Adorning the walls of the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room are photographs of the team’s 2004 Stanley Cup championship postgame celebration.
Typically, the display serves a reminder of good times gone by, but on Monday in particular, it just as much provided an impetus for change.
“That’s what we want to get back to,” captain Vincent Lecavalier
With the team finishing the regular season eight points shy of qualifying for the final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference, players cleaned out their locker stalls Monday morning rather than preparing for a second consecutive first-round playoff series.
But amidst the disappointment of missing out on this year’s postseason, the unfavorable finish served as a valuable lesson for the Lightning that has the team optimistic for a strong return next season.
“It’s a good learning experience for us to build on,” wing Teddy Purcell
said. “I think this season was somewhat of a big wake-up call for us to make sure something like this never happens again. It’s frustrating, but I think all of us in this room are better because of it. Next season our goal is to come out strong and get off to a good start.”
That, especially, was something the Lightning struggled to do this past season, as a result of both injuries and a tough schedule.
Even with top defenseman Mattias Ohlund
out of the lineup, the Bolts earned a 5-1 win at Carolina on opening night, but proceeded to lose five consecutive games, including four straight on the road.
Lightning head coach Guy Boucher also admitted he thought the team’s success from the previous year, when it went all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, placed unrealistic expectations upon the team heading into the new season, as well as left a sense of entitlement among the players.
“The reality is we didn't have the same team and we had injuries to start the year, so you have to be scared a little bit of the results,” Boucher said. “I felt we were overconfident at the start of the year as a group,” he added. “We weren’t arrogant, just a little too overconfident.”
Fast forward 82 games and seven months later, and the only sense of confidence the team now has is that General Manager Steve Yzerman will bring in the right players this summer to get the Lightning back into contention.
It starts with acquiring a No. 1 goaltender, and with a total of up to six picks through the first two rounds of this summer’s upcoming NHL Draft, Yzerman has plenty of flexibility that certainly works to his benefit in executing a plan.
No matter how he decides to deal over the summer, one certainty is that he will be backed by the full faith and credit of his players.
Martin St. Louis remains optimistic about the pieces the team has in place here in Tampa Bay.
“I fully believe we can be in that battle next June because I know what Steve can bring,” forward Martin St. Louis
said. “I'm optimistic and I believe in the pieces we have here. I know he’s going to make our team better for next year.”
St. Louis, as well as Boucher, pointed to both New Jersey and Ottawa as teams to admire after each missed out on the playoffs last spring before making a return to the postseason this year.
As for the Lightning, Lecavalier added that he didn’t think the team was that far off from doing the same.
“We played hard every night and I thought we really finished strong,” the Bolts captain said. “So, I think we can take the positives out of this season and use them to our advantage to get back to the playoffs next year.”