Why is it, then, that I feel a twinge of sorrow for the Lightning?
For starters, they showed an effort and resolve in defeating that was incredibly valuable. Maybe it was the understated and humble passion from their leaders, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, or their head coach, Jon Cooper, that won me over. Or maybe it was just their willingness to launch their bodies in front of pucks time and time again. They were better and more resilient champions than anyone had given them credit for, and yet, improbably, they felt like huge underdogs.
Unfortunately, the Lightning didn’t get to play the Avalanche on a perfectly equal footing of health. The Avs were so dominant this year that it’s possible even a fully healthy Lightning team would still have been steamrolled, but it would have been good to see Tampa at its best. Not only did the Lightning badly miss one of their best players, Brayden Point, for most of the playoffs, Tampa also had a number of players who were clearly hobbled by the final days of the grueling playoff tournament. The determination showed by visibly injured players like Anthony Cirelli, Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul and Nikita Kucherov was nothing short of inspiring. No matter how injured they were, they continued to grind out shifts and games, their will to win overpowering their need for health. I found myself rooting for these guys with each grimace from a slapshot that they were willing to take off an unpadded part of their legs.
Apart from admiring their will and courage, it also occurred to me that maybe the Lightning deserved to win a Cup that wasn’t imprinted with the stain of the pandemic. The Lightning’s first Cup was won in an empty arena in Edmonton during the bubble tournament, and their second was played against an Eastern Division foe that emerged from a pandemic-driven Canadian division which permitted only a smattering of fans to be in attendance during Tampa’s road games. It’s not that there is any asterisk attached to the Lightning’s Cup wins — in fact, it may have been harder to win those Cups than in a normal year, but it just seems that some of the shine on their accomplishments was diminished by the odd circumstances .
Further, while I understand the desire for parity in the NHL, I don’t mind a dynasty one bit. I grew up in a golden age of dynasties — teams like the Edmonton Oilers, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, and more recently, the New England Patriots and Golden State Warriors. There is something special about a team that dominates, that expects to play for the championship every year, and that all other teams have to dethrone. It makes for heroes, villains and the best drama. Had the Lightning captured a third championship, I think we could have started using the D word, but not now. At the very least, that distinction is on pause.
Some people hate that the Lightning’s Cup win in 2021 included their creative use of the league’s LTIR salary cap provisions to effectively field a Cup-winning roster that would have been $18 million over the regular-season salary cap. I can understand the point of view of those haters, but I can also respect that the Lightning had both the wits, and the stones, to work the system to perfection.
I guess I’m a Lightning apologist and a Lightning sympathizer. So what can we Lightning sympathizers expect going forward? Well, even though I’ve already gone out on a limb and picked the New York Rangers to win the Cup next year, I can very easily envision a scenario where the Lightning return to the dance next year to reclaim their title.
The sting of this year’s defeat will motivate them to regroup. There is so much talent, character and will in that dressing room that it would be silly to bet against them. The Lightning have most of their roster signed through next season, with three exceptions: playoff juggernaut Ondrej Palat, recent acquisition Nick Paul and steady veteran blueliner Jan Rutta. They would be over the cap if the new season started today, but Brent Seabrook, not retired on paper but done when it comes to his playing days, gives them some LTIR flexibility and it would not be surprising in the least to see one of the Lightning’s current walking wounded end up on a rehab timetable that keeps him on LTIR to start the season, giving the Bolts some additional flexibility. Interesting, keeping Palat and Paul will require more dollars than they will have available, so someone will need to be sacrificed.
I’m guessing all arrows point to 32 year-old Alex Killorn. He’s still a very effective and reliable player, even though his playoff point production would suggest otherwise. His zero goals and four assists in 23 postseason games was not what anyone expected from the 25-goal regular-season performer. He still played big minutes for the Bolts but seemed snake-bitten around the net. Killorn carries a cap hit of $4.45 million for one more year, a contract that will be much easier to move than say, Ryan McDonagh’s four more years at $6.75 million. I suspect the Lightning will prioritize the more productive playoff performer Palat, and the younger Paul, over Killorn if push comes to shove. Killorn’s contract wouldn’t be an impediment for teams around the league looking to add a solid top-nine forward for their playoff push next season. With the tax advantages, linemates and opportunity to win again that Palat and Paul have, I think they will recognize how good they have it and stay in Tampa for reasonably discounted prices that fit the Bolts’ cap structure.
Regardless of how the Lightning approach the offseason, you can assume they will have two of Palat, Paul and Killorn back in the fold. And with those pieces in place and a healthy Point, it’s practically a given that Tampa will be in the hunt again next year. If any of their prospects can — maybe this is finally the year emerge Alex Barre-Boulet makes a successful transition to the NHL — they will only be that much more dangerous.
Around the league, I think a lot of people see the Avalanche Cup victory as the end of the line for the Lightning, but I don’t think they are done just yet. There may be very well be another championship in store for the Lightning, and I won’t be sad to see it happen.
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