Evil has prevailed. Tampa Bay has captured a second straight Stanley Cup. The Great Lightning Heist has been completed.
This is how we’re supposed to react to this victory, right? That the “cheaters” won?
That the team that was $18 million over the salary cap after reuniting with star winger Nikita Kucherov in the playoffs — missing the entire regular season after hip surgery, unfit to play in Game 56 on May 10 but scoring two goals in Game 1 of the playoffs on May 15 — twisted the NHL’s financial rules like a balloon animal to spend their way to another championship?
Well, that’s not right. They were actually $19.7 million over the cap in the playoffs, according to CapFriendly.
Isn’t that hilarious?
Spare me the whining. Everyone played under the same rules. Everyone played in the abbreviated season, just like every playoff team played in the same bubble when the Lightning won last summer. Tampa Bay just played better than everyone else, on the ice and off the ice.
They’re the most impressive champion of the NHL’s salary-cap era for their superior management and player development; their audacious team construction; and for taking advantage of every single benefit they had under the league’s suffocating financial system, from the lack of state income taxes in Florida to long-term injured reserve.
You’re not outraged that they “cheated.” You’re outraged that your team wasn’t smart enough to work the system, or deep enough to make the playoffs with a former MVP sidelined for 56 games.
That they’re not good enough to win a Stanley Cup, let alone two in a row.
That they’re the Tampa Bay Lightning, and you’re not.
If you’re angry about there not being a salary cap in the playoffs, go yell at the NHL owners that created the rules that allow it. Owners like Rocky Wirtz with the Chicago Blackhawks, whose team previously used long-term injured reserve to go over the cap during the season and then win a Stanley Cup — coincidentally, over the Lightning. (They learned it from watching you!)
If you’re angry about Kucherov miraculously healing for Game 1 against the Florida Panthers, go yell at the NHL, who investigated it and signed off on it.
The league has said “nothing inappropriate was done here” and that “the facts seem to align with the situation” for the Lightning to return Kucherov for Game 1, under a system that has been in place since 2005.
“Those were the cards we were dealt. That’s how we handled it. We had a player who was injured, needed surgery, with about a five-month expected rehabilitation time. It just so happened that this season, because of the extraordinary circumstances, only lasted four months, so he was able to have surgery, miss the entire season, we got some cap relief and he was able to come back a little sooner than expected. And it coincided with Game 1 of the playoffs,” said Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois.
“That’s just how it played itself out. Sometimes, the stars just align for you.”
The stars have done that a few times for the Lightning, no doubt. But the rest of the time, it was a brilliant management team — first GM Steve Yzerman, now with the Detroit Red Wings, then his understudy BriseBois starting in 2018 — finding stars in ways that other teams couldn’t or didn’t.
Consider how they aggressively and smartly drafted
The Lightning have 10 players who contributed in the Stanley Cup Final that arrived via the NHL draft, dating back to winger Alex Killorn in 2007 (77th overall) and ending with winger Ross Colton in 2016 (118th overall). Some of them were no-brainers: They tanked for Steven Stamkos at first overall in 2008, and followed that with Victor Hedman at second overall in 2009.
That’s lucky. Not every draft produces the same kind of foundational players. To quote the great Billy Zane in “Titanic,” they made their own luck in other drafts.
They selected Andrei Vasilevskiy at No. 19 in 2012 — seen as a risk, as both a goaltender taken in the first round and as a Russian taken in the first round, the latter being something Yzerman laughed off.
“I played with some pretty darn good Russian players and Russian people,” the ex-Red Wing told Sportsnet in 2015. “Just to cross those guys off the list would be [a mistake]. It’s hard enough to find good players, let alone pick and choose what country they’re coming from.”
That’s why they didn’t flinch in drafting Nikita Kucherov in 2011: Now one of the best players on the planet, then a late second-round pick that the rest of the league had 57 chances to acquire before the Lightning did. (The Calgary Flames drafted Tyler Wotherspoon at No. 57, whose claim to fame is being drafted right before Nikita Kucherov.)
