How the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning were built

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It’s settled: the Tampa Bay Lightning will face the Montreal Canadiens in the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. So, how did each team get here? Let’s look at how each Stanley Cup Finalist was built, starting with the Lightning, who hope to repeat as champs.

Once we get deep into NHL postseason, people start wondering about “lessons learned.”

Some of that boils down to hand-wringing about level of play. Will (stingy, sometimes-boring team of the moment) inspire other GMs to bog down play? Will rival GMs assume that a mostly finesse-based team got over the hump because of a handful of gritty players?

[X-Factors for the 2021 Stanley Cup Final]

Really, though, teams should really just try to learn the right lessons from how the Tampa Bay Lightning constructed their team. They’ve been the gold standard for team-building for so long, it’s still difficult to gauge how much credit Julien BriseBois deserves compared to former GM Steve Yzerman.

Maybe that irritates BriseBois. But overall? Yeah, that’s a good problem to have.

Let’s break down how the Lightning were built into a 2021 Stanley Cup Finalist.

Cap gymnastics, LTIR, Kucherov, and the elephant in the locker room

Sigh, we might as well begin with the thing people complain about, over and over again.

Usually, the people complaining about Nikita Kucherov lingering on LTIR, and the Lightning pulling off salary cap gymnastics are on message boards or social media. But even Dougie Hamilton (sort of) griped about it after his Hurricanes fell to the Bolts.

Whether you shrug your shoulders or grind your teeth about the Lightning’s salary cap circumvention/LTIR use, Kucherov said it well enough. They played by the rules, like them or not.

But zooming out from that more specific squabble, the Lightning remain the gold standard for team-building because of how masterfully they’ve handled the salary cap.

As you might say, this isn’t their first rodeo. And they’ve generally handled it all with the panache of someone doing a headstand on a jet ski.

It seemed like the Lightning might lose one of Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, or Brayden Point over the years. Nope. Every time, they kept those truly crucial core players. In just about every case, the Lightning convinced them to sign for below market value. For a moment, it seemed like maybe giving Andrei Vasilevskiy big money would backfire. Not so much; he’s somehow a steal at $9.5M.

(Signing Brayden Point at $6.75M for three seasons when he was already clearly a star? That’s almost insulting.)

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Each offseason, we wonder how the Lightning will wiggle out of the next salary cap challenge. They do it easily, leaving us to say “Ah, well, nevertheless …” while other teams make huge mistakes.

Look it at last time. The Lightning sure seemed to be vulnerable to an offer sheet for Mikhail Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli, or even Erik Cernak. Instead, Sergachev and Cirelli carry bargain $4.8M cap hits, and Cernak costs about half of that.

Does it help to play in a state with tax breaks like Florida? Sure. And there are only so many NHL markets where you can jet-ski up to your buds to celebrate the return from COVID.

For other teams — even ones with some, or all, of the Lightning’s advantages — salary cap management can be a nightmare. Meanwhile, the Lightning make salary cap management look easy.

How the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning were built Kucherov Sergachev Cooper
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Deft drafting, scouting, and development

Then again, it’s generally easier to get a good deal on a top-flight player if they’re already in your organization.

When you look at the core of the Lightning, you’ll see a 2021 Stanley Cup Finalist built largely through shrewd drafting.

  • There are the high picks: Steven Stamkos (No. 1 in 2008), Victor Hedman (No. 2 in 2009), and sort of Andrei Vasilevskiy (19th in 2012, when teams were more skittish about drafting goalies in the first round).
  • Of course, the steals are fun. Nikita Kucherov slipped to the second round (58th in 2011). Brayden Point ranks as Exhibit A in the Lightning valuing skill and bucking the trend of obsessing over size (79th in 2014). Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn were also third-round picks.
  • Sometimes good scouting also means unearthing quality undrafted players. Tyler Johnson isn’t the key player he once was for the Bolts, but he’s a prominent example of the team finding diamonds in the rough. Yanni Gourde is, essentially, the next Tyler Johnson.

Granted, there also seems to be a secret sauce to Tampa Bay’s development. The Lightning just keep pumping out players like these, with even departing gems becoming key players on other teams (Jonathan Marchessault, Carter Verhaeghe).

Luck, but also skill

When it comes to some of those steals, you can float some comments about luck. It’s the logic of deflating the Patriots stealing Tom Brady, the Red Wings unearthing Pavel Datsyuk, the Rangers drafting Henrik Lundqvist, and so on. “If they knew that player was so good, why did they pass on them?”

That’s a decent point. However, the Lightning also deserve credit for adopting a smart organizational philosophy. Over and over again, the Lightning signed and drafted smaller, skilled players other teams talked themselves out of. They’ve profited greatly.

(Consider it a “Moneyball” approach, in the broadest sense. Identify “market inefficiencies,” and exploit them with, well, ruthless efficiency.)

Even if you still chalk that up to pure luck, the Lightning sure have enjoyed a lot of it, eh?

Defense bolstered by trades

Again, the Lightning built their foundation by strong drafting, and keeping the most important players through salary cap management. Beyond Victor Hedman, they’ve built much of their defense through trades, though.

“Tougher to play against”

When the Lightning traded for Savard, they continued a recent deadline theme of becoming “tougher to play against.”

As you likely remember, the Lightning paid significant prices to land supporting cast forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow during the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline. At times, people exaggerated the impact of Goodrow and Coleman, giving them a bit too much credit compared to outstanding work from usual suspects Hedman, Kucherov, Point, and Vasilevskiy.

But those two made the Lightning better, allowing them to become a merciless matchup machine.

Such moves helped the Lightning become what they are entering the 2021 Stanley Cup Final: a versatile juggernaut. If the Canadiens gum up the works with their defense, the Bolts are unlikely to flinch under the pressure of low-scoring games. Just consider Game 7 vs. the Isles.

It all adds up to a perennial contender

Yes, the Lightning endured setbacks, most famously seeing their historic regular season derailed by a Blue Jackets sweep. But they’ve been a contender for years because they’re smart and skilled.

Despite never winning a Jack Adams Award, Jon Cooper is the longest-tenured coach in the NHL, and easily one of the best. By keeping Cooper, the Lightning display one more strength: not panicking when things go wrong.

So, in breaking down how the Lightning were built, teams can pick and choose what lessons they want to learn. They’ve been smart in trading for quality talent, managing the salary cap, drafting and developing, and knowing when and when not to pull the plug on players.

Which means that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s nigh-impossible to totally replicate what the Lightning accomplished in building this contender. They’re simply better at this than just about anyone else.

CANADIENS VS. LIGHTNING – series livestream link

Game 1: Mon. June 28: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 2: Wed. June 30: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 3: Fri. July 2: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
Game 4: Mon. July 5: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 5: Wed. July 7: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 6: Fri. July 9: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 7: Sun. July 11: Canadiens at Lightning, 7 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)

*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.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

kris letang
Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”