How Tampa Bay Lightning put together a Stanley Cup contender

As we await Game 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final (Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC: livestream), let’s reflect on how the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning put together playoff rosters.

Earlier on Friday, we broke down how the Dallas Stars were built by GM of the Yeafinalist Jim Nill.

Now let’s consider the Tampa Bay Lightning, built by another GM of the Year finalist, Julien BriseBois. (With ample credit also going to Steve Yzerman, of course.)

How the Tampa Bay Lightning built a roster that reached the 2020 Stanley Cup Final

Two huge first-round stars, but a sneaky-high number of misses

The Lightning’s reputation for shrewd drafting is well-earned. When it comes to the first round, though, they didn’t always find the mark.

That said, they did when it mattered the most. Landing Steven Stamkos (first overall in 2008) and Victor Hedman (second in 2009) was instrumental in turning the Lightning around.

Of course, the Lightning got this far with Stamkos on the shelf, so they didn’t only live off of being in the right place, at the right time.

Again, though, the Lightning can feel the Stars’ pain in biffing a few first-rounders.

Slater Koekkoek (10th, 2012), Jonathan Drouin (third, 2013), and Tony DeAngelo (19th, 2014) all ended up on other teams, with only Drouin netting the Lightning a big-time return in potential star defenseman Mikhail Sergachev.

But the Lightning are where they are today because of what they did outside of the first round, and sometimes outside of the draft altogether.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Lightning made huge draft (and undrafted) gains, largely with small players

Old-school types feasted on a perceived lack of toughness when the Blue Jackets swept the Lightning. Yet, you kind of wonder if there’s a defensiveness there. After all, the Lightning feasted on old-school obsessions with size over skill and production.

From Nikita Kucherov (58th in 2011) to Brayden Point (79th in 2014), the Lightning unearthed its top stars by looking below the 6-foot-mark. Ignoring height when it came to Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson allowed the Bolts to unearth undrafted gems.

Not every Lightning draft steal boiled down to different cover songs of finding Martin St. Louis, mind you.

But either way, the Bolts paralleled the Red Wings dynasty era by finding diamonds in the rough.

Potential future Selke winner Anthony Cirelli slipped to 72nd in 2015. If you want a seventh-rounder, consider Ondrej Palat (208th in 2011). From Alex Killorn to Mathieu Joseph to Cedric Paquette, Tampa Bay outfitted its roster with draft picks.

Like Brayden Point dangling around helpless defensemen, sometimes the Lightning made their peers look silly in the process.

[MORE: How the Dallas Stars were built.]

Building around Vasi

If you want to follow some of the most interesting Lightning-related team-building debates, follow the career of Andrei Vasilevskiy.

During a time when teams were timid about picking goalies in the first round, the Lightning snatched Vasilevskiy at 19th overall. Generally speaking, the “smart money” is not on picking a goalie in the first round, but it worked out in a big way for Tampa Bay.

That’s because, if you get it right and that goalie develops reasonably quickly, you can save money. The Lightning really only started paying Vasilevskiy big money ($9.5M cap hit) this season. Before, he was making just $3.5M per year.

Paying a goalie that much also flies in the face of “smart money,” yet Vasilevskiy’s been an ace for the Lightning. At 26, his prime years are ahead of him — although goalies are voodoo, so that $9.5M could still end up looking bad.

Overall, Vasilevskiy looms large as a huge part of the Lightning’s foundation.

Free agency: scraps, and mainly trying to avoid losses

As brilliant as the Lightning are in many team-building areas, they aren’t immune to the salary cap crunch that confounds contenders. (Even if they’ve basically been wizards at convincing stars to take less money. They must love to jet ski.)

But, either way, free agency for the Lightning mainly boils down to finding scraps, and trying not to lose too many important players.

This leaves the Lightning with the amusing distinction of having two Atlanta Thrashers high first-round picks in Zach Bogosian (third in 2008) and Braydon Coburn (eighth in 2003).

Yet, for every marginal depth defenseman (Luke Schenn, who went fifth in 2008), the Lightning sometimes convince quality veterans to accept pocket change to chase a Stanley Cup. Warts and all, Kevin Shattenkirk has been a great value for Tampa Bay. And, now that he’s healthy, Patrick Maroon has been useful during the playoffs.

Again, though: free agency is more an area of desperation than aspiration for GM Julien BriseBois.

Lightning are busy traders

While the Stars are light with trading but heavier on free agency, the Lightning are generally the reverse.

At the very top, this team is built around draft picks such as Stamkos, Hedman, Kucherov, Point, and Vasilevskiy. Even so, the supporting cast features significant trade additions, often at significant costs.

Consider Ryan McDonagh the result of the more blockbuster-quality trades Tampa Bay sought as it was growing. As mentioned before, Sergachev for Drouin was another tide-turning trade, and we’re still waiting to see the full impact.

After being swept, and with the salary cap closing in, the Lightning have been selling off picks and prospects in pursuit of that Stanley Cup. That’s meant saying goodbye to J.T. Miller in a trade that, for all its pain, was still pretty brilliant considering the Lightning’s desperation. That also meant paying expensive premiums to land quality depth in Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.

Factoring in all the Lightning’s bumps and bruises — not to mention the Stars’ stingy, exacting style — it wouldn’t be surprising if Tampa Bay leans on Coleman and Goodrow quite a bit during the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

The Lightning shine as one of the league’s most aggressive, and creative traders. They make things fun even when they’re not on the ice.

Final thoughts on how Lightning built their Stanley Cup-contending roster

To criticize the Lightning blueprint, you really have to nitpick about some first-round misses. Otherwise, they’re lapping all but the quickest of their peers.

They’ve found a great mix of skill and sandpaper, and oh yeah, they also employ one of the best coaches in the NHL in Jon Cooper. For all of the hysteria over that Blue Jackets sweep, the Lightning put together deep playoff run after deep playoff run for a reason.

Still, with the salary cap shackles clamping on, this team was also built to win now, and it remains to be seen if this strong foundation turns into a wobbly Jenga tower.

Then again, we thought it would topple multiple times before, yet BriseBois & Co. keep finding answers.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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