What seemed like an impossible dream during the typical months of the playoffs finally happened on Sept. 28, 2020. The Stanley Cup was awarded at a time when preseason games are typically in full swing.
This was no ordinary season, but a result that was predicted by many back in September of 2019 ultimately came to be nearly 12 months later. The Tampa Bay Lightning are Stanley Cup champions.
A 2-0 win in Game 6 over the Dallas Stars secured the second Stanley Cup in franchise history for the Lightning. With the trophy handed out and the celebration underway for the new champions, how did they do it? The answer comes in two parts: an excellent blueprint for constructing a winner and failure.
Let’s start with the construction of a winner. This Tampa team has already been here before. They have been in a Stanley Cup Final. They have been knocking on the door to greatness. A year ago, in April 2019, they had just completed a 62-win season, one of the greatest regular-season teams in NHL history. The reason the Lightning were so good and so talented was the result of great scouting, drafting and development.
From top to bottom, the Lightning have essentially been built from draft picks and undrafted free-agent signings when so many other teams overlooked the talent that was there or didn’t take on the project that was ahead.
Yes, there were top picks along the way. It started with captain Steven Stamkos, the first overall pick in the 2008 NHL Draft. The next season, the Lightning had the second overall pick, and drafted Conn Smythe winner Victor Hedman. In 2012, the Lightning drafted Andrei Vasilevskiy in the first round with the 19th overall pick.
But there were the finds too, the mid-to-late round gems that teams don’t hit very often. The Lightning seemed to have a knack for it.
In the third round of the 2007 NHL Draft, with the 77th overall pick, Alex Killorn was selected. In the second round of the 2011 NHL Draft, with the 58th overall pick, Nikita Kucherov was selected. In the seventh round of the 2011 NHL Draft, at 208th overall, Ondrej Palat was drafted.
Cedric Paquette was a fourth-round pick in 2012. Brayden Point was a third-round pick in 2014. Anthony Cirelli was a third-round pick in 2015. Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde were undrafted free agents.
Arguably the best goaltender in hockey, arguably the best defenseman in hockey, arguably the best line in hockey all made up of draft picks. That is how you build it.
But it also takes savvy trades and signings. It takes trading away a talented offensive prospect for a high-end defensive prospect, as they did with Jonathan Drouin in acquiring Mikhail Sergachev. It takes trading away two former first-round picks and one second-round pick in Brett Howden, Vladislav Namestnikov and Libor Hajek to the New York Rangers to land a veteran presence like Ryan McDonagh, packaged in the deal with now Vancouver Canuck J.T. Miller.
It also takes knowing when to go for it and pad your roster with a couple of veteran role players. Acquiring Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow helped add the missing piece to the already deep lineup.
It can also be finding the right player at the right time without a home. In August, well after the free-agent frenzy, the Lightning were able to add veterans Patrick Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk to the fold. In February, they added Zach Bogosian to the mix too.
But before you can get to that point where you are looking to add that veteran blueliner or depth forward that completes your team, you need the foundation. And you need that foundation to go through the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations, before you can experience the thrill of victory.
The Lightning had the foundation formed from 2008 to 2013. By 2015, they were a contender, sitting in the spot the Dallas Stars are in now, two wins short of a Stanley Cup. In 2015, the Lightning ran into the Chicago Blackhawks dynasty.
The next year in 2016, the Lightning were one win away from repeating as Eastern Conference champions after an overtime goal by Johnson in Game 5. They were blown out, 5-2, in Game 6 by the Pittsburgh Penguins, then fell short in Game 7, 2-1.
The Lightning then missed the playoffs in 2017. Riddled by injuries all season, notably to Stamkos, the Lightning had just five forwards that reached 70 games in the regular season.
Then came another repeat of 2016. The Lightning breezed through New Jersey and Boston in the first two rounds of the playoffs, winning each series in five games. That set up a meeting with the Washington Capitals, and again, the Lightning scored a one-goal victory in Game 5 to be one win away from the Stanley Cup Final. They did not score a goal the rest of the way. The Capitals won the series and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Then came the 2018-19 season. The 62-win season. One of the best regular seasons in NHL history. This looked like an unstoppable force heading into the playoffs. Then, they didn’t win another game. Four times they took the ice against the Columbus Blue Jackets and four times they were handed a loss. Their season was over that quickly.
That was the one, the sudden loss, the bitter defeat that stayed with this team the most. That was the one that made the Lightning organization say “never again.”
Before you can reach the mountaintop, before you can achieve the glory and lift that marvelous trophy over your heads, you have to go through the tough times. You have to shake hands with the opposition that is moving on or that has won that trophy over you. You have to have a lot of success to build you up, only to realize just how hard the journey is when the playoffs begin.
The Lightning have been there before and it helped them rise to the top. That should be encouraging for the Flyers.
The Flyers have built a lot of this roster through the draft. A lot of this roster is still very young and just got their first taste of playoff hockey.
When the Lightning lost in the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, eight of the members of the now Cup champion team were 25 and under. Even last season, that team that had 62 wins had 12 current members of the team all at 28 years old or younger. It takes time not only to develop the players, but to go through some years of experience in the playoffs. So while the Flyers second-round loss to the Islanders, the team that fell to the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, stings, it is only the beginning for a lot of them.
Now, Tampa Bay definitely caught lightning in a bottle with some of their draft picks. Not every team hits on picks the way the Lightning have, not only getting a superstar captain at first overall and a Hall-of-Fame caliber defenseman at second overall or an all-world goalie at 19th overall, but also constructing arguably the best line in hockey with second, third and seventh-round selections. It is the method to the madness, though. It is the blueprint for the success the Lightning have achieved. In Philadelphia, we came to learn of the importance of the draft because it was preached. Ron Hextall made it a priority. He made sure that the Flyers were going to build from within. Hextall didn’t get the chance to see so many of these players make their debut and reach the NHL, but a lot of what the Flyers are was his work. What they can become will be Chuck Fletcher’s work.
The Lightning could say the same thing. A lot of what they are is the work of Steve Yzerman. What they have become and the champion they are today is the work of Julian BriseBois.
If the NHL is the copycat league that it is, there isn’t a lot for a team like the Flyers to copy. They have laid the groundwork and attempted to set the foundation and there are reasons to believe they have their top goalie and top defenseman and some valuable forwards already here. Now it is about taking the experiences and learning and growing from them.
The Lightning channeled their past experiences into this season’s run. They stayed the course. They didn’t blow up the developed core. And it made them champions. Maybe somewhere down the road, that’s what it will take for the Flyers to end their drought and hold that trophy above their heads too.