TAMPA — The memory from the Lightning’s last game — as they contemplated the end of their reign while watching another team celebrate claiming the Stanley Cup on their home ice — still stings 3½ months later.
On that late-June night, following a Game 6 loss to Colorado, the players were heartbroken. The champagne was flowing down the hall in the visiting locker room at Amalie Arena. The Lightning hadn’t lost the final game of an NHL season since 2019, and that disappointment essentially propelled them to greatness.
Their mission of doing something that no team had accomplished in nearly four decades, winning three straight Cups, fell two wins short of success. The goal of the salary cap is to prevent dominance, but the find-a-ways never doubted they could pull off the monumental feat.
With tears welling in their eyes, they promised they’d be back, that they weren’t done yet. And around the league, teams wait for the Lightning to stumble back to the middle of the pack.
“It was one of the saddest moments in my life,” Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev said. “It’s tough. I still think about it sometimes, what you did wrong. ... For sure, it drives you.”
The last time the Lightning lost in the postseason, following that devastating first-round sweep to Columbus, the franchise used that failure as fuel. Tampa Bay won the next two Stanley Cups.
“It sticks with you for a while,” Lightning forward Pat Maroon said. “It hurts. ... Three in a row would have been unbelievable. But the guys should be very proud and know that feeling and have that feeling in the back of their minds all year. I think, for us, that should be motivation and an inspirational thing to just kind of get us going. We know we have all the tools.”
Answering familiar questions
The Lightning return most of their core — goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, forwards Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and defenseman Victor Hedman — for at least the next two seasons. Still, other teams continue to close the gap talent-wise, and the Eastern Conference shapes up to be its most competitive from top to bottom in years.
Inside the Lightning locker room, they have heard the whispers that they’re a year older, that they have lost too many valuable players or that they are bound to run out of steam having played so much hockey the past three seasons. They answered the same questions last season when they had to rebuild their entire third line.
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“You don’t want to lose all the key pieces they lost, but I’m a believer that you’ve got to stay fresh,” NHL Network analyst Ken Daneyko said. “You’ve got to add a few other guys that haven’t been there and have that extra spark and glow in their eye and they learn from the Stamkoses, the Hedmans and the Kucherovs. They’ve been there, done that and won championships.”
“They’ve had a big taste of winning and, speaking from experience, when you win once, you want to win every year,” added Daneyko, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with New Jersey. “It doesn’t always get realized, but you’ve got a little more burning desire because you understand what it takes. So the Lightning are still a bona fide contender, no question about it.”
Daneyko also “doesn’t buy” the premise that the amount of hockey the Lightning have played will catch up with them. He played on Devils teams that won two Cups and went to three finals in a four-season span from 1999-00 to 2002-03. “I was as fresh in 2003 as I was in 2000.”
“We played a ton of hockey, the same kind of stretch, same kind of tempo, but we just had that veteran experience, guys that love to win, just like Tampa does,” he said. “They know what it takes to get there in steps. It’s easier said than done. Other teams don’t know that.
“You’re already looking ahead or you’re looking behind, you lose three in a row and you panic or you lose five in a row and it feels like you’re slipping out of it. Tampa knows how to handle all that now because of their pedigree, because of their coach, because of everything their management has done. And they understand the right pieces that they need to keep hungry enough as far as the youth exuberance and the veteran guys.”
Restructuring the roster
The team’s offseason trade of defenseman Ryan McDonagh didn’t sit well in the Lightning locker room, and it served as a wakeup call that anyone can be dealt in this business. McDonagh had a $6.75 million cap hit for the next four seasons, and because of the length of his contract, it took dealing him to be able to extend Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli and Erik Cernak.
With $80.36 million already committed to 12 players next season — and the salary cap only projected to go up $1 million to $83.5 million — the Lightning front office will have to be even more creative filling out its roster before the 2023-24 season.
The Lightning are the second-oldest team in the Eastern Conference, according to CapFriendly.com; their average age of 29.3 years old is only younger than the Capitals’ 29.9. That made it even more important for the Lightning to lock up their mid-20s young core of Sergachev, Cirelli and Cernak for the next eight seasons after this one.
“We have the makings of being a really competitive team,” Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said. “And what went into the bigger decisions in the offseason, they were mostly driven by trying to make sure we stay competitive for as long as possible.”
Other than McDonagh, one of the league’s top defenders and penalty killers, the Lightning lost clutch top-line wing Ondrej Palat through free agency, as well as dependable defenseman Jan Rutta. The Lightning reunited with forward Vladislav Namestnikov and signed free-agent defenseman Ian Cole, and will depend more on incumbent defenseman Cal Foote and newcomers Philippe Myers and Haydn Fleury.
But if there’s anyone who can maneuver a cap, it’s BriseBois. And if there’s anyone who can put his players in position to succeed, it’s Cooper and his staff, which added former Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill as an assistant to replace Derek Lalonde, hired as Detroit’s new head coach.
“This is ‘22-23 and to be honest, we’re focused on the guys who are here, not the guys that are gone,” Cooper said. “That’ll be for another time with beers and burgers talking about the good old days but we’re nowhere near there yet. We’ve got a group to work with here that we’re really really excited about. We’re looking forward, not back.”
Leaning on experience
This is a team that takes every experience, whether it’s a win or a loss, as something to learn from.
The Lightning are rarely caught off-guard twice, one of the reasons they seldom lost back-to-back games in the postseason. They trust in their process, and the two Cup rings they wear are quick reminders that it works.
Newer players to the organization, like last season’s trade-deadline acquisition, Nick Paul, learn that culture quickly.
“You have to accept it first; it is what it is,” Paul said of dealing with last season’s disappointment. “And then from there, you just kind of work on what you can do better, what you can improve on. That’s where the summer comes in, working on things that you thought you could have done better, whether it’s face-offs, whether it’s conditioning, the way you’re skating, the way you see certain plays.
“And then you have the full season to kind of work on that and build as a team, keep building chemistry, and just take it to that next step so that when we get there again, we know exactly what we want to do and how we’re going to finish it off.”
Despite the short offseason, most of the Lightning players were already practicing on their own informally two weeks before training camp began. And when the group met officially for that first practice, there wasn’t much talk about how last season ended.
“Nothing really needs to be said,” Stamkos said. “Guys are excited to be back. We’ve got to put in the work, and it just gets tougher and tougher every year. So that’s the great thing about this group. We have guys that understand that it’s a new year, and we’re not resting on what’s happened in the past.”
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