And the good news?
The Tampa Bay Lightning is just getting started.
“If you took the tone of the two meetings when we left last year as a 28th-place team and the direction our team was going to head, it was more of a stern message,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “This year the message was the playoffs are the norm now.
“It shouldn’t be, ‘are we going to make the playoffs this year?’ The playoffs should be our minimum standard.”
The journey to its new-found identity all began with a group of wide-eyed rookies who joined the Lightning at the conclusion of training camp. The majority, including Cooper, had been part of a championship with Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate at the time, the Norfolk Admirals, but no one, including Lightning vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman, knew if they could take it to the next level.
“We felt for the most of them after two to three years of hockey in the AHL, it was time to move them into the NHL because they weren’t going to benefit anymore in the minors,” Yzerman said.
From there, Yzerman left it in the hands of Cooper, who had just 16 games of NHL experience under his belt by the end of 2012-13, to take the reins and make something out of the Tyler Johnson’s, Ondrej Palat’s and Radko Gudas’; a long list of names that only a few outside of the Bay Area knew.
By the end of the season a number of those rookies became staples of the Lightning roster and much like his success along the way to his first coaching gig in the League, Cooper made it look effortless.
“This year was my initiation into the NHL,” Cooper said. “To be a part of it for a full year, I’m sure people look and say I handled some of the stuff well because we had 101 points.”
“Well” was an understatement, as he guided the Bolts to not only one of the top clubs in the Atlantic Division, but third in the Eastern Conference. Yet the work was not done all by Cooper and the influx of youth, as a group of established veterans put the disappointment of 2012-13 behind them and responded by playing some of the best hockey of their careers.
“It wasn’t just all these kids,” Yzerman said. “Our veterans were really rejuvenated and we were very encouraged by that.”
Of course at the time the veteran core was centered on Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, but other teammates also made major improvements to their game.
Included on that list was Victor Hedman. In his fifth year on the Bolts, the towering 23-year-old defenseman recorded his best numbers of his career with 55 points. His 13 goals crushed his previous high of five in 2011-12 and he nearly doubled his previous-best for assists with 42.
Another member of the blue line, Eric Brewer, also found his stride by logging quality minutes rather than focusing on the quantity, while newcomer Valtteri Filppula recovered from 2012-13, when he recorded his worst numbers since his first full season in the league, with 58 points, good for second on the Lightning.
The numbers may not reflect the fact that the Bolts faced an endless road of obstacles along the way: the injury of Steven Stamkos that cost him 45 games and the Winter Olympics was followed by at one point nine different injured players and the trade of captain Martin St. Louis that left everyone questioning the state of the team.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know if I can say I’ve been on a team that’s had that much adversity in one season,” Johnson said.
The series of events left the Lightning constantly facing some sort of adversity. With each hurdle that presented itself, those outside the locker room questioned if the Lightning would be able to maintain their torrid pace, but the team proved otherwise. Instead, they chose to excel.
Palat and Johnson elevated their games and found themselves among the upper echelon of rookies, finishing second and third among their fellow first-year colleagues for points, respectively. The two are now finalists for the Calder Memorial Trophy awarded to the league’s top rookie – a feat that has not been done by two members of the same team since Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks were both nominated for the award in 2008.
“Normally, you play a period of time well and then you get into a slump because it’s a long year,” Filppula said of the hump rookies must often overcome. “But I felt like they didn’t have that. They played really well the whole year and are a big reason why we got into the playoffs.”
Netminder Ben Bishop also emerged as one of the best in his class, often making the saves he should, and the ones he shouldn’t, to always keep the Lightning in games. A finalist for the Vezina Trophy, Bishop set new franchise records for wins in a season (37), save percentage (.924) and goals-against average (2.23).
As for Stamkos, the now-captain made his return in enough time to ease the pain of losing St. Louis and still managed to finish tied for first on the team for goals with 25 and lead the team in points in four playoff games (four).
“It wasn’t a typical year,” Stamkos said. “You have to go through some adverse moments to get better as a person and a player. At the end of the day, hopefully we can all learn from it. This bitterness that we feel right now, we need to use as motivation the next time around.”
Even though all the success Tampa Bay had in the face of such adversity ended quicker than anyone would have liked, it left the team optimistic about the future.
“We have the pieces,” Johnson said. “We want to make it a tradition of making it to the playoffs every year. That’s our goal and I think we’re on our way.”
“It was good for us young players to play in the playoffs,” Palat said. “The most important thing is now we’re going to have some experience for next year, the next couple years; I can see a good future.”
Looking toward next season, the roster will not feature an identical cast of characters, but the Lightning are confident that the main pieces are in place.
“Last year there were a lot more question marks,” Cooper said. “There is already a lot in place for next year. We have fewer holes to fill, so we can focus on some things more knowing we are good in those areas. We’ll have a better plan of what direction our team needs to go.”
With a year of experience and success under their belt, the Lightning look to continue to elevate their expectations, from simply making the playoffs to becoming a Stanley Cup contender not just next year, but for seasons to come.