TAMPA, Fla. — For the second time in three years, the Tampa Bay Lightning failed to reach the Stanley Cup final. But with most of the roster set to return next season, captain Steven Stamkos is optimistic that better days lie ahead.
“Oh, the window is not closed,” Stamkos said after a 4-0 loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the conference final. “This group is way too talented and is still very young when you look at it.
“You just look at that team that we just lost to. I mean, they’ve been just continually building, building. They get over the hump against Pittsburgh and they come in and get a chance. But when you’ve got a guy like (goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy), the window is never closed.”
Stamkos and defenceman Victor Hedman, who reached the final in 2015, have been chasing a Stanley Cup together for nearly a decade.
It’s not quite as long as the 11 years that Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been playing together. But Ovechkin and Backstrom’s single-minded journey in Washington is partially why Hedman decided to remain in Tampa Bay when both he and Stamkos’ contracts came up in 2016.
“We signed within 48 hours of each other,” said Hedman. “We love it here. Getting drafted here, and having the opportunity to play with one club, is something I really wanted to do. With the fan base, with the organization, there’s not a better place to play in my book. We’re very fortunate to come here, chasing my dream and everyone’s dream in this room.”
It was two years ago when Stamkos nearly became available on the open market, garnering attention from the Toronto Maple Leafs and pretty much every other team in the NHL. Two days before the start of free agency, he decided to re-sign in Tampa Bay for eight years and US$68 million. A couple of days later, Hedman inked a similar eight-year, $63-million contract on July 1.
Since then, winning a championship has been the goal.
The Lightning gave up a package of top picks and prospects at this year’s trade deadline in order to add defenceman Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller from the New York Rangers. But both are under contract for 2018-19, giving Tampa Bay at least another year to make a push.
“We haven’t reached our ultimate goal yet,” said Hedman, who this year was named a finalist for the Norris Trophy. “For me and Stammer, we’ve almost been here for almost a decade now. We want to win with this organization. We want to bring a Stanley Cup back to Tampa.”
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