A team overlooked by many heading into the 2013-14 campaign, the Tampa Bay Lightning quickly established themselves as a top contender in the Atlantic Division, leading to a Stanley Cup playoff berth in what has become a new era of Bolts hockey since Hockey Hall-of-Famer turned vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman came to town.
The on-ice improvements did not only raise eye brows of the Tampa Bay community, but the entire NHL. In a years’ time the Lightning rose from the bottom of the league standings to third in the Eastern Conference, while breaking various franchise records and receiving NHL Award nominations along the way.
Yet the Lightning’s success did not translate in their first postseason run since 2011, as defensive struggles and netminding woes showed that they still had a few hurdles to overcome.
Still the Bolts overall momentum has continued to move forward heading into the summer, despite the club’s quick four-game series in the first round of the playoffs.
That began with the re-signing of gritty, hard-nosed veteran Ryan Callahan, who’s style of play epitomizes the type of identity the Lightning are hoping to take on.
One of the most important pieces to the offseason puzzle, making Callahan a part of the team’s future was high on Yzerman’s to-do list from the moment he was acquired by Tampa Bay at the NHL trade deadline on March 5. Yzerman, along with the rest of the organization, noted the true success of the trade from their perspective would come when the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent was inked to a long-term contract.
At the end of the season head coach Jon Cooper further expressed how having Callahan as part of his lineup for years to come was vital to the Lightning’s hopes of bringing the Stanley Cup back to the Sunshine State, but with the possibility for the 29-year-old to cash-in as a first-time unrestricted free agent, the Bolts did not know exactly what the outcome would be.
Still there was still a glimmer of hope.
When Callahan packed his bags and said his closing thoughts to the media on exit interview day he said that he truly enjoyed his time in the Bay-area and that the Bolts were a team he’d consider signing with, though in the weeks thereafter the rumors began.
Would it be the Buffalo Sabres? A team located less than an hour away from his hometown of Rochester, New York. Or the Minnesota Wild? Another team speculated to offer a big pay day.
Instead of even dipping his feet into the free agent pool after July 1, which was sure to garner a lot of interest, Callahan and the Lightning agreed to terms on a six-year deal worth nearly $35 million.
The ability to sign Callahan before free agency was an impressive feat in itself as the Lightning still had a lot to accomplish with limited cap space and there was a possibility for more money for Callahan elsewhere, yet he decided to stay.
It was also as if his signing served as a catalyst of events to come with other areas of the team’s roster that needed to be addressed.
With the changes coming it meant parting with the familiar faces of B.J. Crombeen, Teddy Purcell and Nate Thompson via trade, as well as Ryan Malone through a compliance buyout to give the Bolts more opportunity on the free agent front.
Adding defensive depth
Then just days before the draft, and with free agency slated to begin on July 1, the Vancouver Canucks Jason Garrison waived a no-movement clause to join the Bolts. With the Canucks wanting to part ways with the blue-liner, the power remained in Garrison’s hands and he disclosed a small list of teams he was willing to go to. Tampa Bay’s direction in the long-term caught his eye and eventually turned into his destination for the next four seasons.
Another defenseman, Anton Stralman, who was the first addition to the team following the July 1 trade deadline, added to the veteran leadership needed on the Lightning’s defensive corps and is expected to be a perfect complement to fellow Swede Victor Hedman.
Icing one of the youngest teams in 2013-14 by having an NHL-high eight rookies play at least 41 games (five more than the next closest team), the need of a veteran presence still remained a concern.
Callahan helped recruit forward Brian Boyle from the Rangers, while they filled the void at back-up goaltender, left by Anders Lindback signing as a free agent with the Dallas Stars, by signing free agent netminder Evgeni Nabokov. A few days later Brenden Morrow, former St. Louis Blue and captain of the Stars, became the Bolts most experienced forward with 921 career NHL regular season games and 94 Stanley Cup playoff games under his belt.
The new faces meant the Lightning could check “adding leadership” off the to-do list because with Garrison, Stralman, Boyle, Nabokov and Morrow they added 2,710 games of regular season experience and 301 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Jonathan Drouin may not have had the opportunity to join the large number of rookies that suited up for the Bolts this past season, but the sky’s the limit for him in 2014-15, as the Lightning’s development system rounds out this summer’s “new era.”
Drouin entered development camp a more calm and mature player this past July. With the opportunity there for his taking at September’s training camp and on the heels of another impressive year with the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Drouin is expected to be yet another weapon in the Bolts arsenal this season.
And don’t forget a talented group of young netminders, one of which will be manning the crease in his first North American season in Syracuse. Former first-round draft pick Andrey Vasilevskiy committed to learning the North American style of play this coming season as he joins the Lightning’s AHL affiliate, the Crunch, and he will be joined by Kristers Gudlevskis, who broke onto the scene last season with a great performance for Latvia in the Olympics.
Diligently exercising time and patience in developing a perennial Stanley Cup contender when joining the Bolts in 2010, Yzerman has begun to see a return on his investments during the Lightning’s latest campaign. With a youthful roster that brings optimism and enthusiasm just now hitting their stride, coupled with a busy offseason full of contract extensions and new additions, the expectations have only heightened in Tampa Bay. The team that many called “a surprise” in 2013-14 has its sights set on taking that next step towards the upper echelon of the League.