The All-time Best Tampa Bay Lightning Free Agent Signing

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Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series. After the historic 2016 NHL Free Agency period, it’s a good time to look at the best free agent signing in the history of all 30 NHL franchises. Up next: The all-time best Tampa Bay Lightning free agent signing. 

Make sure to check out the previous articles in our 2016 summer series here

The All-time Best Tampa Bay Lightning Free Agent Signing

2000 – Martin St. Louis: One year, $250,000

The Player

Martin St. Louis relied on his skill and intuition, not his size, from the beginning of his career. Despite being a high goal scorer as a youth, leagues regularly passed on him in favor of larger players. Luckily for St. Louis and for the sport, The University of Vermont was willing to recruit and develop such a player.

In his collegiate career, St. Louis solidified his reputation as a dynamic goal scorer. He finished with 51 points in his freshman season (1993-94) and 71 points in 35 games in his sophomore campaign. His effort, along with teammate Eric Perrin, led the Catamounts to the first hockey championship in school history. St. Louis played all four years of his college eligibility, finishing his collegiate career as Vermont’s all-team leading scorer with a total of 267 points, a record he still holds today.

Even though multiple NHL teams showed initial interest in St. Louis, he went undrafted in the NHL. The Calgary Flames did sign him to his first NHL contract in 1998, following a short stint with the International Hockey League’s Cleveland Lumberjacks. He remained with Calgary for two seasons, before being exposed in the 2000 NHL Expansion Draft. The Flames subsequently bought him out that summer.

The Deal

St. Louis was without a deal and found himself at a crossroads in his career. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Lightning were coming off a season in which they failed to make the playoffs and finished fourteenth in the Eastern Conference.

Then, at age 25, the 5’7 native of Laval, Quebec signed with the Lightning. While it was reported that multiple teams expressed interest in St. Louis, he chose Tampa as he felt they were the most likely to give him NHL playing time. Unbeknownst to everyone at the time, this would be the beginning of a 13-year relationship between the Lightning and St. Louis. This would all begin with a $250,000 signing.

The Result

St. Louis’ first two seasons will not define his legacy in Tampa, though they serve as the foundation to his greatness. In his opening season with the Lightning, St. Louis initially struggled. In Calgary, the coaches impressed a harder checking style of game, which was heavily defensive in nature. By returning to his natural instinct and ability, St. Louis finally scored his first goal with the team in late November 2000. He would finish the season 18 goals and 40 points. Of note, however, is that 34 of those points came after December 1.

Following an injury-shortened 2001-02 season, St. Louis had a breakout 2002-03 campaign. Under Coach John Tortorella, the Lightning managed to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1996. Over the course of the season, St. Louis finished fourth in team scoring with 70 points. In terms of goals, he and Vincent Lecavalier led the team in goals with 33 each. This season brought his first NHL All-Star Game appearance, along with a second place finish in the fastest skater competition and winning the puck control relay.

Finally, he would also score his first career hat trick in a January 30, 2003 game against the Carolina Hurricanes. In the postseason, the team would win their first ever playoff series against the Washington Capitals. The Lightning would make it to the Eastern Conference Semi-finals, losing in five games to the New Jersey Devils. In total, St. Louis would tally seven goals, three game-winners, including an overtime series winning goal. This led to a team-leading 12 points in 11 playoff games.

The Champions

As successful as his third season was, he would eclipse it all just the following year. In the 2003-04 season, St. Louis was named the NHL’s leading scorer by being awarded the Art Ross Trophy. He also tied for the league lead with a plus-minus of +35. The team, led by St. Louis’ efforts reached the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history. If not for St. Louis, history may have been written differently. Thirty-three seconds into the second overtime in Game 6, St. Louis scored off of a puck that was deflected off Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff.

The Lightning would win game seven, in Tampa, securing the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship. In the postseason, he was named the league’s most valuable player, as selected by his peers. He also won the Hart Memorial and Art Ross Trophies, becoming only the eighth player in history to win those two awards and a Stanley Cup in the same season. He was the first to do so since Wayne Gretzky in the 1986-87 season. With this, St. Louis ingrained himself as a fan favorite and the heart and soul of the team.

The Legacy

St. Louis’ career in Tampa Bay came to an abrupt and contentious end about a decade later. Some believe this resulted from hard feelings after being cut by Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman from the Canada Olympic Hockey team. Regardless, St. Louis initiated a trade request during the 2014 which culminated in a trade with the New York Rangers for Ryan Callahan, and later retire in July 2015. In total, St. Louis had 391 goals and 642 assists in 1,134 regular season games over 16 years. The league awarded St. Louis the Art Ross Trophy twice (2001 and 2013) and the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy three times (2010, 2011, and 2013), while appearing in six All-Star Games. To this day, he remains on top of Tampa Bay’s all-time franchise list for most points and assists.

Despite the challenges of being one of the smallest players in a physical, hard hitting league, St. Louis proved to be a steady leader with dynamic talent. His tenacity and unwillingness to give up inspired many. Perhaps, without St. Louis paving the way, the Lightning might have never taken a chance on another “undersized” undrafted player- Tyler Johnson. Without St. Louis, it is probable that Johnson would not have signed in Tampa. In 2014, Johnson told ESPN.com, “One of the main reasons I signed with Tampa is the fact that Marty was here and he’s done so much.”

Regardless of how he left, Tampa’s former Captain shaped the team and the entire league for a new generation. This future Hall of Famer played with heart his entire career, setting the precedent for all for years to come. Martin St. Louis is, without a doubt, the All-time Best Tampa Bay Lightning Free Agent Signing.

Make sure to check out the previous articles in our 2016 summer series here.

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