After four seasons coming up short, the Tampa Bay Lightning are back in the Stanley Cup Final.
The last few years have featured everything from heartbreak to sheer embarrassment, but the Lightning remained on course, never overreacted, and now, here they are. Only the Dallas Stars stand in the way of them finally getting the job done.
Their long, winding road offers a lesson in regards to patience.
Back in 2014, after back-to-back years outside of the playoffs, a young Lightning squad enjoyed a breakout season, posting a 46-27-9 record. They would end up getting swept in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens, but a bright future was very evident.
The following season, the Lightning came back and ripped through the playoffs before eventually getting edged out in six games to the veteran Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final. They were on the upswing and Chicago was on the downswing, and surely the Lightning’s time would be soon.
In 2016, they went on another deep playoff run, but, this time, they got edged out in seven games in the Eastern Conference Final by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Again, a disappointing result, especially given the fact Steven Stamkos was set to hit the free-agent market that summer.
There was some suggestion that Tampa should look to get younger and avoid sliding into salary cap hell, but they opted to re-sign Stamkos to a long-term deal and they inked Victor Hedman to an extension right at the beginning of free agency.
The following season was a disaster. Stamkos missed all but 17 games due to injury and the Lightning ended up missing the playoffs. Despite the disappointment, not much changed for the Lightning. They came back into the 2017-18 season fully healthy and went on another long run, this time losing to the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Final.
In 2018-19, the Lightning really broke out, putting together one of the best regular-season performances in NHL history. They went 62-16-4, the best record in the league by a mile. But, despite that, they wound up getting swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs. It was one of the biggest upsets the league had ever seen.
But, again, nothing changed. Nobody got fired, nobody got dumped, nobody got scapegoated, they didn’t blow it up, they just remained on course. And now, here they are.
Despite all of that — the difficult Game 7 losses, the injury-riddled disappointment, the epic upset, and the missed opportunities with players on cheap, entry-level deals — the Lightning never gave up on this group. Stamkos, Hedman, Kucherov, Johnson, Palat, the core from 2015 are all still there.
As frustrating as it was, each loss, each heartbreak, each letdown garnered some meaningful experience. This is how that young, fresh-faced team that lost in 2015 became the grizzled, veteran team they are now.
Not everybody is the Chicago Blackhawks. While they’re the gold standard as the team who managed to win the Stanley Cup while Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were still on entry-level deals, not everyone has that success right off the hop.
For every Blackhawks team, there are countless other examples of teams that had to take the long route to success. The Washington Capitals, for example, looked hopeless and it seemed as though Alexander Ovechkin’s entire career would be wasted on playoff meltdowns, but they finally got the job done in 2018, Ovechkin’s 13th season in the league.
The lesson here is that coming up short is part of the process. Playoff failure is mostly inevitable and it’s part of growing. Teams like Washington and Tampa show the virtue of not overreacting and blowing things up after a disappointment.
Of course, this also doesn’t mean standing completely still and trying the exact same thing year in, year out. Since losing to Chicago, the Lightning have moved on from starting goalie Ben Bishop, they pulled off a major trade to acquire veteran defenceman Ryan McDonagh, they’ve drafted and developed well, adding guys like Brayden Points with later picks, and they filled the glaring holes that Columbus exposed, adding more grit and jam to their lineup by acquiring Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman, Zach Bogosian, and Patrick Maroon.
There’s no doubt that the Leafs have been wildly disappointing over the past few years. This year’s loss to Columbus was ugly and the back-to-back losses to Boston in the first round were frustrating. But, as the Lightning have shown, it takes time, and being patient is better than being reactionary.