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.
Nikita Kucherov asked about the comment from Dougie Hamilton yesterday
"I didn't do it on purpose, I had hip surgery . . . I didn't make the rules''
On going to the gym during all the rehab "I hated it, it was really annoying"
— Lightning Insider (@Erik_Erlendsson) June 11, 2021
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.
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.
- Not every Lightning draft pick has worked out — including high ones. In one case, they turned Jonathan Drouin (No. 3 in 2013) into Sergachev. Yep, they got the best of rival Stanley Cup finalist GM Marc Bergevin on that one.
- The Ryan McDonagh trade package seemed large, but it was extremely one-sided for the Lightning over the Rangers. Not getting Erik Karlsson seems fortunate, too.
- Remember when it seemed like the Lightning got peanuts to trade away Ben Bishop? Oops, Erik Cernak’s really good.
- Some of the LTIR/salary cap/Kucherov angst stems from the Lightning being able to trade for David Savard.
“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)
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.