The best player in hockey this year is playing in a city that should care more about him. A year removed from a Game 7 loss to eventual Stanley Cup winner Boston, the Tampa Bay Lightning are not going to make the playoffs. There are a ton of reasons that the Lightning have fallen short of expectations this year.
The main reason is in Phoenix. Goalie Mike Smith found the last seat taken in the musical goalie rotation. While 42-year-old Dwayne Roloson was given a $3 million contract to stay, Smith was allowed to seek greener—or sandier—pastures in the Arizona desert. Roloson appeared to be every bit his age this year while Smith has kept the Coyotes in contention for a division title out West.
General Manager Steve Yzerman tinkered with his roster around the trade deadline while the Lightning were on the bubble, but inconsistent play has the Lightning looking up at most of the Eastern Conference standings. Though the Bolts will be watching the postseason for the fourth time in the last five years, the team is still much closer to last year's playoff team than the doormat of two seasons ago.
Tampa fans are notoriously indifferent to their sports franchises. The Tampa Rays typically play in front of crowds comparable to high school musicals, despite a World Series appearance in 2008 and finishing no worse than third in the last four years. The Buccaneers finished 30th out of 32 teams in attendance in 2011.
The Lightning have an impressive number of fans attending home games but still aren't a guaranteed sell-out. While there are certainly some die hard Lightning fans who are legitimate hockey fans, the average Floridian might imagine that Stamkos could be some type of ethnic restaurant or a featured wine at the Olive Garden.
Saturday night, during a win over the Islanders, Stamkos added goals 51 and 52 to his league-leading total. His point total might be higher if he had some teammates more capable of putting pucks in the net. In four NHL years, Stamkos has averaged almost 43 goals per season. This year Stamkos became the sixth player in NHL history to record more than one 50-goal season before his 23rd birthday. While Stamkos has just scratched the surface on his potential superstar-dom, is the Gulf Coast of Florida the best place for him?
Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup in the 2003-04 season before a lockout the following year and horrible ownership decisions made the franchise look like a traveling carnival. As new ownership took over and Yzerman was named GM, pieces were put in place to restore Tampa as a legitimate contender. Last year's overwhelming success raised the level of expectation for this year's team.
This season's shortcomings will put a heavy burden on the GM, coach and their young star headed into 2012-13. Aging stars Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are on the downside of solid careers, but how much can be expected of them at this point? An obvious fix needs to be the goaltending situation. Dustin Tokarski has shown some promise in this year's goalie carousel, but the 22-year-old will be better served as an apprentice while Yzerman scours other rosters for next year's No. 1.
Stamkos signed a five-year extension with Tampa last summer that will keep him on the Lightning's payroll until he is 27 years old. While all indications are that Stamkos is happy where he is, a few more seasons that end in April instead of May or June could lead to frustration. If Stamkos sees other elite players winning Stanley Cups around him, without getting a sniff of his own, the current deal could be his last in Tampa.
Yzerman's presence in Tampa and his role as GM of Canada's Olympic team give Tampa a legitimate chance at luring free agents to a non-traditional hockey destination. This summer there will be a feeding frenzy on several big names who didn't move at the trade deadline. Tampa Bay had better be in the middle of the action, because their No. 1 star needs some young running mates to build a successful team, and in turn, keep him happy.