It's been a season of ups and downs for the Tampa Bay Lightning, with more downs than ups.
Nonetheless, the Lightning are still technically in the playoff hunt. After Thursday night's 2-1 OT loss to the Winnipeg Jets, the Lightning are nine points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The question is whether the Lightning should go for it or, for all intents and purposes, admit defeat.
This is a question the team will answer with its actions regarding the NHL's trade deadline, which is fast approaching on Feb. 27. Will they buy or will they sell?
Before Thursday's game, Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman said it's a little too early to lean one way or the other.
"I think everyone is kind of feeling everyone out right now as far as getting ready for the trade deadline and teams are trying to decided if they are buyers or sellers and what their needs are,'' Yzerman said. "At this point, it's really early for anything to happen right now. All we can do is be prepared to action one way or the other. And we have the three more (home) games to see if we can get any closer...and try to chip away.''
Yzerman also pointed out that it's a little hard to get a read on this Lightning team. One minute they're losing seven in a row and the next they're winning five in a row.
In a perfect world, the Lightning's recent success would continue. It's still a little too early to tell, but perhaps this team has figured it all out and is ready to go on a run.
We've seen it happen before, but that doesn't mean the odds are good. Here's what ESPN's Pierre LeBrun pointed out in a Tuesday post:
Yes, I do believe it’s too little, too late for the Bolts. Not only are they nine points out, but they’ve also got four teams to climb over to sit in the eighth spot. Three-point games in this league just make the math incredibly difficult for teams to make up that gap in the final two and a half months. You saw massive second-half runs by New Jersey, Toronto and Calgary last season, but they all fell short. According to Sportsclubstats.com, Tampa has a 5.4 percent chance of making the playoffs.
If you want to look at the Lightning's playoff hopes from a glass half-full perspective, you could say that the team they have now is fully capable of closing the gap on its own. If they choose to buy at the deadline and add another piece or two, there's no reason to think they won't be able to make up the ground they need to make up.
Even we can accept this as a possibility, there's another question that should be asked: what would be the point?
What should the Lightning do at the trade deadline?
Even if Yzerman goes out and improves his team, would the Lightning have any shot of advancing in the postseason?
Once again, the glass half-full perspective says yes. Realistically, the answer is no.
This is exactly why selling is going to end up being the Lightning's best option at the trade deadline. Choosing to sell will signal defeat, but breaking up the team of the present will mean a brighter future for the team going forward. This is, of course, assuming Yzerman plays his cards right.
The choice before the Lightning is nothing new, in the NHL or any other sports league. It's also not an easy one.
But if Yzerman can bring himself to be realistic, he'll find that there's only one right choice.