Elimination Eval: Tampa Bay Lightning

Next up on the Elimination Eval series comes out of the battle of Florida, the Tampa Bay Lightning. I want to start this one off with a very similar question I had for the Washington Capitals; Is this the end of an era? Arguably one of the biggest stories to come out of this season’s training camp surrounded the future of the team’s longest tenured player. With their postseason coming to a quicker than desired end, the attention will surely shift back to those conversations as the Lightning have a lot to think about going into the off-season.  

The Lightning took the hockey world by storm to kick off the new decade with back-to-back Cups in 2020 and 2021. While that in itself was and still is a remarkable achievement, there was enough reason to believe that this group was capable of at least one more to permanently etch themselves in league history as a proper dynasty. Sure enough, they came awfully close the following year (unfortunately at the expense of the Rangers) making their third consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. As fate would have it, they’d fall two wins short, losing to the Colorado Avalanche in Game 6. Having now been a first round exit the last two postseasons in a row, the question has to be asked. Is the potential for a dynasty, as well as this era of the Lightning officially over? Before we get into that, let’s break down how Round 1 played out for the Bolts. 

If you don’t particularly have any horses in the race and are just a fan of the game, this playoff series was likely one of the ones you were most excited for. The Battle of Florida has really become an intense match-up with the recent rise of the Florida Panthers and as such, there was plenty of hype regarding this series. To the point where many saw it going at least six, maybe even seven games. As such, Game 1 got off to a tight start with the score tied 1-1 after two periods of play. An early third period goal from Carter Verhaeghe regained the Florida lead which stuck through the final couple of minutes forcing Tampa to pull their goalie. While Tkachuk capitalized on the empty net, a late goal from Steven Stamkos brought the Bolts within one, keeping things interesting right until the end. 

The game changing moment of the series would come in Game 2 as the team’s were knotted up at two apiece through the final period of regulation which brought on the first overtime of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Had the Lightning been able to win that game, I probably wouldn’t be writing this article, at least not for another couple of days. Alas, it was again Carter Verhaeghe coming up with a clutch goal to give the Panthers a significant 2-0 lead in the series. If they weren’t already, I’m sure Tampa is really starting to regret letting Verhaeghe go. All hope wasn’t lost however. There wouldn’t be much travel involved but the team’s would move north a couple of hours for Game 3 in Tampa. 

This would prove to be the low point in the series as the Lightning carried a 2-1 lead through the first half of the game, but gave up a pair of Panthers goals to spark their 5-3 win in Game 3. With Florida threatening the sweep, the high point for Tampa would come in Game 4 and they’d get some help with the return of one of their top defenseman. Mikhail Sergachev hadn’t played a game for the Lightning since he was stretchered off the ice at Madison Square Garden as a hit from Alexis Lafrenière left him landing awkwardly on his leg. That put an early end to his season but the green light came at a perfect time as the Lightning were officially in win or go home mode.   

Sergachev’s return would help spark a dominant opening period from Tampa as they took a 3-0 lead into the first intermission. An assist from him in the second helped secure a massive 6-3 win, bringing the series back to Sunrise. Unfortunately for Tampa, it wouldn’t be enough as a Panthers 6-1 blowout put an end to their season and a start to some of the more fascinating questions we’ll have this summer. For starters, what exactly was this season for Tampa? I mentioned earlier how this franchise was likely storming for at least one more Cup but have the clouds parted? The biggest question moving forward for the Lightning is will they resign their long time Captain and face of the franchise, Steven Stamkos? 

It’s quite shocking that this is honestly still a question. In most cases, why wouldn’t you sign this quality of player, leader and person to an extension, allowing him to finish his career with the team he spent 16 seasons with? For whatever reason, there seems to be quite a disconnect between camps associated with the team and player and as a result, leave uncertainty for Stamkos’ future in Tampa. Going back to what happened in training camp, Stamkos did not hold back from expressing his dissatisfaction with how contract negotiations had been going up to that point. By the sounds of it, it certainly did not seem like there was much of a conversation at all regarding a potential extension back then and there hasn't been many updates on one since.

