The Tampa Bay Lightning enter this unique NHL season as the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Tampa Bay Lightning’s rise wasn’t something that happened overnight. 2020 Stanley Cup was a culmination of ten years of work and expert planning that could’ve gone wrong at any time. The remaining years of the 2000s, saw the Lightning fall from the heights of their 2004 Stanley Cup win. After three coaching changes and a new owner, the Lightning began their climb in 2010 when they hired Steve Yzerman. Here’s the Lightning path to becoming a champion.
The Rise of the Tampa Bay Lightning
Yzerman Builds the Team
Steve Yzerman was an executive for the Detroit Red Wings before joining the Lightning. When Detroit did not promote Yzerman to the GM role, he was offered the role in Tampa by new owner Jeffrey Vinik. It was one of the best decisions both parties ever made. Yzerman went to work in 2010 rebuilding the team. To start with, the Lightning already had their franchise player, Steven Stamkos, who was drafted in number one overall in 2008. His first transactions were to hire Guy Boucher to succeed Rick Tocchet. His first draft pick was to select Brett Connelly 6th overall. He then traded for Simon Gagne and signed Martin St. Louis to a five-year extension.
As the 2010s went on, Yzerman made strong moves. Built around the great, but injury-prone star Stamkos and skillful defenseman Victor Hedman, Yzerman traded for players such Ryan Callahan and Ben Bishop at the expense of long-time stars Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. Drafting over the last ten years became an invaluable asset for the team. Yzerman drafted Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Cedric Paquette, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Jonathan Drouin, Anthony Cirelli, and Brayden Point. Many of whom became All-Stars, award winners, and members of the 2019-20 Cup winner.
Outside of the Yzerman signings, trades, and drafts. John BriseBois, Yzerman’s successor, continued building on what was already there. Primarily in free agency, BriseBois signed players like Luke Schenn, Mikhail Sergachev, Jan Rutta, and Ryan McDonagh to add both depth and grit to the team. Specifically after the embarrassing first-round sweep to the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019.
Tampa Bay’s Rise
All told, the 2010-11 season was a success. The team tied the record for wins in the season with 46 and dominating the Southeast Division throughout much of the season. Martin St. Louis finished second in the league in points with 99 and Lightning made the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07. The Lightning would beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven in the first round, sweep the top-seeded Washington Capitals, before losing in seven to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Tampa Bay Lightning’s rise at first would lead to a quick fall. They would miss the playoffs in 2012 and 2013. Get swept in the First Round by Montreal Canadiens in 2014. Make the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015, but lose in six to the Chicago Blackhawks. Lose in the Conference Finals in 2016 to the Penguins in seven. Miss the playoffs in 2017, and then make the Conference Finals in 2018. Only to lose to the Capitals in seven. So the Lightning made it to the Conference Finals four times and make the Cup Finals once. In three of the four Conference Finals losses, the Lightning needed one win to get to the Stanley Cup Finals. So it was clear they were close and 2018-19 would be their year.
Dominance and Failure
Those players mentioned earlier came through big in 2018-19. Kucherov won both the Art Ross Trophy and Ted Lindsay Trophy as the league’s and NHLPA’s most valuable player. Leading the league in points with 128, a new franchise record for a player. Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender with a 2.20 GAA, 39 wins, and .925 save percentage. The Lightning finished the season with 62 wins, 128 points, and the Presidents’ Trophy.
Only the 1976-77 Canadiens and 1995-96 Red Wings were better than the 2018-19 Lightning. But the Wings and Canadiens didn’t have a salary cap to manage during that time, which makes Tampa’s accomplishments more unique. In 82 games, the Lightning had a +103 goal differential, best since the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators, and 3.96 goals per game best since 1996. Three players scored 40+ goals, Stamkos, Point, and Kucherov. Even Ryan McDonagh had a career year in points with 46.
But all of this came at a price. Through the Lightning’s domination meant they didn’t face true adversity all season. So when the Columbus Blue Jackets took control of the series, they never let up and Tampa had no answers. Everyone in and out of hockey got a kick out of this historic team getting embarrassed by a team that hadn’t won a playoff series in their history. Which led to the Lightning apologizing to their fans days after the series ended.
Lightning Finally Strikes
The 2019-20 season will mostly be remembered for one thing: COVID-19. The global pandemic shut the entire league down in early March. Thankfully, for Tampa and hockey fans, the league created the playoff bubble in Toronto and Edmonton. Tampa’s season wasn’t as spectacular as last, but it was still solid. 92 points and a 43-21-6 record through 71 games gave them a pass into the playoffs. Kucherov once again led the team in points, 85, Vasilevskiy was still dominant, a 2.56 GAA, 2.56 save percentage, and 35 wins in 52 games. Stamkos, Hedman, Point, and Anthony Cirelli made solid contributions. Tampa entered the single round-robin which featured four other top teams in the East. Those being the Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, and Washington Capitals. Tampa went 2-1 against them, giving them the second overall seed.
Their first-round opponent: the Columbus Blue Jackets because of course. But Tampa was ready for them this time. Winning in five games, even defeating the tough Blue Jackets in a five-overtime marathon, 3-2. The next round was supposed to be a much harder match-up as they faced the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins. However, the Lightning dominated the Bruins, losing only game one. They even put seven goals in during game three. Tampa advanced winning in five again. The Conference Finals saw them face a surprising New York Islanders team, who put up a solid challenge. Tampa won in six games to earn the Prince of Wales Trophy and a ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The 2020 Stanley Cup Finals
The Cup Finals saw the Lightning go up against the Dallas Stars. A Stars team that had been through a lot in the 2019-20 season. The Stars were able to take game one, but Tampa answered by taking games two, three, and four. Dallas was able to prolong the series past game five, but couldn’t survive game six. Tampa won 2-0, and with it, their second Stanley Cup.
All of this, the drafting, the trades, free agency, controlling the cap, all of it happened steadily and meticulously. Under Yzerman, the team has developed and grown its own talent while adding pieces that fit in. Many of the players whose names will be on the Stanley Cup were drafted and developed by the team.
There is a sad part of this story. Steve Yzerman, the man who helped build the Lightning into the champion they are today, is not apart of the franchise anymore. Yzerman left in April 2019 to take the GM role in Detroit. It is disappointing that the man who built this team didn’t get the ring he deserved, but if Yzerman does for Detroit what he did for Tampa, he probably won’t mind.
The Tampa Bay Lightning’s rise as gradual and now that they have their Cup, they can look towards defending it and winning more. The road is steep though, with the salary cap and many players wanting to be paid, Tampa will have difficult decisions to make in the coming years. They’ve already had to put Tyler Johnson on waivers and with him clearing before the start of the season. Then there’s resigning Anthony Cirelli, who is a priority for Tampa.
For now, Tampa, enjoy your championship. It’s been ten years in the making.
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