The Tampa Bay Lightning’s season has definitely taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks. The trend is partly highlighted by where the Lightning finished in the NHL’s Super 16 update on Thursday, December 1st. Once the early-season frontrunners in the rankings, the NHL.com writers that have input into the Super 16 have made Tampa Bay the No. 9 team. That puts them three spots down from last week, a demotion that followed three recent losses heading into yesterday’s action.
But the Lightning might be due for more of a slide next Thursday as well as nothing improved with the start of December for Tampa Bay. The Lightning lost on Thursday night to the St. Louis Blues to open the month, a 5-4 result that worsened TB to 13-11-1 on the season. With Steven Stamkos injured and not expected to return until mid-February (torn right lateral meniscus), the Lightning have to be scratching their heads as to what kind of goals to set for this season. Furthermore, fans of the Lightning have to be wondering what to expect over the long run.
I think that losing your star player does more damage than just losing his contributions. When a star player goes out long term, it removes the pressure from the season. Both Edmonton and Montreal had something like that happen to them last season with the Connor McDavid and Carey Price injuries. Not only were their on-ice abilities lost, but as they went so went the weight of expectation and both teams crumbled, perhaps in part for mental reasons.
Evaluating the Lightning might be an easier if Stamkos’ injury was actually worse. That his expected return date is in February means that Stamkos’ season won’t necessarily be empty of games. If he is effective upon his return, there will be still plenty of hockey to be played in February and onward.
Furthermore, the Lightning don’t seem to be a part of an elite division this season. I’m putting the Montreal Canadiens as the easy favorites to win the Atlantic Division, but after that, I don’t see a second punch. If we assign Montreal one of the division’s playoff spots, then that still leaves two up for grabs. Between Ottawa, Boston, Tampa Bay, Florida, Detroit, Toronto, and Buffalo I don’t think there’s a single team that you can really point to with any kind of confidence as one that will take up one of those two remaining playoff spots.
I liked Florida pre-season, but the defending divisional champion Panthers had drama this week as they ditched their coach Gerard Gallant out of the blue. Neither the Detroit Red Wings, the Toronto Maple Leafs, nor the Buffalo Sabres have turned any kind of heads so far this season as they round out the bottom of the division. Boston and Ottawa currently sit second and third, but they aren’t in those positions with any kind of confidence. Nor do the two franchises have recent experience with regular season success as they both missed the playoffs last season.
The way I’m looking at Tampa Bay is that they still have Nikita Kucherov and Ben Bishop. The management might be smart to try and make some kind of affordable move just to make sure that they stay mediocre in the Stamkos-less months ahead. If they can weather the storm without him, fight for some wins and overtime losses, and stay within striking distance of third place or a wild card, then they remain legit playoff hopefuls in my mind. If they head into the post-season healthy, then they would be dangerous still.