It has since been reported that there were brief conversations with Stamkos and the organization remains "hopeful" that they can get a contract extension taken care of.

Outside of Stamkos, Tampa could have several more significant holes in their lineup going into next season. They picked up Anthony Duclair and Matt Dumba at the trade deadline who will both be big losses if not brought back. On top of that, Tyler Motte, Austin Watson, Mitchell Chaffee, Calvin de Haan and Haydn Fleury are all set to be UFA’s come July 1st. Right now, this is what Tampa is looking like in terms of a projected line-up for next season:

? - Point - Kucherov

?/Hagel - Cirelli - ?/Hagel

Sheary - Paul - Eyssimont

Jeannot - Glendening - ?

Sergachev - Cernak

Hedman - Perbix

? Raddysh

Lilleberg - Crozier

You really can’t count out a team with a core of Point, Kucherov, Cirelli, Hedman and Vasilevskiy among others. However, if you let Stamkos, Duclair and Dumba go, you’re really going to be in a tough position without some help. At the moment, CapFriendly has them floating around the $10 million range in terms of projected cap space for next season. That will certainly help them fill the voids but it won’t be enough to land them a player that can bring what Stamkos brings to the table. Before anyone can really analyze what Tampa may or may not be able to do this summer, a decision has to be made with Stamkos. They have the money to keep him but won’t have room to do much else. Even if they decide to part ways, $10 million isn’t much to restock the team to a point where they enter next season on a similar level as how they entered this year’s postseason.

Something about Anthony Duclair in a Tampa Bay Lightning jersey just seemed to click and if money wasn’t a factor, I’d be willing to bet that there would be some interest there. Perhaps if the Bolts really do move on from Stamkos they’ll at least take a look at a possible extension but given the limited cap space they’ll have, I’m just not sure it’s going to work out for either party.  They need at least two players to plug into their top two forward lines. They’ll need a 4th line winger and some forward depth but you can always look to your AHL affiliate for that. Not to mention, promoting within has been an area of success for Tampa historically speaking. 

With a fully healthy group of defenseman, they’ll be alright with Mathew Dumba in theory, but that would require both Emil Martinsen Lilleberg and Maxwell Crozier to become full time NHLers. There’s a chance they can bring back expiring UFA’s like Chaffee, de Haan or Fleury on cheap deals but realistically speaking, this team will need improvements if they want a chance at getting past the first round again. Especially if they’re going to be looking to do so without Stamkos. 

In terms of prospects, the Lightning do have some exciting names in the system. Isaac Howard being one of them, could look to make an impression out of camp but is likely another year or so out from making the jump to the NHL. Niko Huhhtanen is another name that could make the jump from playing in Europe to making a case to crack the opening night roster. Jack Finley who is coming off an impressive season with the Syracuse Crunch could be the closest to the NHL and at 6”6 will definitely stand out, giving something for the coaching staff to think about come September. 

It’s going to be a fascinating summer in Tampa. The Stamkos Saga will likely be one of the biggest stories of the off-season, especially in the event he ends up moving on elsewhere. It would be near impossible with the salary cap but could you imagine if Stamkos ended up moving on and signing a 1-2 year deal with the Florida Panthers to finish out his career without leaving the state he’s called home his entire career? You have to think Tampa’s off-season starts and ends with him considering it’s going to dictate what they’re capable of doing throughout the draft and free agency. 

It’s an incredibly difficult decision but if you’re the Lightning, you just have to pay Stamkos what he wants and find cheap guys that can fill out your lineup in my opinion. We’re talking about a future hall of famer who very well could have his number up in the rafters when all is said and done. You conquered two consecutive quests for the Cup with him, why not ride it out with the core who got you there?