NHL Playoff Game Night: 4-16-19 Lightning at Blue Jackets

The day after...


Columbus Wins the Series 4-0

::deep breath::

OK, I've allowed some 20 hours to pass. The anger has slowed to a simmer. What to make of a record-tying 62-win regular season that ends in the unbelievable embarrassment of a 4-0 sweep in which the team looked, frankly, overwhelmed and uncompetitive? I've seen fans on the Twitter machine start staking out who they believe is the guilty and which individuals need to be burned at the stake, tarred and feathered, and made to walk the plank. And, I've been prodded to take sides in that exercise. Here's my verdict on all that: there's no angels in this tale of woe and heartache. None. This was a failure of the entire organization from top to bottom with seeds that go all the way back to last summer and the whimpering exit against the Washington Capitals. And because the lessons of that defeat were neglected for a full calendar year, let's be clear: there are no quick fixes or easy solutions to what's wrong with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Failing to Learn From the Past: The Failure of a Front Office
Let me also be clear: I like Julien BriseBois and his mentor, former GM Steve Yzerman. They've built a model NHL franchise when it comes to sustainable regular season success. They're not perfect, and you can have your quibbles with their early draft record and some of their decisions about the signing and re-signing of veteran talent, but their regular season exploits have been mostly bullet-proof. But, it's inarguable to me that the genesis of the tragedy was in the Lightning front office.

In the wake of the ECF defeat to the Capitals, several things became clear to anyone who watched the team. First, there was a lack of depth that was further exploited by the lightness of the Lightning forward corps. The Caps' bigger checking lines wore the Lightning down to the nub with their checking and clutching and grabbing and the Lightning had, frankly, no answer. It also became clear in that playoffs that after a half decade of getting the same postseason results with the same co-stars that included the likes of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Alex Killorn, it was pure insanity to expect to get different results with the exact same supporting cast. The Lightning were guilty of garnishing the equivalent of a $100 prime rib with excrement and wondering why nobody believed the meal was any good.

In fairness, the Lightning did address at least part of the equation this season. With the further emergence of Anthony Cirelli and the promotion of Adam Erne and Mathieu Joseph, the Lightning did have improved depth. But that middle strata of players still flat out is not capable of winning a Stanley Cup as composed. How many years does this group have to bang its head against the wall before that becomes crystal clear? The choice between standing pat and making changes offered one road that had much less resistance, but it also was the road that led to today. And, in standing pat, the Lightning have made it that much more difficult to make necessary changes this summer, if they so choose to. Between no movement clauses and seemingly immovable long-term deals, Julien BriseBois has a veritable Rubix’s Cube of problems if he tries to simultaneously lock up core pieces like Brayden Point while also changing the players around Point, I Stamkos, and Kucherov, the team's suite of 40-goal scorers.

BriseBois and company had an opportunity to make some corrections at the deadline and remedy some of the structural problems. By that point it was clear that the minor addition of a power forward here or a good depth RHD that would potentially move the likes of Dan Girardi to the press box would be excellent tweaks. Again, though, the path of least resistance was chosen and the club stood pat. It felt, in my gut, like a mistake at the time. But, it's hard to argue with the braintrust of a team on a 62-win regular season tear. The moral of the story is, maybe we should all trust our tummy a little bit more when it's telling us that something is wrong. The Lightning's lack of size was again exploited and with Anton Stralman going down to injury and the inexplicable (to me) decision to slide Mikhail Sergachev back to LHD late in the year, poor Jan Rutta became a punch line under forechecking duress.

People tell me, "two players wouldn't have made a difference." Perhaps. Then again, if the Lightning had won Game One of this series my gut also tells me the Lightning may have run the Blue Jackets straight out of this series. Either way, it's inarguable to me that the Lightning forward core, as composed, still isn't built for postseason hockey success and that the Lightning's RHD situation has remained a smoldering trash fire since the day that Dan Boyle was dealt for a box of lightbulbs, even with the incredible emergence of Erik Cernak this season.

Arrogance Behind the Bench: The Failure of the Coaching Staff
I really like Jon Cooper, too. I really do. But, honestly, one of the most prominent sets of goat horns from this playoff run needs to be sitting on his mantle. The arrogance of the approach to those first two games was absolutely incredible to me, and by the end of it there was little doubt who is the greatest head coach in Tampa Bay Lightning history. John Tortorella, not Jon Cooper. Cooper iced a lineup in Game One that included the aforementioned Jan Rutta paired up with Sergachev, a pairing which had not one but two shifts of nearly two minutes each under constant pressure in the Second Period while Columbus completely turned the tide of the series.

Why was Braydon Coburn sitting in the press box? I got the sense that Cooper did it because he took Columbus lightly and, frankly, thought he could get away with it. And, in the wake of the Game One meltdown, did Cooper learn his lesson? Did he tweak his lineup or his tactics to any great degree? No. He decided to take the path of least resistance, too, and stay the course even though every Lightning fan could see the heady mix of lethargy and fear in the eyes of Cooper's team. Same lineup in Game Two. Same results. And, by then, the die was pretty much cast. With Victor Hedman now hurt and Nikita Kucherov suspended for Game Three, the opportunity to make meaningful adjustments had passed. The team was drowning, and Cooper had no answers.

