It feels like a long time coming for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Florida-based club won the 2004 Stanley Cup (in controversial fashion, if you’re a Calgary Flames fan), adding legitimacy to the idea that hockey could in fact work in one of the warmest markets in the NHL. The team had many great stars, such as Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, Dan Boyle, Dave Andreychuk, and Nikolai Khabibulin, a core group were unstoppable when it mattered.
The Lightning struggled in the following few years, not winning another playoff series until 2010-11 – instead picking first overall in 2008 and second overall a year later after lacking on-ice success. But what nobody knew at the time was that was exactly what the Lightning needed – a few off-years to reorganize the troops, build a new dynasty and eventually make a sustained effort at a Stanley Cup run.
If we solely went off of predictions, the Lightning would have consecutive Stanley Cups to their credit. Instead, we’re looking at a team that had altered pressure following a shocking four-game sweep by Columbus in 2019 and an extended break due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone knew the revised playoff format featuring very few off-nights over a two-month span was going to require full manpower, and the Lightning got the most of their men each and every night.
The Lightning’s success can’t be pinned down to one aspect – it was all thanks to years of planning and tinkering that built a winning group:
Learned from past mistakes
No, the 2019 sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets was not the only disappointment for the franchise.
Nine players on Tampa’s roster witnessed the six-game loss to Chicago during the 2015 Stanley Cup final, a series many had the Lightning coming out ahead in. But things were drastically different back then: much of the team’s current core – Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Victory Hedman – were under 25 and still hadn’t found their true calling. Cooper was only in his second full season as an NHL head coach and was swept in the first round in his rookie campaign, so he didn’t have much to build on at the time.
Then came the 2016-17 season, one where many started to wonder if Tampa Bay had what it took to be a serious Stanley Cup contender in the long-term. The club had just 42 wins, the fewest in a full season since 2011-12 and two spots out of an Eastern Conference wild-card spot. The summer prior, there were questions as to whether Stamkos would look elsewhere via free agency, only to have him play 17 games in an injury-shortened campaign after signing an eight-year deal worth $68 million.
Those worries were short-lived, however, as the Lightning quickly found themselves near the top of the standings over the next three seasons. The Lightning had a near-historic season with 62 wins, tying the Detroit Red Wings from 1995-96 for the most in a single season. The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, slipped into the post-season with one night remaining in the 82-game grind – how in the world did Tampa Bay get swept? That fall from the top couldn’t have been predicted by anyone, but as many thought afterward, that was exactly the kick in the pants that the Lightning needed. That proved true with a bit of hardware last month.
Success at the draft table (and signing hidden gems) paid off
You can’t build a contender solely through free agency, and the Lightning took full advantage of their scouting department to build the lineup we saw this season. Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, and Andrei Vasilevskiy were among the team’s core players, and all of them were selected by the Lightning. That doesn’t even include Stamkos, a first overall selection back in 2008. Point, Lucherov, and Hedman were finalists for the Conn Smythe Trophy, with Hedman ultimately winning it after one of the best playoff performances by a defenseman in some time, while Kucherov (58th overall in 2011) and Point (79th overall in 2014) weren’t even highly regarded when the Lightning chose them.
While Jay Feaster and Brian Lawton can take credit for selecting Stamkos and Hedman in consecutive years (albeit, they were chosen No. 1/2, so they were no-brainers), the bulk of the strong drafting decisions were made by Steve Yzerman during his eight-year tenure with the club. Yzerman built the club that made the Stanley Cup final in 2015 and won the GM of the year award that season, too but left his post to lead the Detroit Red Wings before the 2018-19 season. Julien BriseBois took over after, and while he hasn’t had to make any big decisions on draft day just yet, he tinkered with the core that Yzerman built and gave the Lightning the best chance at a victory. Frankly, it’s hard to say that the Cup title wasn’t anything but a tag-team effort from two opposing GMs. Most of Brisebois’ work has been tinkering depth, but he’s managed everything so well and deserved tasting glory this season.
The Lightning don’t have a deep farm system, but the Lightning still have some worthy players ready for the jump if the club needs to move current roster players out this fall. Forwards Alex Barre-Boulet and Alexander Volkov, as well as defenseman Cal Foote, all have a realistic shot at roster spots next season. Barre-Boulet was a free agent signing out of junior, while Volkov, a second-round pick in 2017, has been a steady presence in the AHL for the past three seasons. Foote has always been expected to be a fantastic prospect as a first-round pick in 2017, but the Lightning haven’t had a need to rush him. Having an abundance of talent to choose from is exactly why the Lightning found themselves in a good place – you just need to make the right signings at the right time.
Expensive deadline additions made the difference
Tampa’s immense level of scoring depth allowed them to move second-line forward J.T. Miller to Vancouver last summer in a deal that gave them a conditional first-round pick. The 2020 draft is set to be one of the best ever, so having two entering the trade deadline allowed the team options when adding to the scoring depth.
That’s why the Lightning were willing to offer up solid prospect Nolan Foote and Vancouver’s first-round pick to New Jersey for Blake Coleman and Tampa’s own first-rounder to San Jose for Barclay Goodrow. In most situations, rentals of their caliber wouldn’t fetch first-round picks, but Brisebois knew it’s exactly what the club needed to reach hockey glory.
Did the deals pay off? Absolutely. Coleman finished sixth in team scoring with five goals and 13 points and Goodrow, while quieter with just a goal and six points, was so electric at both ends of the ice and gave Tampa’s third line the energy boost and reliability down the middle that they needed. And how important was adding these two men? While they couldn’t predict what would happen to their captain, it came clutch because…
Team’s depth in Stamkos’ absence
… missing a two-time 50-plus goal-scorer is something most teams can’t overcome. When you have to replace a star player with your main core, you’re usually just promoting someone up and having to make a replacement with a young rookie. Instead, the Lightning had so much center depth and adding Goodrow to a group that already had Point, Anthony Cirelli and Yanni Gourde allowed the team options. Coleman, in particular, was a first-line player in New Jersey that converted into a third-liner – you can’t do much better than that.
On defense, it gets even better. Ryan McDonagh, a player capable of being a top-pairing defenseman on a lot of teams in the NHL, skated alongside Zach Bogosian, the No. 3 draft pick in 2009, on the third pairing. Throw in a world-class goaltender, three-time (consecutive) Vezina Trophy finalist Vasilevskiy, and you have elite talent at each position – something very few teams can claim.
When a team can play all but one period of a 25-game playoff grind without one of its best players and not look out of shape, that’s the sign of a strong team with a strong coach. Jon Cooper never had to make drastic changes to get the most of his lineup each night – the group was simply deep enough.