Lightning Effect: Skilled NHL teams add grit to go for Cup

A skilled team that got eliminated early in the playoffs by a tougher opponent a few years removed from a Stanley Cup Final loss signed a forward with his name engraved on the trophy and a big defenseman hungry to win after years of not being in contention.

Rewind to 2019 and early 2020 and that description fits the Tampa Bay Lightning, who added some grit and toughness to their talented core and went on to win the Stanley Cup. In the present day, it’s the Nashville Predators, who are among the many contenders copying Tampa Bay’s blueprint to try to get over the hump.

The Lightning effect was clear as soon as NHL free agency opened. Teams such as the Predators, Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs augmented their lineups with the same kind of hard-nosed players the Lightning did — an acknowledgement that to go deep in the playoffs and win it all, it can’t just be all about scoring and skill.

“We’ve had a good team the last couple years, but for whatever reasons, the fits, the chemistries, how we played just wasn’t good enough on a consistent basis,” Nashville general manager David Poile said Thursday.

“I still think we’ve got a pretty highly skilled team with a top four defensemen and I think we’ve got five or six really high-skilled forwards, but it’s a team game and it takes all different types of guys to be successful.”

For the Predators, it meant adding 2012 Cup-winning forward Brad Richardson and 6-foot-1, 207-pound defenseman Mark Borowiecki. The Panthers traded for agitating winger Patric Hornqvist and signed rugged defenseman Radko Gudas and big center Alexander Wennberg, who was on the Columbus Blue Jackets when they upset the Lightning in the first round in 2019.

The Maple Leafs brought in winger Wayne Simmonds for some “functional toughness” and poached veteran blue liner Zach Bogoisan off the Lightning’s roster after he was a key free agency signing of theirs on the road to the Cup.

“You need those guys,” said Kevin Shattenkirk, another newcomer on Tampa Bay’s championship team who left to sign with Anaheim. “You need guys that are going to have a little bit of sandpaper. I think what it also does is it allows your skilled players to realize that they have a little protection out there. They have guys that are going to stick up for them if other teams are trying to take liberties and run around and try to intimidate you.”

There was no intimidating the Lightning after they signed 2019 Cup winner Pat Maroon before the season and Bogosian in February and traded for Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman at the deadline.

It’ll be harder to intimidate Toronto’s core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly with Simmonds, Bogosian and even previous acquisitions such as Jake Muzzin and Jason Spezza on the ice.

Although the Leafs have plenty of playoff failures to show for their high-end talent and made none of the progress Tampa Bay did through several deep runs, it looks smart to follow a similar pattern.

“It’s just trying to find people that we can add around them that can push the group to a different level,” GM Kyle Dubas said. “What we’re trying to do is, yes, we would like to become a harder team to play against. More than that I think it’s the toughness and character by which those guys operate every day.”

Much like Toronto, which scored the third-most goals in the NHL last season and allowed the sixth most, that’s the goal for Florida with Hornqvist, Gudas and Wennberg. The Panthers were sixth in goals scored and third worst in goals allowed and made no secret of their desire to get tougher.

“They want somebody that plays hard every night and is tough to play against,” Gudas said. “I always look forward to playing the physical game and make sure that teams don’t like coming in our building.”

The two previous champions — the Washington Capitals in 2018 and St. Louis Blues in 2019 — were big, heavy teams that won by wearing down opponents. The Lightning accomplished the same goal by controlling the puck, putting other teams on their heels and crushing their morale with a blend of offensive creativity and a dollop of brute force.

Blend it all together and it’s a winning recipe for more than just Tampa Bay.

“For a while, everybody wanted a big, heavy team and that’s how you win Cups,” Borowiecki said. “And then it was, well, maybe it’s puck possession and all skill. And now it sort of seems like, well, maybe it’s a bit of a mix. You can’t go too much in one direction and neglect the other aspects of the game.”

His new GM knows that from his four decades in hockey. Watching the Lightning get swept out of the first round by the Blue Jackets last year, and his team losing to Arizona in the qualifying round in the bubble playoffs, Poile and his staff were willing to sacrifice some pure talent to get rougher around the edges.

They hope it will end with a Cup celebration.

“We maybe have taken a little bit of a step back from the most skillful lineup we’ve ever had to more of a balance between the will and the skill,” Poile said. “We are not the same team as we were last year. We have a different makeup to our team. We certainly have a little bit more physicality, a little bit more grit and I think it’s probably and hopefully a better mix than we had last year.”

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    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

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    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

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    All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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    SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

    Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

    The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

    Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

    Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.