It was a long, difficult journey up the NHL mountain for the Tampa Bay Lightning organization in 2010-11, ending just short of the peak.
After such a successful season, the next big challenge will be staying there long term and then moving a few steps forward.
“We have a good nucleus,” Lightning vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman said. “We’ve got to make good decisions to try and keep the team at this level or even get better for next year. We have a competitive group of guys and we have a very good coaching staff, so there’s a lot to feel good about.”
Teams go through what the Lightning will experience this offseason in every major sport. When success comes, individual players achieve more. When those players are up for contracts, it makes it more difficult to keep the whole team together for another run with multiple players getting raises – some quite substantial. In some ways, Yzerman’s job might be harder this off season.
Currently, the Lightning have 12 players, eight forwards and four defensemen who were in the NHL much of the season, signed. That dozen, and buyouts of Vinny Prospal and Todd Fedoruk, add up to approximately a $37 million cap hit for 2011-12. The salary cap for next season has not been officially announced, but many have estimated it will be somewhere between $62.2 and $63.5 million.
The Lightning’s restricted free-agent list includes all-star Steve Stamkos, Teddy Purcell, Mike Lundin, Matt Smaby and Blair Jones. The Lightning would have the right to match any offer sheet if these guys are not signed by July 1.
Simon Gagne, Eric Brewer, Dwayne Roloson, Mike Smith, Randy Jones, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Sean Bergenheim and Adam Hall are unrestricted free agents. Free agency begins July 1 though the Bolts have the chance to sign them before the period hits.
“We were one goal from the Stanley Cup finals,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “We have to be proud and understand that we’ve made giant leaps.
“A lot of guys are up for contracts and it’s going to be a very busy summer for [Yzerman] and Julien [BriseBois, assistant GM]. I think if you ask the majority of those guys they’re going to say ‘I’d love to stay,’ and it’ll be an honest statement. The reality is, there is an economic side to this business. Every player is looking out for the team, but also looking out for themselves and their families.”
The players understand the process.
“That's the tough part in sports, not just hockey,” captain Vincent Lecavalier said. “Sometimes there are guys who might not come back. Obviously, you want everybody back. You want all your buddies back. It doesn't always happen that way. I guess that's the tough part of the business. But I think everybody has confidence in this organization and what they're going to do.”
You've got to figure out how to spend your dollars,” Yzerman said. “But a team that got to Game 7 [of the Eastern Conference finals] is a good team. We have to figure out how to get better. It's going to be a challenge just to stay the same.” -Lightning General Manager, Steve Yzerman
One the most difficult decisions Yzerman will have is which way to go with the team’s goaltending. The Bolts have high hopes for Dustin Tokarski, who has played well in Norfolk the last two years. Cedrick Desjardins, an unrestricted free agent who played well in Norfolk and in two games with the Lightning, had shoulder surgery and may not be 100 percent by training camp.
Roloson and Smith both have said they’d like to be back and Yzerman said he is open to it.
“Since I've been down here it's been great,” Roloson said. “The organization from top to bottom, the ownership, the coaching staff, the players, it's great. So, if there's an opportunity to come back, I'd love to.”
Stamkos said he wanted to wait until the end of the season to work on his second contract.
“My focus was on this team and doing whatever I could to help them win,” said Stamkos, who had 96 goals combined the last two regular seasons. “It's something that I wish we didn't have to be talking about just yet, but it's something that obviously needs to be discussed and we have a lot of time to get things done.”
Asked if he had any concerns about it getting done, Stamkos had a one-word answer: “No.”
It is, as Yzerman said, going to be an interesting June.
The Lightning certainly won’t trade any of what happened for an easier off season. Yzerman said it was a huge plus for the younger players to go through the playoff experience.
“You can’t put a price on how good it was for them to play until the third round of the playoffs,” Yzerman said. “It makes them better.”
There are many ways you can attack putting a roster together for next season. Yzerman and his staff are working to try and chart the best course for the future, not just 2011-12.
“You've got to figure out how to spend your dollars,” Yzerman said. “But a team that got to Game 7 [of the Eastern Conference finals] is a good team. We have to figure out how to get better. It's going to be a challenge just to stay the same.”
Boucher said he is working on bringing in some new ways, new ideas, but wants to keep the same attitude and culture in the locker room he had in 2010-11.
Taking that next step forward after such leap from 25th to the Eastern Conference Finals is often a bigger obstacle.
“Sometimes, you think you need two or three pieces and then you bring them in and you’re worse because the chemistry is not good,” Boucher said. “Sometimes, you feel you don’t need to do anything and it turns out great. Sometimes, it doesn’t. There are so many things that come in to play for a team to do well.”
The players won’t rest on what they accomplished either.
“I’m sure we earned respect throughout the league and re-established ourselves as a good team,” Martin St. Louis said. “But you have to earn it every year. You take a few weeks off, but you are already focusing on being ready for training camp.”
Whoever is back, Boucher said it’s important to respect what made the team successful.
“The expectations will be there,” Lecavalier said. “But we’re ready for the new challenge.”