TAMPA — After the Lightning sent their first-round playoff series with the Maple Leafs back to Tampa with a Game 5 win Thursday in Toronto, defenseman Victor Hedman explained the moxie the battle-tested group showed while facing elimination.
“When you have a team like this,” he said, “you don’t want to let the opportunity slide.”
But now, after falling to the Maple Leafs in six games — with three losses coming in overtime at home, two after blowing third-period leads — it’s safe to say the Lightning will look back on their missed opportunities in the series.
They had become used to not staring the offseason in the face before May 1, and it leaves several questions about their future. Exit interviews this week will begin to reveal some answers, but why wait?
Here are five burning questions following the season-ending loss Saturday in Game 6.
After three straight runs to the Stanley Cup final, the Lightning finally felt how small the difference in talent is among teams in the Eastern Conference. After beating the Maple Leafs in the opening round last season, then sweeping the Panthers before rallying to beat the Rangers in the conference final, coach Jon Cooper said that any of those three teams could have won the Cup. This year, the Lightning played a better series against the Maple Leafs but lost. Ultimately, the difference was the three overtime losses at home. Also, the Lightning didn’t benefit from some of the puck luck they had the past three postseasons. But ultimately, a team that made its mark with its ability to close out opponents failed to do so. Add to that that Toronto was better and more composed than it was last season, embracing the pressure of the moment, something the Lightning had done so well during their run to two straight Cup wins and the three straight Cup finals. It would have helped them to get more offensive production from their star players — Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov didn’t have a 5-on-5 goal in the series — and a better start to the series from Andrei Vasilevskiy and the defense in front of him, but the Lightning had enough opportunities to win the series.
Is the Lightning’s window closing?
There were worries about the Lightning’s defense entering the postseason. Still, despite losing the series, the Lightning played some of their best hockey in their end in the last two games, allowing just three regulation goals over Games 5 and 6. We know they can still play winning hockey, and one can only wonder about the impact a healthy Erik Cernak would have made defending the net and being physical over the final five games. Instead, he never played again after taking a hit to the head in Game 1. Still, there’s no doubt that the Lightning’s conference opponents have closed the gap. The older the Lightning get and the more their core group is disassembled, the more they lose their championship identity. But as long as they have Vasilevskiy, Kucherov, Point, Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev, they have a chance to go deep in the postseason.
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Who will be this offseason’s cap casualties?
Forward Alex Killorn tops the list of players who can be unrestricted free agents in the offseason. Unless he is willing to take a sizable cut from his $4.45 million salary, it will be difficult to keep him in a Tampa Bay uniform. His situation seems a lot like that of forward Ondrej Palat last offseason: a lifelong Lightning player the organization would like to keep but likely can’t afford to. Even at 33, Killorn would get interest in the open market because he has become more productive with age, coming off a career-high 27 goals and his third 25-goal season in the last four. Like Palat, he probably also raised his stock with his postseason performance. The Lightning might have had Killorn’s potential exit in mind when they paid a hefty price for Tanner Jeannot at the trade deadline. While Jeannot could fill a top-six power-forward role, it would be difficult for him to duplicate Killorn’s offensive production, special-teams contributions and winning pedigree. Also, like was done to defenseman Ryan McDonagh last offseason, could there be a big contract the team might look to move?
What will the roster turnover look like?
In addition to Killorn, forwards Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Mikey Eyssimont; defenseman Ian Cole; and backup goaltender Brian Elliott can be unrestricted free agents. No matter how those situations play out, the Lightning have a lot of work to do to fill out their roster, especially among their bottom-six forwards. Bellemare is 38, and Perry turns 38 this month. It’s unclear if they remain in the Lightning’s plans despite both coming off bargain $1 million cap-hit deals. The Lightning might want to use the opportunity to rebuild their bottom lines and give some of their prospects chances (Gage Goncalves and Simon Ryfors had strong years with AHL Syracuse, and Alex Barre-Boulet continued to dominate in the AHL) rather than stick with older veterans. Bellemare and Perry have brought huge leadership intangibles that would be difficult to replace. Cole, 34, wants to come back, but it’s unclear whether he still fits. Elliott’s free agency offers the organization the opportunity to see if goalie prospect Hugo Alnefelt can be an NHL contributor, but the Lightning seem to prefer experienced backups. Eyssimont, 26, can be an unrestricted free agent because of his limited NHL game experience, but he’d be cheap to keep and the Lightning can negotiate with him until July 1.
What are the other offseason priorities?
Forwards Jeannot and Ross Colton can be arbitration-eligible restricted free agents and will receive qualifying offers to have their rights retained. Not counting those two players, the Lightning enter the offseason with just 15 players under contract and are less than $10 million under the $83.5 million cap for next season as the eight-year extensions for Sergachev, Cirelli and Cernak kick in. In recent years, the Lightning were able to get older veterans on club-friendly deals because of their success in the playoffs. It will be interesting to see if that changes following this season’s early exit. One thing that looms large: Next season is the final year of Stamkos’ eight-year contract with an $8.5 million annual cap hit. It would be hard to think of the Lightning captain, 33, wearing another uniform, and he has been loyal to the organization. Who knows how long he wants to continue to play. His future will be a talking point in the offseason.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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