Despite being the best team for the majority of the season AND pulling off the biggest trade at the deadline, there are three major reasons that the Stanley Cup will not spend the offseason in Florida.
1) This is Andrei Vasilevskiy’s first full season as a starter
Vasilevskiy has been a backup his entire career. That all changed last season when Tampa traded starting goalie Ben Bishop to LA. GM Steve Yzerman had faith in Vasilevskiy to become the franchise goalie, and the Russian goaltender is rewarding that faith with a Vezina Trophy-worthy season. However, with it being his first full season handling the starting duties and now his first as the starter in the playoffs, how will he respond to the added workload? He’s already started 17 more games than last season. His previous playoff experience, filling in for an injured Ben Bishop, didn’t go well. While he did push the Penguins to 7 games, he had a 2.76 GAA. That can certainly be explained away, “That was two seasons ago. Now he’s developed into the starter and is a much more solid goaltender.” On the whole, however, first time starters do not do well in the playoffs. It’s usually the experienced goaltenders who backstop their teams to deep playoff runs. Remember, Matt Murray is the exception, not the rule.
2) The second half freefall is worrisome
While they did end up winning the Atlantic division, it wasn’t by near as much as everyone expected. One of the best teams all year, and adding stalwart defenseman Ryan McDonagh and speedy winger J.T. Miller at the deadline, they limped to the finish line, going 12-8-1 since the trade deadline. In doing so, they gave Boston a chance at the division crown if they won their last two games. Luckily Florida upset them on the final night of the regular season, handing Tampa first place and a date with New Jersey in the first round. While there is still the chance that the Bolts can shake it off and flip the switch come playoff time, this is a little more concerning. They trade they pulled off at the deadline was significant and shook up their lines, and potentially any chemistry they had going for the first three-quarters of the season. If they can't sort things out against a a speedy and dangerous Devils squad, they'll be sitting home sooner than they'd like.
3) They’ve got one of the toughest playoff roads ahead of them
While the Atlantic division was quite top-heavy (the top three teams are all over 100 points on the season, and third place Toronto is 11 points ahead of fouth place Florida), with the current playoff format (see TTGD’s new article for more), getting out of the Atlantic to the Conference Final is going to be a task. Since Tampa secured the top spot in the division, they’ll have to play a dangerous New Jersey team featuring Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall in the first round. If they survive that, they’ll most likely run into a Boston team that only lost two games in regulation in the month of March. Survive that, and they’re probably staring down the back-to-back champ Penguins in the Conference Finals. That is easily the one of the worst roads to the Cup Finals of any team in the league, and one I’m not certain they can navigate.
I’m sorry Tampa, but your second Cup will have to wait until next year. Luckily, you’ll have amazing weather when you schedule your tee times later this month.