If this is life after Steven Stamkos, the Tampa Bay Lightning are going to be fine.
The Lightning became the NHL's first team through to conference finals on Sunday, eliminating the New York Islanders in Game 5 with a convincing 4-0 win driven – as has been the case all playoffs – by their stars.
Their healthy ones, anyway.
This is Tampa's second successive year going deep into the postseason, but what's most remarkable about this trip is who's not there. Anton Stralman, a top defenceman who averaged 22 minutes a game this season, hasn't yet played in the playoffs, thanks to a broken leg. And Stamkos, out with a scary blot-clot issue that required surgery, hasn't either.
Not many teams can lose two of their top-three minute men from the season and sustain this kind of run in the playoffs, but that's what we're seeing with the Lightning, who improved to 8-2 with Sunday's win.
They're showing their depth, every night. But they're also showcasing how much high-end talent is on this roster, even minus two of its best players.
Behemoth Ben Bishop has a .938 save percentage in these playoffs and has emerged as one of the NHL's better goalies. Nikita Kucherov has nine goals in 10 games and is going to be a star up front for this franchise for years. Tyler Johnson, too. And Victor Hedman's marvellous shutdown job on Isles captain John Tavares – and two key goals in Game 5 – are why the big Swede should be in line for a Norris Trophy at some point soon. Those four players alone are the foundation of a solid Stanley Cup contender.
The Lighting were fortunate not to draw a powerhouse in Round 1 (in which they easily eliminated Detroit in five games) or Round 2, but they've deserved to steamroll through. While Stralman and Stamkos remain questionable for the start of the next round, Tampa has a decent shot of beating either Pittsburgh or Washington for a return trip to the final.
And unlike last year, when Tampa ran up against the Chicago Blackhawks, there's no clear Cup favourite approaching from the West. The thing with having all that talent is it comes with very tough questions. Simply put, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman can't pay everybody on this roster.
And his hard decisions start as soon as they stop playing.
Kucherov, for one, will be a restricted free agent and deserves a long-term extension.
After a 30-goal regular season and nine goals in 10 playoff games so far, he's earned something at least in the $6-million range. Add in a sizable raise for versatile utility forward Alex Killorn and deals for the rest of their restricted free agents, and there isn't even $10-million to give Stamkos a new contract if they wanted to.
Yzerman can find wiggle room by shedding a bad contract like Matt Carle's, but that only delays salary cap armageddon to 2017. At that point, the list of who needs a new deal is oppressive: Hedman, Bishop, Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin – and more.
Just as Chicago, the Los Angeles Kings and other great teams have had to tear down to attempt to keep rolling, that looks like what's coming in Tampa – whether it wins a Cup in this small window or not.
Not bringing Stamkos back could give the Lightning an out. They could use the $8-million or so space they'll have to add a couple other lesser pieces to complement their current team for another run next season and then make some less punishing cuts a year from now when they have more information.
Perhaps Bishop becomes expendable if 21-year-old backup Andrei Vasilevskiy continues his rise? Perhaps Hedman or Johnson can offer some sort of discount on their cap hit in exchange for plenty of term?
The best news for the Lightning is they've got talent coming. The successful franchises now are going to have to keep cycling cheap players on entry-level contracts into the lineup, and the Lightning likely will have options in Anthony DeAngelo, Brayden Point, Adam Erne and Nikita Gusev (if he can ever be wooed from Russia to play with old pal Kucherov).
Yzerman's staff has really done an excellent job with depth picks, putting the Lightning up with the Anaheim Ducks as the two best drafting organizations in the league. If they win the Cup, Tampa's scouts will have earned their rings.
That will help.
But no matter what there's going to be some cap-related misery. Stamkos is the big decision, and you can't help but watch these playoffs, and his team succeed so brilliantly without him, and wonder if giving him a deal for 15 per cent of the team's cap space makes any sense.
There's no easy answer to that.
There's no easy answer to any of it.