blues, Blackhawks, Kings and Penguins. And yet those teams have all won the Stanley Cup in that time, and the Lightning are still circling the ice.
If the 2020 postseason is cancelled, that does not mean the window is completely closed on the Lightning, but the opening is getting trickier to navigate. Mikhail Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli and Erik Cernak can be restricted free agents in line for raises, along with several other younger players. Kevin Shattenkirk, Jan Rutta, Pat Maroon, Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn can be unrestricted free agents.
As disappointing as the 2005 cancellation was, at least those Lightning players had seen their names inscribed on the Stanley Cup. But they also missed out on much of the glory of being a defending champion.
“We didn’t get to celebrate with our group the way you would have normally,” Feaster said. “We couldn’t even have contact with the guys. Once the lockout itself hit, they couldn’t be in the facility. We couldn’t get together and have a dinner where we could present the rings. There was no White House visit. All of those things were taken away from us. That, to me, was the worst part.
“That, and the fact that I would have loved the opportunity to go at it again, because it was such a special group.”
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Romano_TBTimes.