It’s a foreign word in the history of sports in Tampa Bay, really. Oh, there are numerous athletes that the Bay area has produced who met and had relations with the word. There are plenty of high school athletic organizations who have known the word but single teams don’t represent the region. Heck, this applies to college sports too. Many residents may claim loyalty and devotion to Florida State, the University of Florida or the University of Miami while the University of South Florida is here in the region and…. Well, the word is foreign in the most prominent sports followed by area sports enthusiasts.
While the word has been largely foreign in the Tampa Bay metro area, it has taken up residency here in the past and it’s seriously hanging out along the banks of the Garrison Channel at current. It blazes so bright that some of the fans are blinded by it and they cannot take satisfaction from it.
The word, ladies and gentlemen, is contention.
With the start of the National Hockey League training season – rookie camps are open, training camps will follow soon, and the 2018-19 NHL season will commence in October – the act that coincides the start to a season is the act of expectations, the act of optimism. Hope makes an appearance with the fans of all 31 teams (…and the Seattle metroplex, where the league may expand) while expectation both woo hope to remain and chase it away.
At 401 Channelside Drive, hope has a luxury suite.
What hope and expectation doesnt bring to the table is result. That’s why they play the game, after all. And for the Tampa Bay Lightning franchise, the results of five of the past eight seasons have brought forth contention by way of a playoff berth Of those five playoff berths, the Bolts have made it to the Eastern Conference Finals four times (2011, 2015, 2016, 2018) and the Stanley Cup Finals once (2015).
That feat, that accomplishment, is a blazing example of how contention is a foreign word in this town. Repeated, consistent play that leads to the playoffs and vying for a championship is unheard of. Oh, the Bucs and the Rays have had their contention sojourns in the past, but while business helped scuttle the Rays and the idea of repeat contention, the Buccaneers wouldn’t settle for contention alone and gave up on long-term contention for winning it all in 2003.
The Lightning? Oh, they had their first contention trip starting in 2003, won Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2004, got flummoxed by the NHL lockout in 2005, then made two more playoff appearance before tanking in 2007-08 (ownership had a hand in that as William Davidson’s life was ending and Absolute Hockey LTD fell apart during purchase negotiations during the season).
I could talk more details about the history for each franchise, but the point is that of the three top-tier professional sport teams in Tampa Bay, the Lightning are the ones who have the best shot at vying for a championship. The blueprint laid down by GM Steve Yzerman is what got them there. The leadership and guidance of head coach Jon Cooper is what has kept them oh-so-close with the exception of two seasons:
- 2013-14: His first full season as head coach, the first full NHL season of key cogs such as Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn, as well as a season mired by the exit of Martin St. Louis from the franchise.
- 2016-17: Injuries hurt, injuries hinder. Injuries were not overcome, but the Bolts were still oh-so-close to earning a wild-card spot but ultimately failed.
The latter season is the risk that looms for any NHL team in any given season and can’t be looked at as the likely culprit to curtail contention in any given season but – to put it loosely – shit happens and that will involve the actual NHL regular season play if it hinders or obstructs a club. Hell, that goes for any sport really.
It’s also getting away from the subject: The Lightning are top contenders in the NHL before the 2018-19 season starts. A Tampa Bay sport team consistently found in that position doesn’t happen (but it is)…
It comes with its caveats though. I sullied preseason hype for the Bucs offense in a post the other day. While this is hype, I’m not going to tell you it’s a guaranteed achievement in history forthcoiming by the Bolts. I’m not going to compare the likes of Andrei Vasilevskiy to Patrick Roy, Nikita Kucherov to Bobby Hull and Steven Stamkos to mark Messier. I won’t do it internally either – Khabibulin, Modin, Richards or Lecavalier? No, these guys are good enough and accomplished enough on their own. Vaulting expectations for production or ability is just filler. The games are what matter and how well the team fares against the likes of in-division foes like the Boston Bruins or the Toronto Maple Leafs is a big enough challenge ahead… Let alone performance against the Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights.
There are substantive questions to go along the Lightning’s new season: Will assistant coaching change make a positive impact? Will Slater Koekkoek rise or be replaced on the blue line? Will Adam Erne earn a place on the NHL roster and if so, who will be displaced by it? These, and so many more, are questions of substance and not sought-after hype. There aren’t as many as I’d like to actually post here, but I’m an out-of-practice hockey writer. Gimme a break, will ya?
The issue I worry about most is the blinded-by-contention mindset. Last spring, as the Bolts stumbled and then fell to the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Finals, there were too many voicing disgust on Twitter in the direction of Jon Cooper along with members of the team. Disappointment hurts but calling for everything to be blown up in the name of winning it all is asking for the end of success in the name of impatience. Destroying the development pipeline system known as Tampacuse in order to put big names on the roster is about as effective as using hot lava to iron a shirt. Oh, the object is hot enough and will do the deed but after that’s accomplished within a millisecond? You lose the shirt. Is adding Erik Karlsson really worth that? What other sought-after players come with a monumental cost that steals more than it enables?
I’ve already said my piece about going after Jon Cooper. I’ll leave it at STFU.
So, the season looms and the foreign term in Tampa Bay, contention, is rooted within the Tampa Bay Lightning franchise. Hope springs eternal… or would it be more fitting to say hope falls on the season like an autumn leaf or tumbling snowflake? The latter is more fitting for the sport; the former is more fitting by way of being in Florida.
The Lightning are contenders. If they stand with where they have gone in recent years, they will vie. If things play out well, if the team matches its abilities and if God wills it, perhaps this season ends with Gary Bettman telling Captain Steven Stamkos to come get his Stanley Cup. I’ll carry that hopeful dream until events of the season conclude.