For the Tampa Bay Lightning, it’s going to get worse before it gets better

Welcome to post-Cup purgatory, Tampa Bay. Pull up a seat alongside Pittsburgh. Looks like Chicago left its coat on the chair, but you can toss that on the floor and get comfortable. You might be here a while.

Look, nobody should feel bad for the Lightning, who were just unceremoniously bounced in five games by their in-state rivals, the Florida Panthers, in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Lightning made three straight trips to the Stanley Cup Final from 2020-2022, winning it all the first two. Throw in an early warning salvo appearance in the 2015 Final, and Tampa Bay maximized its window as well as can be hoped for in the salary-cap era. Just like the Blackhawks did. Just like the Penguins did. Julien BriseBois, and Steve Yzerman before him, have been exactly the kind of general managers fans dream of in the hyper-conservative world of the NHL — someone willing to go for it all, year after year, at all costs.

And now it’s costing them. Just as it did Chicago. Just as it did Pittsburgh.

Win-now mode isn’t just about living in the present, it’s about sacrificing the future. And the Bolts have done a lot of that over the years, to varying degrees of success. Last year, they traded a first-, a second-, a third-, a fourth- and a fifth-round pick for Tanner Jeannot, who has scored all of eight goals in two seasons, only appearing in seven playoff games for the Bolts. In 2022, they sent two first-round picks (as well as young NHLers Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk) to Chicago for Brandon Hagel. In 2021, they gave up a second-rounder in the Marian Gaborik deal. In 2020, they gave up a first-rounder for Barclay Goodrow and another first-rounder (acquired from Vancouver in the J.T. Miller trade) for Blake Coleman.

No one complained then, and no one should complain now. Those last two deals worked out so well that Coleman has become an eponym for a brand of player — the third-line depth scorer every team craves at the deadline. Hagel is a top-line player with 56 goals over the last two seasons. Even this season, battling for little more than a wild-card spot, the Lightning went out and added Anthony Duclair and Matt Dumba. Jeannot hasn’t been what Tampa Bay hoped for, but hey, when the Lightning see someone they like, they go out and get him. You have to respect that. You have to love that.

But eventually, you have to pay for that. Florida might not have a state income tax, but the NHL has a great-outcome tax. Winning comes at a price.

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Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. (David Kirouac / USA Today)

Here’s where the Lightning stand as they mull franchise icon and team captain Steven Stamkos’ future as a 34-year-old unrestricted free agent. Predictably, given all the futures they sacrificed for the present, they have the fourth-worst prospect pool in the league, per The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler. But they’ve also tied themselves up in so many long-term contracts that they’re years away from being able to pull off a proper rebuild. They have three absolute superstars still at the top of their games in Nikita Kucherov (coming off an MVP-caliber regular season with a league-high 144 points), Brayden Point (97 goals over the last two seasons) and Victor Hedman (a darkhorse Norris Trophy candidate this year). But they have neither the depth of talent nor the cap flexibility to build another championship team around those three.

They’re far too good to tank, not good enough to truly contend. Sound familiar, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith? How about you, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang?

Tampa Bay might have the most harrowing CapFriendly page in the league. Hagel is signed through 2032. Anthony Cirelli and Erik Cernak are signed through 2031. Point is locked up through 2030, Nick Paul through 2029, Andrei Vasilevskiy through 2028, Kucherov through 2027 and Hedman through 2025.

Every one of those contracts expires when the player is 34 years old. How old is Stamkos again?

We know what happens next; we’ve seen it before. BriseBois will jam a shard of a broken hockey stick into that window, desperately trying to keep it open as long as he can. Former Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman spent years dealing away first-round picks to win three titles, but then he spent years rearranging the deck chairs to plug the holes in the lineup and maximize what little cap space he had. He traded away the likes of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Artemi Panarin for Connor Murphy and Brandon Saad in the name of cost certainty. As recently as 2021, six long years after his Blackhawks beat the Lightning in a riveting Stanley Cup Final, he was adding Seth Jones, Jake McCabe and Marc-André Fleury in a vain attempt to keep the Blackhawks relevant. It took five straight springs out of the playoff picture before new GM Kyle Davidson finally tore it all down, dealing away Kane, letting Toews walk, and nakedly tanking for Connor Bedard.

Pittsburgh is still in the clinging-to-false-hope phase. New GM Kyle Dubas came in and doubled down on the aging-but-brilliant core, adding the aging-but-brilliant Erik Karlsson to the mix. But the Penguins missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season, and are locked into that core for the foreseeable future. It might take them even longer to get out of the NHL’s mushy middle than the Blackhawks did.

Before them, the Los Angeles Kings won one playoff game in seven seasons after winning the 2012 and 2014 championships. A decade after their last title, the Kings are just now fighting their way back up the standings, one loss from a third straight first-round exit at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers.

And now here come the Lightning. Considering BriseBois has had since last July to extend Stamkos, it’s a very real possibility the GM will let his star walk, despite three straight point-a-game seasons. That would free up $8-10 million in cap space, but it also would vacate 40 goals and 80-some points a year. Yes, Tampa is Tampa. Yes, the Lightning were pretty good this season. Yes, they had the fifth-best points percentage in the league over the last six weeks of the season as Vasilevskiy regained his usual spectacular form. Yes, Tampa remains an attractive and tax-friendly destination for free agents. Yes, it would be foolish to wholly count out a team that has Vasilevskiy in goal and Kucherov and Point up front and Hedman on the back end.

But it would be just as foolish to expect the Lightning to be better next season without Stamkos — and/or whoever else they dump to get under the cap — than they were with him.

Even if BriseBois had more foresight than Bowman and Ron Hextall and Dubas did, and wanted to rip off the Band-Aid and hasten the transition to the franchise’s next era, whatever that might look like, what could he really do? The roster isn’t very malleable. He’s painted himself into a corner. With its talent and pedigree, Tampa Bay might be able to paddle against the current and avoid the coming waterfall for another year or two, but make no mistake, this is the start of an inevitable decline. One that no team can put off forever. The Lightning are stuck somewhere between mediocre and pretty good, the NHL’s version of purgatory.

Boo-hoo, the rest of the league says. And rightfully so. No team should have any pity for the Lightning, and no Lightning fan would trade one of their banners for another couple years of contention. The Lightning did it the right way — they went for it, year after year after year — and were rewarded for it. Twice. Not all teams are so fortunate.

But the bill comes due. And paying it is painful, even when it’s totally worth it.

(Top photo of the Lightning and Panthers after Game 5: Eliot J. Schechter / NHLI via Getty Images)

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