Kucherov was one of three Russians whom the Lightning selected that day. “We see three guys who, had they not had last names ending in ‘ov,’ would have been drafted in the second round at the latest,” said Al Murray, the team’s director of scouting and draft mastermind.
Your team could have had Kucherov. Your team could have had Brayden Point, who was undrafted after 78 picks in 2014; or Anthony Cirelli, passed over through 71 picks in 2015; or Ondrej Palat, who heard 207 (!) names called before his in 2011.
Instead, the Lightning have them.
But even if your team did have them, would they be any good? Because you wouldn’t have Stacy Roest or J.P. Cote, who have orchestrated player development for the Lightning in the past decade. You wouldn’t have the skills coaches like Barb Underhill, the former Olympic pairs skater who taught Point his elite mobility on the ice. You wouldn’t have Benoit Groulx, the outstanding head coach of the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse, sending player after to player to the Lightning, ready to contribute.
“We might not see a guy for four years. But he’s been groomed for years with things to work on. Then they get to the American League, and they’re really demanding down there. So by the time they get here, it’s like they’re NHLers,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “There’s a really good structure put in place.”
But not every solution came through the draft, and not every addition was made without sacrifice.
Consider how they aggressively and smartly built their defense
The Lightning traded a 21-year-old third overall pick in Jonathan Drouin to the Canadiens for defenseman Mikhail Sergachev in 2017. That’s the same year they traded two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop — in the last year of his deal, and who had been made obsolete by Vasilevskiy — to the Los Angeles Kings for a package that included “minor league defenseman Erik Cernak,” seemingly a throw-in for a rental.
Sergachev and Cernak are third and fourth in ice time for Tampa Bay in this postseason.
In 2018, they traded a first-round pick, top-line forward Vladislav Namestnikov and prospects to the rebuilding Rangers for defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller. What was thought to be a rental turned out to be a pillar of two Stanley Cup championships, as the Lightning signed McDonagh to a seven-year extension.
McDonagh was second in ice time during both of their Cup runs.
Another first-rounder went out the door for defenseman David Savard in 2021, in order for the Columbus Blue Jackets (and the Detroit Red Wings) to pick up some of his salary. Factor in the 2019 trade that sent Slater Koekkoek to the Chicago Blackhawks for Jan Rutta, and the only homegrown part of the Lightning’s championship defense in either Stanley Cup win was Victor Hedman — which, again, is a good starting point. The rest of the defense, including seventh man Luke Schenn, was built by trading away their own picks and drafted players.
Consider how they aggressively and smartly built their checking line
J.T. Miller, you’ll recall, was flipped to the Vancouver Canucks in 2019 in a package that included a first-round pick. It was a deal consummated on the floor of the entry draft in Vancouver, on the same day that the Lightning selected left wing Nolan Foote at No. 27 overall. In Feb. 2020, the Lightning traded both that pick and Foote to the New Jersey Devils for winger Blake Coleman; penalty killer, one-handed goal specialist and pickle juice aficionado.
Coleman had broken 20 goals twice with the Devils. Barclay Goodrow hadn’t scored more than eight with the San Jose Sharks in six seasons. Yet the Lightning also anted up a first-round pick for Goodrow. In both cases, the player they acquired had one more year on their contracts for miniscule cap hits — Coleman’s was $1.8 million, Goodrow’s was $925,000 — before hitting unrestricted free agency after the 2021 season.
“He’s a good defensive depth forward who can be a PK force, but he’s not even close to being worth the cost of a first-round pick,” wrote CBS Sports on Goodrow, in labeling the Lightning a trade deadline “loser.”
The Lightning saw something in both, but they didn’t immediately see them with center Yanni Gourde. The trio actually played less than two minutes together in the regular season before it was truncated by the COVID pandemic. But in the 2020 playoffs, no line other than the top unit with Kucherov, Point and Palat played more than the checking line did for the Lightning in the last two Cup runs.
“They don’t care who they’re playing against, what the score is. They bring a gun to a knife fight. They’re ready and they don’t back down,” said Cooper. “They’re a pain in the ass. The way they play, it sucks a lot out of you, and it doesn’t seem to affect those guys.”
