Lightning alternatives made it easier to let go of the past

Tampa – Celebrations and video tributes are mostly completed. Yanni Gorde came in with Seattle in November and earned a Stanley Cup ring and standing ovations at Amalie Arena. Barclay Goudreau was here in December, and Blake Coleman and Luke Sheen stopped by in January. Once Tyler Johnson debuts with Chicago in April, the Tampa Bay Scrapbook for 2021 Memories can finally be closed.

And perhaps, by then, it will be time to celebrate the players who came to replace the idols of yesteryear.

It’s pretty cool when you think about it. Seven months ago, Lightning watched six useful, and sometimes indispensable, players walk out the door due to salary cap complications. Almost overnight, Tampa Bay lost a third of its top dozen skiers by ice time. The twice defending Stanley Cup champion will never be the same again.

However, as they lead on the ice Wednesday night in their 50th game of the season, the numbers indicate that this is the same team. Or, at least, a reasonable fax.

From 49 games a year ago, they had 33 wins and 68 points. Today, they have 32 wins and 70 points. They scored 166 goals at this point last season, and they have 167 today.

How is this possible?

It’s not like they were able to throw blank checks at free agent alternatives. The players who left were barely enough to comply with Lightning’s salary cap.

However, a fringe array of prospects and lackluster superstars have helped keep the Lightning close to the top of the standings, and with just over a month left in the regular season, the trophy contenders are once again.

Corey Berry has been playing some of the most productive hockey games in years. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

It obviously helps that Lightning still has a core of Conn Smythe, Vezina and Hart Cup winners. But it’s also time to realize that it’s more than that.

Gord, Johnson, Coleman, and Goudrow lost mean lightning lost for about 60 minutes of ice time per match between the two attackers. Part of that was replaced by the return of Nikita Kucherov after his absence last season, but the bulk was made up by Corey Berry, Pierre-Edward Bellemare, Taylor Radish and Boris Kachuk and the minutes increased by Ross Colton and Matthew Joseph.

None of these players had the impact that Gord had last season, or the impact that Johnson had in his prime. Collectively, however, they merged into critical roles and assumed unspoken roles. Perry, the all-time MVP, has topped 10 goals for the first time since 2018. The average age of Bellemare, at 36, is at an all-time high in ice time. Younger players have had their moments in the spotlight.

It’s a tribute to the players, of course, but also to General Manager Julian Presboa and the player development crew. Lightning had to cut $9.5 million from last year’s salary cap just to absorb Kocherov’s return from the long-term injury list and smoothly pull it off.

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Now, is this a replica of last year’s team? of course not.

Neither the power game nor the penalty kicks are clicked at exactly the same rate. And for the incantation, there was an annoying trend of blown threads.

However, in some ways, this group is better at making their way through a game and playing smart hockey. Lightning averages more hits, blocks, and snaps, with fewer gifts per 60 minutes. They bought, as they say, the Lightning system.

None of this means that another Stanley Cup celebration is on its way. Even in the best of conditions, winning the cup is still the hardest considering the material losses of four rounds of qualifying.

And unlike last season, Lightning won’t get the extra juice of someone like Kucherov arriving in time for post-season. If there is another device to be found, it is difficult to know where it came from.

These, however, are concerns for another day. The final verdict on 2022 Lightning won’t be released until May, and if all goes well, probably in June.

But for now, we should appreciate what this group has accomplished. We must admit how a crew of low-paid benches made it easier to let go of the past.

We should be thankful that, after 50 games another season, dreams can still be stuck to Tampa Bay.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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