It brings me no joy to say this, but from a coldly objective standpoint the easiest major change that Julien BriseBois could make would be to give Jon Cooper his walking papers. I get that he just got a big extension and that Cooper and BriseBois are pals, but that's just money (of which Jeff Vinik has lots) and feelings (which in business many times you have to learn to have none). The Lightning are blessed to have a very good coach sitting in the AHL in the form of Benoit Groulx. Look at his record. Look at the hard nosed way he's gotten the best out of his players. Recognize that he's coached Cirelli, Joseph, and Cernak as well as future Lightning roster players like Foote and Masin.

If Julien BriseBois and the rest of the front office isn't seriously considering pulling that trigger, then they're committing management malpractice, IMO.

Fear on the Ice: The Failure of the Players
Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. The Tampa Bay Lightning were easily the most talented hockey team in the NHL. By a wide margin. All the metrics from the regular season will tell you that. So, how'd they get beat? They didn't work hard enough. Playoff hockey is a test of endurance and willpower. You will face clutching and grabbing. You will be hit, repeatedly. You will face adversity. You won't always have open ice to make pretty plays. Greasy goals are at a premium.

All of the above things were knowns for a veteran club that had done everything except raise a Stanly Cup. That's why it's so perplexing to me that the team completely failed to match Columbus' intensity level from the Second Period of Game One of the series on. They know better. Yes, they are physically undersized, which makes it more difficult for them against bigger teams in tighter quarters when they're clutching and grabbing. But we've seen this team overcome that in early rounds before. This iteration of the Lightning, once they got punched in the mouth in Game One, looked scared to do what they knew they needed to do to win. It's as if the weight of a half decade of disappointment crushed them in one moment, paralyzing them. Psychologists call it learned helplessness, and the Lightning sure looked helpless at times. They had a coach too arrogant to make the lineup and tactical changes that were needed quickly, but the players looked too scared of the moment to make even the most basic change, to their effort level, that was first and foremost needed. I don't get it. I don't get why Nikita Kucherov has been MIA in the playoffs since dominating in the First Round against the Devils last year. I don't get why Tyler Johnson looked like he was standing around waiting to catch a bus half the time instead of moving his feet and fighting through checks. And I don't get how an experienced team that should've known exactly what was happening to them and why it was happening lost its composure in such an obvious and horrific way.

Suffice it to say, the leadership culture of the team has to change. You're not going to get rid of Stamkos, Point, Kucherov, Hedman, or McDonagh, but there's a middle strata that needs one or two old hands who can command the respect and attention of the team and help them weather adversity and reorient when they're not playing their game. No one stepped up to be the Dave Andreychuk or Tim Taylor on this team. Julien BriseBois needs to scour the market to find one.

Where do We Go From Here?
First, let's be honest what the Tampa Bay Lightning have become. They're the San Jose Sharks. They're a regular season juggernaut and a postseason farce. From now until when the Lightning finally do win a Stanley Cup, that reputation has been cemented. And, it pains me to say, it's deserved. Every level of the organization needs to feel that shame and be motivated to change it and change it soon. Changing that reputation will not be easy, but an analysis of the past tells me that clearly taking the path of least resistance and staying the course is pretty much the definition of insanity. This team has been staying the course for years, and has nothing to show but egg on their faces for their deep faith in the status quo.

Julien BriseBois needs to seriously consider his coaching situation. No, I mean it. Seriously. There needs to be a grown-up conversation happening at Channelside right now about the Lightning coaching situation. You've got a really good coach in the AHL on simmer and a coach up in Tampa Bay who seems to have gotten too big for his britches. That exit interview better be lit, and if Jon Cooper can't tell the truth about what happened to himself or to this front office then a change probably does need to be made. It does no good to anyone in this organization to continue to delude themselves about who they are and what they've become.

Last, the Lightning need to completely revamp the middle strata of the team. I'm satisfied with the core forward group of this team and I'm satisfied with the d-corps even after Masin and Foote help replace the likes of Coburn, Girardi, and Rutta. But whatever witchcraft needs to happen to get players like Johnson, Palat, and Killorn out of town, it needs to be done. It needed to be done last summer. This team needs a middle-tier overhaul to make it bigger and more playoff battle-ready. Period. In doing so, I think you'll find they'll break some of the bizarre usage patterns of this current coaching staff and possibly give even greater opportunity to a new generation of players coming up from Syracuse. Because, frankly, if a breakthrough is going to come it's probably going to come in part from those guys who haven't psychologically fallen short year after year after year.

And it may take two or three years for all of the above to play out and get to a championship level. It's a bitter pill, but it does no good to refuse to look at the mountain you have to climb.