Of course, who needs draft picks when you can find NHL prospects without them? Gourde and Tyler Johnson were both undrafted, and Yzerman snatched them up.
Years later, Tyler Johnson was available to … well, the entire league. He’s signed through 2024-25 with a $5 million cap hit. They tried to trade him before the season. They put him through waivers — twice. No takers. He scored two goals in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, moonlighting on the team’s second line in place of an injured Killorn.
Could have been a cap casualty. Could have been had by any other team this season. Hooray for happy accidents for the Lightning, I guess.
Consider that your team could have hired Jon Cooper
Or, at least, the Washington Capitals could have.
In 2012, Cooper didn’t feel he was ready to be an NHL head coach. He had only had two seasons of pro hockey coaching experience with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals, winning the Calder Cup in his first season. That was enough for Washington Capitals GM George McPhee, who wanted to hire him as his next head coach after Dale Hunter‘s departure. He was overruled by ownership, who wanted former Capitals center Adam Oates to get his first NHL gig instead.
Oates and McPhee were both fired after the 2013-14 season — Cooper’s first full season as head coach of the Lightning, when they returned to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
“We should have hired him,” said McPhee, now president of hockey operations for the Vegas Golden Knights. “Wherever he had coached, the teams just had terrific records.”
Consecutive Stanley Cup championships, three Stanley Cup Final appearances and advancing to at least the third round of the playoffs in five of his eight full NHL seasons? Yeah, that’s pretty terrific.
The three-peat quest begins
There have been other repeat champions in the cap era. There have even been back-to-back Stanley Cup champions, as recently as 2015-16 and 2016-17 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
There are a few things that make this Lightning run unique. Like the journey: Cooper is the first to admit that their soul-sucking loss in the 2019 playoffs’ first round, a sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets, changed the trajectory of his team. It gave it humility. It gave it a renewed commitment to playoff defense, and winning the 1-0 game as well as they could win the 8-0 game. It gave the team a resiliency that led to the Lightning going 14-0 in the playoffs after losses over the last two postseasons.
“It took a lot to get here. The heartbreak in 2015 getting all the way to the Final and losing, and then 2016 going to Game 7 against Pittsburgh, losing that one. In 2018, against Barry Trotz coaching [the Capitals], he beat us in Game 7. The heartbreak to Columbus in 2019. It was all building blocks to get to here, and you can’t predict that,” said Cooper. “To one day put on your gravestone that you won a Stanley Cup [is good], but to do it two years in a row, now you are talking about now your team is special.”
Like the reality of their surroundings. The Lightning won consecutive Stanley Cups in truncated seasons, during a pandemic. They won the first in a playoff tournament defined by monotony and isolation. They won the second after a season of testing, protocols, public lists of the exposed and the infected, and the rest of the challenges NHL teams and players faced this season. Somehow they thrived when others cracked.
(Place an asterisk next to the Cups as you will. They were, in fact, unprecedented seasons.)
This was the last ride for this group. They’re still very much kissing the ceiling under the flat $81.5 million salary cap. Changes will have to be made, by letting players walk and through trades and via the Seattle Kraken expansion draft.
“I think it’s one of those things that you understand the situation, so let’s go out and do as best as we can as a group because most likely, in a cap world, this group probably isn’t going to play together [again],” Stamkos said. “Just like the group from last year, not everyone could come back. Every year it’s tough, but we realize the reality. All of that stuff kind of figures itself out.”
So they’ll reload and recalibrate, seeking to do what no team will have done for 40 years: Win three Stanley Cups in a row.
Cooper challenged his team this season by asking if they were “full.” If they were content with one Stanley Cup or if they wanted to be special and win two on a row. Three might seem gluttonous. It’s something the Gretzky Oilers or the Lemieux and Crosby Penguins or even Yzerman’s Red Wings couldn’t do.
But now it’s possible.
It’ll take more incredible performances. More standout seasons. More aggressive, smart management.
Or, failing all of that, they just put Victor Hedman on long-term injured reserve for 82 games then activate him for the playoffs after treating the hard cap like it was made of tissue paper at the trade deadline …