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 morning in particular, it just as much provided an impetus for change.
Bolts players, along with coaches and management, held interviews at the Tampa Bay Times Forum for the final time before departing the arena for the summer’s offseason.
With the club finishing the abbreviated 48-game campaign just third from the bottom of the 30-team league with 40 points, players cleaned out their locker stalls prematurely for the second consecutive year, rather than preparing for a 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 combination of a lot of things,” forward Martin St. Louis said. “The way we want to play, the way we’re asked to play, and the way we’re taught to play is something I really like. I like the guys in this room and I think the talent is there.”
So just what went wrong exactly for the Lightning?
“I don’t think we did a good job of leaving it out there and managing the game and showing desperation,” St. Louis added. “It’s hard to do when you know you’re out of the playoffs, but we need to have a good understanding coming in next year about how things are going to be and how they have to be. It starts in this room. The players are on the ice have to go and find ways. We didn’t do that this year and some of the leaders on this team definitely need to do a better job of managing that next year, and that includes myself.”
There were, however, a few positives to take out of the year.
St. Louis, for one, led the NHL in points with 60, which included a league-best 43 assists.
Steven Stamkos finished right behind his teammate in second place with 57 points, with his 29 goals coming three shy of matching Alex Ovechkin for the league title.
The Bolts duo of St. Louis and Stamkos also proved to be a big part of why Tampa Bay finished third in the league with 147 goals scored, and why the team finished the year with the NHL’s 13th best power play unit at 19.0 percent.
Tampa Bay even managed to solidify its goaltending situation late in the season with the acquisition of Ben Bishop, having him perform in tandem with Anders Lindback down the stretch and into next season.
If anything, it makes the team and its fans hopeful for next season, even if it couldn’t immediately wash the bad taste out of the players’ mouths just two days after a season-ending 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers at home.
“We’ve been in this situation before and it’s not fun,” Stamkos said. “You play this game to be in the playoffs at this time of the year and that’s what you work hard at during the summer and throughout the year to do. The organization's patience from the last couple years won't be there after next, so it’s up to us players to take the lead.”
Like St. Louis, Stamkos said that perhaps the issue wasn’t so much the talent on the ice, as it was the mental side of the game, preparedness, and other aspects off of it.
“I think consistency is needed, and maybe a little more urgency,” Stamkos said. “At the end of the day, that feeling we got for the guys who were here two years ago of getting in the playoffs and knowing anything can happen, that’s the feeling we want.”
And that, exactly, is what the Lightning are trying to get back to.
Even with a strong individual finish in both the goal scoring and points race, Stamkos said he would rather have a shot at the playoffs instead of receiving accolades for his personal accomplishments.
St. Louis agreed, saying, “you never know when you’re going to get that chance again.”
“It’s having that willingness to win, and again it’s consistency,” Stamkos added. “We have the talent here to win, but we have to be a lot better in that department. There’s no more time to talk about what ifs, and to say we need this and we need that, we know that it’s up to us in this room. Everyone has to be accountable because what we did this year wasn’t good enough.”