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.)


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 or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Flyers trade Pride-night boycott defenseman Provorov in 3-team deal

flyers trade
Dennis Schneidler/USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Flyers have traded Ivan Provorov, sending away the defenseman who boycotted the team’s Pride night as part of a three-team trade that included the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Los Angeles Kings.

The seventh overall pick of the 2015 draft, the 26-year-old Provorov lands in Columbus and is set to enter the fifth season of a $40.5 million, six-year contract. He was the centerpiece Tuesday of the first major move under new Flyers’ leadership.

There were plenty of moving parts in the three-team deal.

— Philadelphia traded Provorov and forward Hayden Hodgson to Los Angeles in exchange for goalie Cal Petersen, defenseman Sean Walker, defenseman Helge Grans and the Kings’ 2024 second-round pick. The Kings lost in the first round of the playoffs.

— Columbus acquired defenseman Kevin Connauton from Philadelphia in exchange for a 2023 first-round pick (22nd overall) and a conditional second-round pick in either the 2024 or 2025 NHL Draft. Columbus acquired Provorov from Los Angeles in exchange for Connauton.

The Flyers already hold the No. 7 pick in this season’s draft and now also have the 23rd pick as they start accumulating key assets for long-range success in what is expected to be a deep draft.

Flyers general manager Danny Briere had said no player was untouchable after the Flyers missed the playoffs for the third straight season and went to work with the Stanley Cup Final still underway. The Flyers named broadcaster Keith Jones team president last month and he is still working the Final for TNT. But it’s clear the overdue rebuild is underway for a franchise that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup in 48 years.

“We felt that the picks and the direction that we wanted to go in, it was really enticing, very exciting,” Briere said. “We have a chance to really start building the team the way we wanted. The right way.”

Briere said the Flyers are “open for business” this summer and that included potentially listening to offers for No. 1 goalie Carter Hart. Coach John Tortorella, Briere and Jones have all tempered offseason expectations for any fan looking for a quick fix. The trio all insist the Flyers have a cohesive plan for the future.

Provorov had 65 goals and 217 points in 532 career games with the Flyers. The Russian was widely criticized in January when he cited his Russian Orthodox religion as the reason he did not participate in pregame warmups when the Flyers wore Pride-themed jerseys and used sticks wrapped in rainbow Pride tape.

“I respect everybody’s choices,” Provorov said after the game. “My choice is to stay true to myself and my religion.”

Now, he’s traded during Pride month.

Briere said the backlash over Pride night had nothing to do with trading Provorov.

The Blue Jackets, who missed the playoffs this season, were ready to take a flier on a defenseman seemingly with many productive years ahead.

“Improving our blue line has been a priority for us and acquiring Ivan gives us an established left-shot defenseman who is still a young player with his best seasons in front of him,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “He immediately improves our group on defense as he is durable, has great skill, skates well, is an excellent passer with an accurate shot and can effectively play at both ends of the ice.”

Provorov said at the end of the season he wasn’t necessarily happy the Flyers planned to rebuild but understood the decision. Briere declined to say if Provorov wanted out of Philadelphia.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the most positive news you can hear, but there’s a bright future here, and there’s a lot of great players that can keep growing,” Provorov said in April. “Obviously, it depends on how quick everybody gets better and how quickly the team game gets better. I think that’s what determines the length of the rebuild.”

Turns out, the potential success out of the haul the Flyers got for Provorov just may determine the length of the rebuild.

Golden Knights take 2-0 lead in Stanley Cup Final with 7-2 win over Panthers

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS — No team in over 25 years has been more dominant than the Vegas Golden Knights through the first two games of a Stanley Cup Final.

They have outscored the Florida Panthers by eight goals, including a 7-2 victory in Game 2 that put the Knights two wins from the first championship in the franchise’s short six-year history.

It will take a rare rally for the Panthers to come back as the series shifts to Florida for Game 3 on Thursday. Teams that took a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final are 31-3 in the expansion era, but the Panthers opened the playoffs by storming back from 3-1 down to beat the heavily favored Boston Bruins.

Florida will have to significantly up its level of play to beat a Vegas team that won by three goals on Saturday and then five in this game. The last team to win the first two games of a Cup Final by more than eight combined goals was the 1996 Colorado Avalanche – who outscored the Panthers by nine.

“I think our depth has been a strength all year,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It is the biggest reason we are still here, why we beat Winnipeg, Edmonton, Dallas. I just feel that we have the best team from player one through 20.”

Jonathan Marchessault scored twice for the Knights and started an early blitz that chased Sergei Bobrovsky, the NHL’s hottest postseason goalie.

Marchessault also had an assist to finish with three points. His 12 postseason goals set a Golden Knights record, with all of them coming after the first round. The only player with more following the opening round was Pavel Bure, who scored 13 for Vancouver in 1994.

“They want to set the tone with being undisciplined like Game 1 and we set the tone back,” Marchessault said. “It was scoring that first goal there. But we’re still pretty far from our goal here.”

Brett Howden scored twice for the Knights, who also got goals from Alec Martinez, Nicolas Roy and Michael Amadio. Six players had at least two points for Vegas, all 18 Knights skaters were on the ice for even-strength goals and their nine goal scorers through the first two games are a Stanley Cup Final record. The Knights’ seven goals tied a franchise mark for a playoff game.

It was too much for Bobrovsky, who was removed 7:10 into the second period down 4-0. It was the fifth time in 12 games the Knights have chased the opposing goalie.

Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, carried Florida through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Coming into the Stanley Cup Final, he had won 11 of his past 12 starts with a 1.95 goals-against average and .942 save percentage during that stretch. But he’s given up eight goals in 87 minutes against Vegas, compiling a 5.52 GAA and .826 save percentage in the series.

“We can be a little better in front of our goaltender,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “I got him out to keep him rested.”

Matthew Tkachuk and Anton Lundell scored for Florida.

Adin Hill continued his stellar play in net with 29 saves for the Knights. Hill once again brought his feistiness as well as his A-game. He stopped Carter Verhaeghe on a breakaway in the first, and later that period hit Tkachuk, who was in his net, with his blocker and then slashed him with his stick.

“He’s been unreal for us,” Vegas forward William Carrier said. “He’s been unbelievable.”

A group of four fans behind one of the nets wore sweaters that spelled out his last name, and Hill has often received the loudest cheers from Knights fans, reminiscent of when Marc-Andre Fleury was in goal for Vegas in its first three seasons.

“It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey,” Hill said. “I’m just enjoying it, cherishing every day. It’s been awesome to be part of the journey with this team.”

The Knights were dominant early, taking a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals from Marchessault and Martinez. It was Vegas’ third game in a row with a power-play goal, its first such stretch since Christmas week.

The Panthers lost their biggest, toughest defenseman early in the game when Radko Gudas was injured on a hit by Vegas forward Ivan Barbashev. Gudas left 6:39 in and did not return.

That was one of several big hits by Barbashev, the Golden Knights’ biggest trade-deadline acquisition, a Stanley Cup champion with St. Louis in 2019. Barbashev broke the sternum of Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard during the playoffs last year, also on a clean hit.

Vegas had its own scare late in the second period when Jack Eichel was nailed in the right shoulder by Tkachuk. Eichel returned in the third and set up Marchessault’s second goal for his second assist of the game.

“We did a good job managing momentum tonight,” Eichel said. “And we got some timely goals.”

Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

“I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.