TAMPA - From the first morning cup of coffee to the afternoon pizza and sandwiches, Lightning players trickled through the hallways and locker room Monday, with many of them clean-shaven a day after being eliminated from the playoffs.
One by one, they all made their way into the offices of Tampa Bay general manager Jay Feaster and Coach John Tortorella to say their goodbyes for the season, or in the case of some, for good.
On a day Tampa Bay expected to be traveling to New Jersey for a Game 7, the team once again had to deal with failed expectations after being beaten in six games in the first round of the playoffs. The loss to the Devils marked the second consecutive year in which the Lightning's season ended in the opening round.
For a team that was near the top of the league with a payroll that brushed close to the $44 million salary cap, another first-round exit is tough to take, especially with the 100-point seasons turned in by Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis and the 20-goal season from defenseman Dan Boyle.
But as the team looks ahead to next season, those within the organization believe the club is only a stride away - not a giant leap - from being a contender.
"I think we have four of the best hockey players in the league on this team . . . at the prime of their careers," Tortorella said. "I think we have an underrated defense that will change a little bit with free agency. And I think we have a solid core. I think we need to get more balance within our scoring and if we can get our goaltending situation straightened out."
Of Tampa Bay's big four, only St. Louis will be older than 31 next season.
"The core group is still pretty young. I'm not an owner or a GM, but we have a good core group," center Brad Richards said. "You have to judge on results, but you have to realize it's a fine line [between losing to New Jersey or advancing to the second round]. .. You can't lose the fact how hard it is."
With nine players under contract with a combined salary-cap hit of just over $32 million, Feaster will have to be creative this summer to get a workable roster to fit within the self-imposed budget of $40 million-$42 million ownership is willing to spend.
The Lightning must re-sign restricted free agents Paul Ranger, Shane O'Brien and possibly Doug Janik on defense, which likely will lose veteran Cory Sarich to free agency; and Ryan Craig and Karl Stewart up front.
Feaster also must decide if he wants to retain unrestricted free-agent forwards Jason Ward - a likely candidate to return - Eric Perrin and Andreas Karlsson, goaltender Johan Holmqvist and defenseman Nolan Pratt.
The biggest question mark remains in goal, where Marc Denis was brought in during the summer to shore up the goaltending but was beaten out by Holmqvist, who started all six playoff games while Denis was a healthy scratch.
If Denis can either be dealt or bought out of the remaining two years on his contract, the Lightning will have to find a way to bring in somebody to solidify the position should they decide Holmqvist isn't the answer. Signing a potential proven veteran, such as pending free agents Dominik Hasek or Curtis Joseph, is an option the team is willing to explore. Another option is to pick up a goalie via trade, a route that burned Tampa Bay this season in the Denis swap for 30-goal scorer Fredrik Modin.
Without many options on the free-agent market - Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere is the biggest name - getting into a bidding war is unlikely.
No matter how Feaster finds a way to strengthen the play in net, however, it is the Lightning's top priority for the third consecutive summer since Nikolai Khabibulin left town for Chicago.
"I don't have any regrets about the decision I made in the summer of 2005 [on letting Khabibulin leave as a free agent] but what I do regret is that with the kind of firepower we have up front we haven't been able to address that need yet that enables us to win a division title and enables us to get out of the first round," Feaster said. "I think we are talented enough up front and underrated but good enough on the blue line. We have the pieces in place [but] we need to shore up that position."
One other piece to the puzzle is finding a scoring winger who can play as a top-six forward and who would provide Brad Richards with the winger he needs to give Tampa Bay two legitimate scoring lines.
Those types of players are out there, but they don't come cheap.
And if owner Bill Davidson decides that the $40 million cash limit is all he is willing to spend, then Feaster's summer assignment just went from simple math to calculus.
"I don't mind saying it: I hope our ownership stands behind us here and I guess I'm asking them that, not to give in here," Tortorella said "Because I think what our core did this year, I think there is some good stuff there if you add something around it."
The players also believe they still have an opportunity with the players who remain and hope ownership doesn't decide to cut payroll too far from the $44 million spent this season.
"For me, it would be foolish to spend less. If anything, I'd spend more because you have a lot of key elements to a championship team here," St. Louis said. "If you add a player here and there, we could be right there. If they go the other way, what kind of message does that send?"