The No. 1 off-season priority of Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman should be finding a top-level talent to skate with superstar Steven Stamkos on the team's first line.
There was a point this season, even when superstar Steven Stamkos was sidelined with a broken leg, that the Tampa Bay Lightning looked like legitimate contenders for the Eastern Conference championship.
Goaltender Ben Bishop was well on his way to being a leading contender for the Vezina, if not the Hart Trophy. Martin St. Louis was firmly entrenched as one of the most productive scorers in the NHL. Rookie bench boss Jon Cooper was continuing to work the magic that has made him a winner wherever he has coached.
The feeling was, when Stamkos got back, the Lightning would be as good as any team in the East.
Then the wheels came off. St. Louis demanded a trade after a falling out with general manager Steve Yzerman. Bishop was injured and unable to dress in the playoffs. Stamkos came back strong, but missed his little buddy St. Louis, who departed for New York.
Now, after such a disappointing end to a season that held so much promised, Yzerman and company must regroup and look forward.
Yzerman's No. 1 priority in the off-season should be finding a top-level talent to skate with Stamkos on the team's first line. In a league where dynamic duos are all the rage, Stamkos needs a star running mate if Tampa Bay is to get the most out of the player many consider to be the second best in the NHL behind only Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Stamkos is a special talent, but as we saw in the series against the Habs, he cannot do it all on his own. He tried and failed. Then he became frustrated. Loved his passion, but passion was simply not enough.
The fact of the matter is Yzerman was going to have to look for a new linemate for Stamkos in the next year or two anyway. St. Louis will be 39 in June and, even if he had remained in Tampa Bay, can't play forever.
Rookie Tyler Johnson is an excellent prospect who, after scoring 24 goals and 50 points in 82 games this season, was named a finalist for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Johnson is a fine fit with Stamkos, but is probably best suited as a second-liner, at least until he gains more experience. Currently he benefits more from playing with Stamkos than the other way around.
As for Stamkos, talk about a frustrating season.
The 24-year-old Toronto native was ripping it up with goals in six straight games and 14 goals and 23 points in 16 games when he broke his leg Nov. 11. That not only knocked him out of the Lightning's lineup, it also meant he had to skip the Olympic Games.
Upon returning, Stamkos had lost St. Louis yet he continued to dominate, finishing the season with 25 goals and 40 points in 35 games.
The playoffs offered one frustration after another, and it finally boiled over Tuesday night when he blew a gasket in the box after being penalized for hooking Montreal's Alexei Emelin. Stamkos bashed the glass with his gloves and yelled at the referee to, "Call the [bleeping] dive!"
He had a point. Emelin very easily could have been called for diving, and it was just one of a handful of weak calls that justifiably upset the Lightning throughout the series.
As for Stamkos, he got knocked silly when he was kneed in the head earlier in the series, was called offside on a play were replays showed he was onside, and had his stick blow up in his hands on what should have been a one-timer.
Building blocks on board
The Lightning did a very smart thing in appointing Stamkos captain of the team the second St. Louis departed for Broadway. Stamkos is the face of the organization and should be for years to come.
Moreover, the Tampa Bay Lightning could be a contending team for at least the next few seasons. Bishop seems to be the real deal in net; Victor Hedman emerged as a top-flight NHL defenceman; and Jonathan Drouin, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, looks like a kid who can step in next season and be an immediate impact scorer.
The left-winger had 29 goals and 108 points in 46 regular-season games with Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and has an astounding 11 goals and 39 points in just 12 playoff games.
Further, Ondrej Palat, 23, scored 23 goals and 59 points to finish second amongst rookies in scoring and should be a solid two-way players for years to come after joining Johnson as a Calder finalist.
This is all good news for the Lightning.
Still, finding a veteran to play with Stamkos must be Yzerman's top priority if the Lighting are to become Stanley Cup contenders.
Mike BrophyMike Brophy brings a wealth of hockey writing and broadcasting experience to CBC Sports, having covered junior hockey for 14 years before joining The Hockey News as its senior writer for 17 years starting in 1992. Most recently, the Burlington, Ont., native worked as a writer/commentator at Rogers Sportsnet and as co-host of The Power Play on SiriusXM. Mike has written four books, including My First Goal, featuring 50 players describing their first NHL goals.
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