Of all the NHL teams that have played in the past seven Stanley Cup finals, only the Tampa Bay Lightning have never won a championship. That’s why the Lightning’s first-ever title is the most impressive in the salary-cap era of the NHL, a period that began in 2005.
Ask any Canadian to name the most impressive Stanley Cup champions of the NHL’s salary-cap era and you’ll likely get one answer: The Tampa Bay Lightning.
Evil has won. Tampa Bay won its second consecutive Stanley Cup. The great lightning raid is over.
That’s how we should react to this victory, right? That the crooks won?
It’s amazing that a team that just got its star attacker Nikita Kucherov back – who missed the entire season after hip surgery – is able to win Game 56 of the 10th round of the playoffs. May was indisposed, but played in the first playoff game on the 15th. May scored two goals – turned the NHL’s financial rules like an animal in a balloon to work its way to a new championship, broke the $18 million salary cap?
Well, that’s not fair. According to CapFriendly, they are $19.7 million over the playoff limit.
Funny, isn’t it?
Spare me your whining. Everyone played by the same rules. Everyone played in a shortened season, just like all the playoff teams played in the same bubble when the Lightning won last summer. Tampa Bay just played better than everyone else, both on and off the ice.
They are the most impressive NHL champions of the salary cap era, because of their superior management and player development, their bold team building, and because of the fact that they took advantage of everything available to them under the league’s stifling financial system, from no Florida State income tax to a long-term injury reserve.
You don’t blame them for cheating. You’re upset that your team wasn’t smart enough to use the system or wasn’t deep enough to make the playoffs with a former MVP who was out 56 games.
That they are not good enough to win the Stanley Cup, let alone two in a row.
That they’re the Tampa Bay Lightning and you’re not.
If you are outraged that there is no salary cap in the playoffs, you should be screaming at the NHL owners who made the rules to make it possible. Owners like Rocky Wirtz of the Chicago Blackhawks, whose team once used the long-term injured reserve to go over the limit during the season and then win the Stanley Cup – coincidentally with the Lightning. (They learned this by watching you!).
If you’re upset that Kucherov miraculously recovered in Game 1 against the Florida Panthers, go yell at the NHL for investigating and giving its approval.
The league said there was nothing wrong with the case and that the facts were in order, so the Lightning could get Kucherov back for Game 1 under the system in place since 2005.
These are the tickets we have. That’s how we did it. We had an injured player who needed surgery and the expected rehab time was about five months. Due to extraordinary circumstances, that season fortunately only lasted four months, he had surgery and missed the entire season. We were a little relieved and he was able to come back a little earlier than expected. And that coincided with Game 1 of the playoffs, Lightning general manager Julien Brisebois said.
That’s what happened. Sometimes the stars align for you.
The Stars have done this many times before the Lightning, no doubt. But the rest of the time, it was a brilliant management team – first general manager Steve Yzerman, now with the Detroit Red Wings, then his assistant Brisebois as of 2018 – that found stars in ways other teams couldn’t or wouldn’t.
Note the aggressiveness and intelligence with which they designed.
Some thought Andrei Vasilevskiy was a risky pick in the 2012 draft. Nobody thinks like that anymore. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
The Lightning have 10 Stanley Cup Final players from the NHL draft, from forward Alex Killorn in 2007 (77th overall) to forward Ross Colton in 2016 (118th overall). Some of them were distinctive: They won Steven Stamkos on the first link in 2008 and Victor Hedman on the second link in 2009.
It’s lucky. Not every draft has the same key players. As the great Billy Zane said in the movie Titanic: They made their own luck with other designers.
They picked Andrei Vasilevskiy 19th overall in 2012 – he was considered a risk, both as a goalie chosen in the first round and as a Russian chosen in the first round.
I played with some really good Russian players and Russians, the former Red Wing told Sportsnet in 2015. It would be [a mistake] to take these guys off the list. It’s hard enough to find good players, let alone the country they come from.
Therefore, they did not hesitate to choose Nikita Kucherov in 2011: Today he’s one of the best players in the world, and then he was a second-round pick who could acquire the rest of the league 57 times before the Lightning. (The Calgary Flames placed Tyler Wotherspoon 57th, who gained notoriety for placing just ahead of Nikita Kucherov.)
