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.”
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.”