As the NHL playoffs commence without their presence on Wednesday, April 11, it is undeniable that this was not the season that players, or fans, of the Tampa Bay Lightning envisioned.
Last year, during Coach Guy Boucher's initial campaign, the team undoubtedly over-achieved by rising from last place and winning 2 playoff series before taking the Boston Bruins to game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. This early success, coming with a largely veteran squad, clearly piqued the excitement of hockey fans throughout Florida.
Without question, much was expected of Tampa Bay during the recently-concluded season. Even a pessimist possessed a seemingly difficult task to argue the club was not a playoff-caliber team.
Yet, with a final record of 38-36-8, the Bolts disappointingly finished tied for 10th in the Eastern Conference. Accumulating 84 total points, the Lightning deadlocked with the Winnipeg Jets in 3rd place in the Southeast Division. Both teams distantly sat 8 points behind the Ottawa Senators, who claimed the conference's final playoff seed.
Though that record may not stand out as awful, frustrated fans know that Tampa Bay was not an elite squad in 2011-12 and consistently resided outside of the Stanley Cup picture.
Sure, there were a few hot streaks when the team flirted with playoff contention. General Manager Steve Yzerman ever reversed course at the trade deadline and became a buyer, after already trading away players like Steve Downie and Pavel Kubina.
However, in a league that admits over half of its members to the post-season, even multiple solid stretches are an insufficient substitute for consistency.
The most damaging flaw of the Lightning was an inability to limit scoring. In 82 games, the Bolts surrendered an NHL-high 281 goals. This number is over 40 goals higher than any current playoff team and over 100 greater than some of the stingiest.
The Bolts' defense aged quickly, as veterans Eric Brewer and Brett Clark failed to live up to expectations. As a whole, the unit suffered from a lack of speed and physicality -- always a bad combination at the blue line.
While veteran defenseman Mattias Ohlund missed the entire season with a knee injury, the club was hampered by the longterm absence of Marc-Andre Bergeron and even 22 year-old Victor Hedman was absent at length due a concussion.
Despite these flaws, additional blame must be assigned to the lack of a quality goal-tender. Yzerman executed the decision to retain 42 year-old Dwayne Roloson and release Mike Smith, who has bitterly flourished with the Phoenix Coyotes.
Not only did "Roli the Goalie" fail to match his 2011 heroics, but his appalling 3.66 GAA and .886 save percentage actually made him the worst regular goalie in the NHL. Roloson has surely played his final game as a Bolt.
Though newly-signed Mathieu Garon fared better, and assumed the primary job during much of the season, his 2.85 GAA and .901 save percentage still ranked near the bottom of the league. Garon merely proved that he is a career backup for a reason.
On the offensive side of the ice, the Lightning were more capable. No story proved better than 22 year-old Steven Stamkos leading the entire NHL with 60 goals. As only the 20th player in history to reach that magic number, "Stammer" excitingly netted his 60th tally in the team's last contest, a 4-3 win over Winnipeg.
Despite the achievement, it stings that such an incredible effort was largely wasted in a forgettable season. Stamkos was a near unstoppable force and his presence alone kept Tampa Bay in many games.
However, it can be equally asserted that the team relied on its superstar too frequently. As production dipped from veterans Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, not enough skaters emerged to fill the scoring void.
Though Teddy Purcell and Ryan Malone each posted at least 20 goals, the scoring on the club's 3rd and 4th lines was vastly sub-par. Any efforts to improve must address scoring depth.
While substantial work needs be done in the off-season, the Tampa Bay Lightning are not necessarily in rebuilding mode. After all, apart from Stamkos and Hedman, the corps of this team is not young.
Therefore, expect the Bolts to attempt to acquire necessary pieces quickly, while leaders like St. Louis and Lecavalier can still make an impact. Perhaps some may be homegrown, since the club's minor league affiliated Norfolk Admirals have dominated the AHL. Regardless, these efforts must surely begin with a decision in net.
Coach Boucher has proven that he can help turn around a team's fortunes quickly. Although a long summer awaits, Tampa Bay fans hope such lightning can indeed strike twice.
Yahoo! Sports, NHL.com, ESPN.com.
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Jeff Briscoe is a hockey fan from Florida, who follows the Tampa Bay Lightning. He also covers Tampa Bay's ECHL minor league affiliate, the Florida Everblades, and co-hosts the Sports Train radio show.