The 32-year-old wanted to stay in St. Louis, where, for the first time in his professional career, he was able to live in the same city as his son, Anthony. But the Blues’ salary-cap situation wasn’t conducive to that happening. “My agent and I were kind of waiting for St. Louis to get back to us,” Maroon said. “And, obviously, it took longer because they needed to sign their restricted free agents and make sure they were locked up.”
The calendar turned to August, and the Blues didn’t extend a formal offer.
Maroon said he had interest from several teams but kept zeroing in on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Maroon played for Jon Cooper as a teenager for the Texarkana Bandits of the North American Hockey League and knew what the coach was about. In Tampa Bay, Maroon saw an opportunity to play right away (especially after fourth-liner Adam Erne was traded to Detroit, to reunite with Steve Yzerman) and, of course, the possibility of hoisting the Stanley Cup once again. Tampa Bay had tied an NHL record with 62 wins in 2018-19 with a gaudy plus-103 goal differential, yet infamously got swept by the feisty Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2019 playoffs.
“Obviously, we all know what happened last year,” Maroon said. “They’re disappointed, too. So they had a chip on their shoulder to get back to where they needed to be, and I wanted to join them.”
Maroon is one of several additions for general manager Julien BriseBois this season to change the complexion of the Lightning — safeguards to prevent the heartbreak of last season, and also provide a crucial goal here and there as well.
Tampa Bay also inked Kevin Shattenkirk to a low-risk, one-year, $1.75 million deal after the 31-year-old defenseman was bought out by his hometown New York Rangers just halfway through his splashy, four-year, $26.6 million contract.
BriseBois then wanted to add a big body to the blue line — and Zach Bogosian fell into his lap. The No. 3 pick of the 2008 draft saw his career completely stall out with the Buffalo Sabres this season; Bogosian was miserable after recovering from offseason hip surgery only to be a healthy scratch for the first time in his career, see his trade request go unfulfilled and go unclaimed on waivers. BriseBois scooped him up for $1.3 million for the season.
“Personality,” Cooper said. “We seem to have it this year. With that group of guys we brought in, we brought in a lot of personality. … When you have that life in the locker room, it gets infectious on the bench and even more infectious on the ice. In years past when we might have been quiet and subdued in certain situations, we aren’t that anymore.”
With the Lightning tied 1-1 in their second-round series against the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay is hoping it now has the tools to push itself over the playoff hump, even as it continues to play without captain Steven Stamkos, who has yet to play this summer (undisclosed injury).
“They have a bit of a different makeup now; they compete a lot harder,” Bruins top-line winger Brad Marchand said ahead of the series. “They are a lot more physical, and obviously, they have a ton of talent. They’re very fast, have a great goalie, they have everything.”
It’s unclear how much the 2019 collapse consumes this team, but the scars are there. Coleman, who played just nine games with the Lightning before the season was paused, insists his new teammates “don’t really talk much about last year.”
“Obviously, in the series against Columbus, things came up from last year,” Coleman said. “But everyone has pretty much turned the page. We’re a different team now.”
However, the Lightning started the season slow, adjusting to a new defensive and forechecking philosophy. In November, Shattenkirk admitted the way the 2018-19 season ended had weighed on the locker room; players were forced to face questions about the collapse in every city they visited, though Shattenkirk admired how nobody shied away from it.
By late December, the Lightning were a .500 team with more losses (17) than they had all of last season. But things turned just before Christmas. Tampa Bay reeled off a 10-game winning streak, and then a separate 11-game winning streak — setting a franchise record — to finish with the Eastern Conference’s second-best record at the pause.
“I felt their pain, but there’s nothing you can do,” Maroon said. “You can’t just dwell on what went wrong last year, you’ve got to put your head down and really have that ‘don’t give a s—‘ mentality. Stuff happens. It’s part of life. You need to grow from it.”
When Tampa Bay exorcised its demons by knocking out Columbus in this year’s first round, the elation from Cooper and the coaching staff on the bench was palpable; the coach even pumped his fist after he went through the handshake line. “We had 422 days to think about it,” Cooper quipped to reporters afterward. “But who’s counting?”
Each of Tampa Bay’s new additions brings a new element, but most predicate on toughness. Coleman and Goodrow have teamed up with Yanni Gourde on a feared third line that gave Columbus fits with their forechecking. Entering the Boston series, the third line had a 69% expected goals rate this postseason. And it doesn’t hurt that they can come up with a huge goal at pivotal moments, either: Coleman’s two goals in Game 2 included one that gave the Lightning a third-period lead.
Maroon, manning the fourth line, is a get-in-your face forward who adds a big net presence, which can come in handy in the playoffs:
BIG RIG DID THE DIRTY WORK pic.twitter.com/66ZhxoWdoT
— Tony X (@soIoucity) August 26, 2020
Coleman, Goodrow and Maroon rank second, fourth and sixth on the team, respectively, in hits this summer. Shattenkirk seems to have found confidence again, but perhaps the biggest glow up is from Bogosian, who revived his career in a top-pairing role with Norris Trophy nominee Victor Hedman.
Despite being in the league for over a decade, this is Bogosian’s first taste of playoff action, and he’s averaging 21 minutes per game. Tampa Bay outscored Columbus 5-1 at 5-on-5 when the Bogosian-Hedman pairing was on the ice. And he combined with Coleman on one of the best goals of the 2020 postseason:
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) August 25, 2020
It all combines to explain why the Lightning are better suited for a long playoff run and have already outperformed their 2018-19 selves.
“We had to grow as a team,” Cooper said recently. “And we didn’t necessarily tweak how we played the game. I don’t know if it was as much our structure as it was between the ears. All of us collectively, from the coaching staff all the way down, had to be a little harder. We had to be better. And we had to train ourselves to play a little bit of a different way. And we did. In the end, you can lay a plan out to your players, the players have to play. They’re the ones that decide and they play. All the credit goes to them.”