In 2004, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup, beating Jarome Iginla’s Calgary Flames in a thrilling seven game series. The following year, the National Hockey League became the first major professional sports league to cancel an entire season. After that the Bolts were never able to find that magic. Cup winning coach John Tortorella lost his job and has been seen behind the benches of the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks since then. In 2011, the Lightning went toe to toe in a tight seven game Eastern Conference Finals with the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins (Side note, that Game 7 in Boston was the tightest most evenly played hockey game I have ever seen. There were no penalties and Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson made for an epic battle of two aging heavyweights in net. If Nathan Horton doesn’t beat Roloson after getting set up by David Krejci and Andrew Ference, they might still be playing.), but took two steps backward in 2012 and 2013. This year, it looked like a great chance for the Bolts to make some noise, but it never materialized.
It started last summer, when the Bolts tried to work their way around the new collective bargaining agreement by buying out longtime captain Vincent Lecavalier, and orchestrating a trade to bring him back for less money. They wanted to keep Vinny, but not for his current salary cap hit. The NHL would have none of it, and Lecavalier ended up signing with the Philadelphia Flyers. Early in the season, Steven Stamkos, Tampa’s explosive young goal scorer, broke his leg in a game in Boston. It looked like Tampa’s strong start would be for nothing.
The Lightning did not relent after the injury to Stamkos. They got strong performances from goaltender Ben Bishop and newly appointed captain Martin St. Louis. The Bolts looked like the third best team in the East after the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins, and GM Steve Yzerman looked like a serious candidate for Executive of the Year, then the Olympic roster selection happened.
Yzerman, the longtime captain for the Detroit Red Wings, also served as the GM for Team Canada in the Vancouver and Sochi Olympic Games. Stevie Y had the task of drawing from the incredibly deep well of Canadian hockey talent and putting together the best team possible. Initially, Yzerman had Stamkos on the roster as a reserve, and Marty St. Louis left off the roster entirely. Yzerman was trying to balance what was best for Canada with what was best for the Lightning, and he needed his 38 year old captain for the playoffs. St. Louis took it personally. He wanted out of Tampa after that. As it turned out, Stamkos wasn’t ready to play when the Olympics rolled around, so Yzerman ended up adding St. Louis to Canada’s Olympic roster anyway. Canada ended up winning the Gold Medal for the second straight Olympic tournament, and they were so dominant that they would have done it with or without Marty.
The NHL trade deadline was not long after the Olympics ended, and despite taking home a Gold Medal, St. Louis still wanted out, so Yzerman dealt him to the New York Rangers in exchange for Rangers captain and impending free agent Ryan Callahan. Stamkos was just coming back as St. Louis was leaving so the Bolts never got that combination going at the same time despite playing really well for most of the season. Even though he got a good player in Callahan, who is ten years younger than St. Louis, there is no guarantee that he’ll stay in Tampa this summer. Callahan was a captain in New York and he could be a captain again if he signs with his native Buffalo. Stamkos was named the Lightning captain upon his return, and it looked like they still had a chance to do something this spring, until Ben Bishop got hurt.
With all the turnover and injury to the Bolts’ top forwards, Bishop was the brick wall in net that kept them afloat all season long. Bishop’s injury at the end of the regular season turned a favorable match up against the Montreal Canadiens into a four game early playoff exit. Everything that could have gone wrong for the Lightning went wrong.
When the Bolts celebrated the 10th anniversary of their Stanley Cup win last month, they chose to do it on the night where John Tortorella was in town as coach of the Canucks. Noticeably missing from the celebration were Lecavalier and St. Louis, who were key contributors to the 2004 team, but are now playing against each other in the entertaining first round playoff series between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. There was a time where Tampa looked like a hockey hotbed despite being located in Florida, but now Lightning fans are stuck wondering what might have been.