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There’s Nothing Special About The Lightning Anymore

Andrei Vasilevskiy and Aleksander Barkov shake hands after the Panthers win
Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

If getting knocked out by the Maple Leafs at the start of last year's playoffs wasn't bad enough, Monday's loss to the Panthers was the end of the Tampa Bay Lightning as we knew them. While the Bolts had at least done well to keep scores respectably close in a five-game series where they were plainly overstretched by the depth of the reigning Eastern Conference champions, its conclusion was nothing more than a symbolic immolation of the dynasty.

The outcome all but decided with a 4-1 Florida lead in the final minutes of the third, the Lightning pulled their goalie anyway, because what else are you going to do when an entire era is about to close? But rather than prompt even a stab at the most impossible of comebacks, they had to watch as former Bolt and salary-cap casualty Carter Verhaeghe instantly deposited an empty-netter. Lightning coach Jon Cooper again opted for some 6-on-5 hopefulness, and in response Panthers grinder Niko Mikkola earned an opening for a cross-ice, series-ending, 2021-and-2022-avenging goal. There was nothing left for the Lightning to do but offer their hands in defeat.

There remained a slim possibility heading into these playoffs that Tampa could shake off an anxious regular season and groove through another playoff run with the aid of their experience, but four losses against their in-state rivals clouded the memories of past Cups and instead anchored them in their unsatisfying present—choked by the cap and restrained from acquiring the league's best incoming talent, a once-tremendous machine running on fumes.

This was a Lightning team whose best players could still be effective, as evinced by their league-leading power play, but the compounding body blows of departures like Blake Coleman and Yanni Gourde and Ryan McDonagh and Ondřej Palát and Alex Killorn put too much pressure on the big contracts to both stay healthy and do the work of several men. The Panthers, on the other hand, can spend the rest of the week flexing in large part because they're getting such incredible value from top scorers like Verhaeghe and Sam Reinhart (made more important because they have the NHL's highest-paid active goalie). As Andrei Vasilevskiy's underwhelming season and Mikhail Sergachev's injury troubles had an outsized impact on what Tampa could accomplish because reinforcements were so limited, the Panthers carried an old Lightning lesson about a roster at its peak: It's not just what you do, it's how much (or how little) you make while doing it.

What's so suspenseful about this early Tampa offseason, however, is that they're not quite as bound to austerity this time around. That's not as much of a relief as it may sound, because what cap space they'll have comes largely from Steven Stamkos's expiring contract. The 34-year-old captain, who remains an extraordinary shooter even if he's become increasingly one-dimensional, has scored 555 goals in his career, plus 50 more across 128 playoff games. While he was more of a mascot during the first Cup run, sidelined for all but three minutes, his leadership and consistency make him the most idolized player in franchise history. Cooper explicitly said to the media of Stamkos after Game 5, “He belongs here. We know it, he knows it," but he's not naive enough to believe that everything stays the same forever.

"I don’t know what’s going to happen," Cooper said. "He feels like a Bolt for life, but only he and [GM Julien BriseBois] can answer that one.”

Letting go of Stamkos would be the most gut-wrenching and transformative decision the Lightning could make. Whether it's the right move is impossible to say without knowing how the other chips fall. But what was once the NHL's model franchise now stands on the same ground as most of their peers: not good enough, and lacking an obvious solution to get better.

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