Tampa Bay Lightning
54-23-5, 113 points, 1st in the Atlantic Division
Lost in the Eastern Conference Final to WSH, 4-3
Additions: F Andy Andreoff (acquired from LA), D Cameron Gaunce
Subtractions: F Carter Ashton (signed, KHL), D Mathew Bodie (signed, KHL), G Peter Budaj (traded to LA), F Erik Condra (signed with DAL), F Alex Gallant (signed with VGK), F Chris Kunitz (signed with CHI), F Matthew Peca (signed with MTL), D Andrej Sustr (signed with ANA)
Still Unsigned: D Jamie McBain
Re-signed: F Adam Erne, D Slater Koekkoek, F Kevin Lynch, F Cedric Paquette
Offseason Analysis: The 2017-18 Tampa Bay Lightning had their best season in franchise history. Well, regular season, that is. Jon Cooper led his team from behind the bench to a 54-23-5 record (113 points) and the first seed in the Eastern Conference all the way to the 2018 Eastern Conference Final against the Washington Capitals– their former division rival in what was once the Southeast Division.
It was their first postseason meeting since 2011 and the Bolts had home ice advantage in a Game 7. What could possibly go wrong? Washington was never supposed to get past the Second Round, let alone beat the Pittsburgh Penguins en route to landing in the Eastern Conference Final– plus Alex Ovechkin was always criticized for his Game 7 play in his career– and the Lightning had all of their offensive weapons, including Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.
But Stamkos had no points in Game 7 against Washington, similar to the last five Game 7s he’s played. In six career Game 7s, Stamkos is pointless. Both literally and figuratively, if you may.
Tampa was shutout on home ice and their 2018 postseason run came to a crashing halt, one win shy of reaching their second Stanley Cup Final in three years.
For a team that’s made the Eastern Conference Final in three of the last four calendar years (2015, 2016 and 2018)– they’ve only gotten better, yet they haven’t had the results they’ve wanted (or expected) by now.
Steve Yzerman walked into the Lightning front office with Stamkos and Victor Hedman already on the roster, he left its day-to-day duties having drafted Kucherov (2011) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (2012), while signing an undrafted Tyler Johnson and acquiring Ryan Callahan, Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller over the years.
Yzerman’s seamless transition from Tampa’s face of the franchise star in Martin St. Louis to Stamkos, Kucherov and Co. was destined to win a Cup while the former face of the Detroit Red Wings superstar was at the helm of operations.
But Yzerman stepped down as General Manager, leaving the duties of cap management and roster creation to now former assistant GM Julien BriseBois earlier this month.
BriseBois’ transition to power will be peaceful, as Yzerman was sure to lock up core members of the roster in Kucherov and McDonagh to extensions beginning in the 2019-20 season this offseason.
It’d be unfair to grade BriseBois’ offseason maneuvers over the last 16 days at the same weight as the rest of the GMs in the league, but it’s worth noting– neither Yzerman nor BriseBois were able to snag Erik Karlsson in a trade with the Ottawa Senators.
Instead, the biggest prize on the trading block this offseason went to the San Jose Sharks– a team the Lightning can only face in the postseason in the Stanley Cup Final. If they make it that far.
Yzerman chose not to re-sign Chris Kunitz and Andrej Sustr, seeing the former as too old for Tampa’s core and the latter as an expendable asset that was a healthy scratch most nights. He did, however, re-sign glue guy forwards Adam Erne and Cedric Paquette, as well as defender Slater Koekkoek to one-year bridge deals.
Their successful roster is largely intact, despite trading backup goaltender Peter Budaj to the Los Angeles Kinds for forward Andy Andreoff early this summer, but as Cooper seeks to decrease Vasilevskiy’s workload, Budaj’s 3.77 goals against average and .876 save percentage in eight games last season weren’t going to cut it– even with his injuries.
Budaj’s back with the Ontario Reign (AHL) after Jack Campbell beat him out for the backup job behind Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Louis Domingue looks to improve on his 2.89 GAA and .914 SV% in 12 appearances with the Lightning last season, after going winless in seven appearances with the Arizona Coyotes (4.33 GAA, .856 SV%) before being acquired by Tampa.
Budaj’s eight appearances and Domingue’s 12 games in a Bolts uniform left Vasilevskiy to suit up for a career-high 65 games last season. He had a 2.62 GAA and a career-high .920 SV% in what was a Vezina Trophy finalist year with a 44-17-3 record.
While Vasilevskiy is one of the top-starting netminders in the league, 65 games played in the regular season, plus a maximum 28 potential games in the postseason is nearly 100 games of hockey. Multiply that by 60 minutes and, well, you get the point (hopefully).
Cooper has to rely on Domingue and his defense to reduce the minutes Vasilevskiy has to stand on his feet (or head) in order to keep his number one goaltender from getting fatigued.
Goaltending is all about finding that sweet spot– both in the rhythm of the game while making saves and in the ebbs and flows of the season-long schedule (including the possibility of a deep postseason run).
Offseason Grade: C+
So that’s it really.
Tampa didn’t create a mega-defense, because they didn’t get Karlsson. San Jose did.
They didn’t cause a disturbance in the Force with two potential No. 91s that would’ve seen John Tavares assume a new identity on the roster, because the Toronto Maple Leafs signed the biggest free agent on the market.
And that’s okay.
For Tampa, an “average” offseason meant sticking with their guys– the ones that reached the Final in 2015, almost reached it in 2016 and were brought in for the Conference Final run in 2018. Other than nailing down a backup goalie, the Bolts are ready to defend their top of the table standing in the Atlantic Division.