TAMPA — Well, Lightning, which is it? Which way are you going to go?
As training camp opened Thursday, that was the question, the only question.
Are you once again a playoff team capable of making another serious run at the Stanley Cup?
Or was last season's playoff miss the start of a downward spiral to the obscure land of Coyotes and Devils?
It's a scary topic if the you're the Lightning, because there's no getting around it. Time is ticking. You don't get many chances to compete for Stanley Cups, and you wonder how much time is left before the Lightning's window closes.
"This core has been together for a little while,'' forward Alex Killorn said. "It seems like most of the guys are locked in now for long-term deals, so right now is our time to really succeed, right? We all have a certain amount of years in this league, and we got to use these years in the right way because at a certain point, it's going to be too late.''
Captain Steven Stamkos is entering his 10th season. Victor Hedman is entering his ninth. Anton Stralman is going into his 11th. Ryan Callahan is 32. These should be prime Lightning seasons.
That's why you look back at what happened last season and can't help but believe it was a lost year. A kick at the can resulted in a mighty swing-and-a-miss and the Lightning flat on its back.
Three seasons ago, the Lightning almost won the Stanley Cup. Two seasons ago, it came within a game of getting back to the Cup final. Then the Lightning crashed last season, missing the playoffs in a season in which many thought it would win the whole thing.
"When that happens,'' coach Jon Cooper said, "I think everybody sits down, looks in the mirror and says, 'What happened?' ''
If so inclined, you could find excuses. Major injuries to Stamkos and Callahan. Injury, trade rumors and an eventual trade of goalie Ben Bishop.
But every team that misses the playoffs has excuses. Nobody cares. In the end, the Lightning missed the playoffs by a point.
"You just look at how razor thin it is,'' Cooper said. "That's how this league is. Where did you lose that point? Well, we lost it over 82 games somewhere.''
Oddly enough — and it's a positive sign if you're a Lightning fan — no one at Amalie Arena is talking about the Stanley Cup.
"Just talking to those players, it's not a situation where we're saying, 'Stanley Cup, Stanley Cup, Stanley Cup,' '' Cooper said. "We can't vie for the Stanley Cup unless we make the playoffs. And that's what those guys are focused on.''
Maybe last season the Lightning took things for granted, assuming a playoff spot was in its back pocket. Maybe in November it was thinking of hockey in May, dreaming about postseason hockey when it should have been playing regular-season hockey.
When April arrived, the Lightning went golfing.
"It's humbling for us all,'' general manager Steve Yzerman said.
That's why you can sense something a little different. Arrogance has been replaced by hunger. Complacency by determination.
"We weren't happy with last year,'' Callahan said. "We had a lot of high expectations going into last year, and missing the playoffs is pretty disappointing. Guys are ready. I think we have something to prove going into this year.''
Cooper said the organization's pre-camp physicals showed that players are in much better condition than a year ago.
As Killorn put it: "There has to be a hunger this year.''
The Lightning has a lot going for it. Nikita Kucherov is a fabulous player. Hedman is one of the NHL's best defensemen. The roster appears deeper than last year's.
But the Lightning still has major questions.
Can Stamkos stay healthy? Can Callahan stay healthy? Can the Lightning replace Jonathan Drouin's offense? Can goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy carry a team for a full season?
Yes, this does feel like a playoff team. But so did last year's, and you can't just blame the Stamkos injury.
Something was missing.
A sense of urgency never kicked in until it was too late. The Lightning got what it deserved, missing the playoffs despite a late push.
Maybe this season it will know better.
"Our expectations are high,'' Yzerman said. "We got a lot of work to do.''
The work needs to start now, because who knows how much time the Lightning has left to win a Stanley Cup.
Contact Tom Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tomwjones