Just a few days ago, the Lightning sat in the visiting locker room at TD Garden preparing to play for a spot in the Stanley Cup finals. On Monday, instead of packing their suitcases and boarding a plane for the Pacific Northwest, the players and staff gathered for one final time to shake hands, offer congratulations and well wishes for the future and pack a completely different kind of bag.
That abruptness to the end of the season hit home as players, staff and coaches conducted the normal exit interviews before parting ways — some for the summer, some for the rest of their careers. After six weeks of blazing through the postseason for the first time in four years and advancing to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, the emotions switched a full 180 degrees over the weekend.
"It takes a few days for the dust to settle, and it happens so quick,'' right wing Marty St. Louis said. "You are tied going into the third (on Friday), you give up a goal, you can't score one and your season is over just like that. It ends. It takes a few days to settle, but this was a pretty good year for our team and we've come a long way in 10 months, 12 months.''
The previous three years were distraught with three ownership changes, front-office turmoil and bitter feelings from fans toward the organization. That, however, seems like a distant memory as the 2,000-plus fans who showed up at the airport to greet the team Saturday afternoon would attest.
Now, as the Lightning enter the first full offseason under general manager Steve Yzerman, the task now becomes living up to the expectations now in place after just one season. Certainly a trip to the conference finals — or beyond — on a yearly basis is a difficult task for any organization to realistically expect, though that is the standard now set.
Living up to it will take some good fortune come playoff time. It also will take some tweaking to a roster that was essentially patch-worked together last summer trying to fill holes throughout the lineup with the likes of defensemen Brett Clark, Pavel Kubina and Randy Jones, along with forwards Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim.
And while the issues facing Yzerman this offseason are different than last, there are nearly as many — and some more important.
"It's going to be an interesting month of June to try and get some things done before July 1. Obviously our players played very well and we have some challenges to not only bring this group back, but to make it better,'' Yzerman said.
The first to look at is the pending restricted free-agent status of sniper Steven Stamkos, who leads the league with 96 goals during the past two seasons. The top pick in the 2008 draft is coming out of his three-year entry-level contract and no doubt will command a larger dollar figure to get a new contract done. His overall numbers slipped after February, but he did score six goals and 13 points in the postseason, and he proved his willingness after taking a puck to the face in Game 7 against Boston only to return after missing a couple of shifts.
If Stamkos is not signed by July 1, any team is free to submit an offer sheet to sign him, although Tampa Bay would have the right to match any offer. With Tampa Bay eliminated from the playoffs, those talks with the Lightning will now accelerate.
"It was something that I wanted to do this year, was wait until the end and not focus on that. My focus was on this team and doing whatever I could to help this team win,'' said Stamkos, sporting two black eyes and a stitched up nose from Friday's incident. "It's something that I wish we didn't have to be talking about just yet, but it's something that obviously needs to be and we have a lot of time to get things done.''
And there are plenty of reasons to believe it will happen well in advance of Stamkos hitting the restricted free agent market.
"I'd love to get it done, sooner, but it will get done at some point and we'll do everything we can,'' Yzerman said. "It's part of a process and he's very well represented … and I understand where they are coming from and I'm very confident at some point we'll reach a deal.''
The other major issue is the goaltending as all three goaltenders who appeared with Tampa Bay this season — Dwayne Roloson, Mike Smith and Cedrick Desjardins — are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents. Roloson is 41, Smith seemed to rediscover his potential after a difficult season on the ice, and Desjardins recently underwent shoulder surgery that requires six months of recovery time and might not be ready until October, according to Yzerman.
That leaves a large hole to fill, although a return to the tandem of Roloson and Smith seems more likely now than it did a month ago. Both expressed serious interest in returning and the feeling seems mutual.
"If we were able to get both goaltenders back, obviously it would be something positive,'' coach Guy Boucher said. "But that's Steve's job and I don't want to play into Steve's job.''
Roloson, as well, is open to a return for another season.
"Since I've been down here it's been great,'' Roloson said. "The organization from top to bottom, the ownership, the coaching staff, the players, it's great. So, if there's an opportunity to come back, I'd love to.''