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Kucherov was one of three Russians selected by the Lightning that day. We’re looking at three guys who, if their last names didn’t end in oats, would have been selected no later than the second round, said Al Murray, the team’s director of scouting and draft organization.
Your team could have had Kucherov. Your team could have had Brayden Point, who was not included after grabbing 78 rebounds in 2014, or Anthony Cirelli, who was not included after grabbing 71 rebounds in 2015, or Ondrej Palat, who was named 207 (!) for him in 2011.
Instead, Lightning has them.
But even if your team has it, will it make a difference? Because then you wouldn’t have Stacy Rust and J.P. Cote orchestrating the Lightning’s player development of the past decade. They wouldn’t have coaches like Barb Underhill, the former Olympic figure skater who taught Point Elite agility on the ice. Benoit Grulx, the outstanding head coach of the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse, has not sent one player after another to the Lightning ready to contribute.
We may not see him for four years. But he’s been prepared for years for what he has to work with. Then they get into the American League, and there they are very demanding. If they’re here, they’ll be like NHL players, Lightning coach John Cooper said. There’s a very good structure here.
But not all choices are the result of design, and not all additions come without sacrifice.
Think about how aggressively and intelligently they have built their defenses
The deal to acquire Ryan McDonagh was bold, but has proved very successful. Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images
In 2017, the Lightning traded 21-year-old third-line forward Jonathan Drouin to the Canadiens for defenseman Mikhail Sergachev. That same year, they traded two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop – who was in the final year of his contract, rendering Wasilewski useless – to the Los Angeles Kings for a package that included defenseman Erik Cernak, who appeared to be on loan.
Sergachev and Chernak are the third and fourth players with the most ice time on Tampa Bay’s roster this season.
In 2018, they traded first-round pick, first-round forward Vladislav Namestnikov and prospects to the rebuilding Rangers for defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller. What was meant to be a loan turned out to be the backbone of two Stanley Cup championships when the Lightning signed McDonagh to a seven-year contract.
McDonagh was second on the ice in both cup games.
Another first-round pick was given to defenseman David Savard in 2021, so the Columbus Blue Jackets (and Detroit Red Wings) would take a portion of his salary. Given the swap in 2019 that saw Slater Kekkoek traded for Ian Rutta of the Chicago Blackhawks, Victor Hedman was the only homegrown player on the Lightning’s defense in the two Stanley Cup victories – which, again, is a good place to start. The rest of the defense, including seventh baseman Luke Schenn, was built up by trading its own players and draft picks.
Notice how aggressively and intelligently they built their line of control.
Blake Coleman has a knack for scoring, whether it’s with two hands or one arm. Photo: Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images
J.T. Miller, as we recall, was traded to the Vancouver Canucks in a package with the 2019 first-round pick. The deal was done in Vancouver on the same day the Lightning selected left fielder Nolan Foote as the number 27 overall pick. In February 2020, the Lightning traded that pick and Foote with the New Jersey Devils for Blake Coleman, a penalty kick taker, one-handed goal specialist and salty juice drinker.
Coleman scored 20 goals twice for the Devils. Barclay Goodrow hasn’t scored more than eight points in six seasons with the San Jose Sharks. But the Lightning also gave up a first-round pick to Goodrow. In both cases, the acquired players had one year left on their contracts with little equity – Coleman’s contract was $1.8 million and Goodrow’s was $925,000 – before becoming free agents after the 2021 season.
He’s a good defensive forward who could be a PK force, but he’s not worth a first-round pick by a long shot, CBS Sports wrote about Goodrow, calling the Lightning a loser from the trade deadline.
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The Lightning saw something in both, but didn’t immediately recognize centerback Yanni Gourde. The trio played less than two minutes together in the regular season before being interrupted by the COVID pandemic. But in the 2020 playoffs, no line other than the main line of Kucherov, Poynt and Palat has played more than the Lightning’s controlling line in their last two Cup appearances.
They don’t care who they play against or what the score is. They bring weapons for knife fights. They are ready and will not back down, Cooper said. You’re a pain in the ass. The way they play takes the energy out of you, and it doesn’t seem to work for these guys.
Of course, who needs draft picks when you can find NHL prospects without them? Gourde and Tyler Johnson were not drafted and Yzerman took them.
Years later, Tyler Johnson was available… Well, the whole league. He has a contract through 2024-25 with a cap hit of $5 million. They tried to trade him before the season. They fired him – twice. They don’t. He scored two goals in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final while playing on the team’s second line replacing the injured Killorn.
He may have been the victim of the traffic jam. Any other team could have had him this season. Yeah, lucky coincidence for the lightning, I guess.
Can your team hire John Cooper
John Cooper has a proven track record in each of his coaching positions. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Or at least the Washington Capitals might.
In 2012, Cooper didn’t think he was ready to be a head coach in the NHL. He had just two seasons as a professional hockey coach with the Norfolk Admirals in the AHL, who won the Calder Cup in his first season. That was good enough for Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee, who wanted him as the next head coach after Dale Hunter’s departure. His decision was overturned by the owners, who wanted former Capitals center Adam Oates to get his first NHL job.
Oates and McPhee were fired after the 2013-14 season, Cooper’s first full season as head coach of the Lightning, in which the team reached the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
We had to hire him, said McPhee, who is now president of hockey operations with the Vegas Golden Knights. Everywhere he has coached, teams have achieved amazing results.
Consecutive Stanley Cup championships, three times in the Stanley Cup finals and at least once in the third round of the playoffs in five of his eight full NHL seasons? Yeah, it’s fantastic.
Triple hit starts
Ross Colton, selected 118th overall in the 2016 draft, scored the decisive goal in Game 5. Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
There have been other multiple champions in the cap era. There have even been times when Stanley Cup champions won two in a row, like in 2015-16 and 2016-17 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
There are several things that make this lightning race unique. Like a journey: Cooper is the first to admit that the heartbreaking first-round playoff loss against the Blue Jackets in 2019 changed the course of his team. It gave him humility. It gave him a new commitment to the defense in the playoffs, and to win the game 1-0, as much as they could have won the game 8-0. It gave the team a resiliency that allowed the Lightning to go 14-0 in the playoffs after losing the previous two seasons.
It has taken a long time to get to this point. In 2015 it was a heartbreaker when we made it to the finals and lost, and in 2016 we made it to Game 7 against Pittsburgh and lost. In 2018, when Barry Trotz was coach [the Capitals], he beat us in Game 7. Heartbreak in Columbus in 2019. Everything was built to get to this point, and you can’t predict it, Cooper said. To write on your tombstone once that you won the Stanley Cup [is fine], but to do it two years in a row now when talking about your team is special.
For example, the reality of their environment. The Lightning have already won the Stanley Cups twice in shortened seasons. They got their first win in a playoff tournament marked by monotony and isolation. They earned their second win after a season of testing, protocols, public exposure and contamination lists and the rest of the problems NHL teams and players have faced this season. In a way, they have flourished while others have collapsed.
(Put an asterisk next to the headings if you like. In fact, these were unprecedented seasons).
Best Athlete, men’s sport
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NHL Best Player
– Matthews, McDavid, Vasilevskiy or Kane?
– Sweep for the Jets?
Bonus: Best Play
– Epic Goal of the NCAA Tournament
This was the last trip of this group. With a salary cap of $81.5 million, they haven’t reached the limit yet. We need to make changes: Release players, trade and extend the Seattle Cracks.
I think it’s one of those things where you understand the situation, so let’s go out there and do the best we can as a group, because probably this group won’t play together [again] in the cap world, Stamkos said. As with last year’s group, not everyone could return. It’s hard every year, but we recognize the reality. All these things solve themselves.
So they’re going to start over, rebuild and try to do what no team has managed in 40 years: Win three Stanley Cups in a row.
Cooper challenged his team this season, asking if they were full of energy. Did they settle for one Stanley Cup or did they want to be special and win two in a row? Three might seem like gluttony. That’s something the Gretzky Oilers, the Lemieux and Crosby Penguins or even the Yzerman Red Wings couldn’t do.
But now it’s possible.
It will take more incredible performance. Other notable seasons. More aggressive and intelligent control.
Or, if all else fails, they put Victor Hedman on long-term injured reserve for 82 games, and then activate him in the playoffs after the trade deadline treats the tight end like a paper towel….
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