Strikingly smart: How Tampa Bay Lightning were built

It’s settled: the Tampa Bay Lightning will face the Colorado Avalanche in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final. So, how did each team get here? After covering the Avalanche, let’s consider how the Lightning were built.

As defending repeat champs and “three-peat” hopefuls, the Lightning have clearly been built to last. In fact, PHT chronicled how the Tampa Bay Lightning were built last year.

Will this be the year that the Avalanche forcefully remove the torch from the Lightning? We’ll see. Even if that happens, it’s reasonable to maintain the stance that the Lightning are the gold standard for NHL team-building.

Let’s take a broader view of how the Lightning built their core. Also, we’ll ponder the tweaks they’ve made over the years, including around the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline.

Tampa Bay Lightning: dynamos at drafting, development

The Lightning share some parallels with the Avalanche and other teams who placed crucial parts of their core together in the age-old way. They were bad at the right time to draft foundational players in the first round.

Back in the 2020 Stanley Cup run, Stamkos was limited to just one playoff game, and one memorable goal. Essentially winning a Stanley Cup without Stamkos may have prompted some belief that he wasn’t needed.

[MORE: Stamkos thriving in different role with Lightning]

This current run reminded us of what he’s capable of. Really, it’s another chance to wonder where Stamkos’ numbers would be without some of the terrible injury luck he’s endured.

  • Increasingly, it seems like Hedman (second overall) should’ve been selected first over John Tavares in 2009. He’s easily one of the best defensemen of his era.
  • For each miss (Brett Connolly, sixth in 2010) or player whose impact happened elsewhere (Tony DeAngelo, 19th in 2014), there was a huge hit like Andrei Vasilevskiy. Around a time when teams were increasingly risk-averse about drafting goalies high, the Lightning were rewarded for selecting the future Hall of Famer at 19th overall. Granted, they selected Slater Koekkoek at 10th that same year, so they’re not total soothsayers.
  • Of course, the most fun draft picks echo former GM Steve Yzerman’s current team in Detroit (who stole the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk from draft obscurity).

Most NHL teams got at least two shots at Nikita Kucherov, who went 58th in 2011. Key pieces Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, and Alex Killorn were all third-rounders.

Where other teams can and cannot learn from the Lightning in drafting/developing

There’s not much other teams can learn about high picks like Hedman and Stamkos. The lesson there is “cross your fingers that you’re bad (then lucky) at the perfect time.”

Yet, with players like Brayden Point, the Lightning targeted a market inefficiency. Teams were too dismissive of skilled players who were small. That allowed players like Cole Caufield and Alex DeBrincat to slip in their respective drafts, as well.

So, the Lightning can find diamonds in the rough. Yet, when that happens often enough, there must be something more. This franchise isn’t just great at finding talent, but also getting the most out of those players.

Just look at how capable NHL players just keep popping up from the AHL. Ross Colton‘s the latest of a long line of players to go from “Who?” to “How do they keep doing this?”

Theory: because they’re smarter than the rest of us.

(That thought resonates each time Jon Cooper out-coaches someone in the playoffs.)

Lightning build defense, depth with trades

Then again, some of the Lightning’s best trades boil down to knowing when to part ways with picks and prospects who don’t quite pan out. Beyond Hedman, it’s the catalyst for their unusually deep defense.

Interestingly, the Avalanche also supplemented a star draft pick (Cale Makar/Victor Hedman) with other key defensemen through trades.

Maybe the signal there is to pour resources into pro scouting and/or shrewd analytics teams to identify help on defense?

Learning to love LTIR: Lightning are masters of salary cap management

Someone, somewhere might still be bitter about the way the Lightning leveraged LTIR over the years.

And, fair enough, this team will always need to wiggle around such claustrophobic cap circumstances. This screenshot of their Cap Friendly page just feels right.

Some feel like it’s “cheating.” That said, it’s fair to guess that there’s a level of jealousy. Plenty of fans must wonder “Why can’t my team do that too?”

(Lightning management must have scoffed and muttered “amateurs” at the Golden Knights this season.)

Leveraging that state tax advantage, careful planning to keep stars when others would lose them

That prevailing feeling of “How do they keep getting away with this?” permeates through the Lightning’s salary cap structure.

Repeatedly, it seemed like the Lightning would lose someone like Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, or Anthony Cirelli for salary cap reasons. Over and over, Tampa Bay instead found ways to hammer out relative bargain contracts.

[Stunning Numbers from the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs]

No doubt, you can credit state tax advantages and weather. Still, there are a handful of other franchises with fairly similar advantages. None of them exploit the situation like Tampa Bay does.

And, even when someone can’t fit in the puzzle, the Lightning tend to handle it better. Everyone and their uncle knew that they were in salary cap trouble when they traded J.T. Miller. Even so, the Lightning got the Canucks to cough up a first-rounder to get Tampa Bay out of trouble.

(At least Miller’s been even better than most of us realized.)

Overall, the Lightning are like Nikita Kucherov faking Aaron Ekblad out of his skates. Tampa Bay’s a step or three ahead of others. Sometimes, it’s to the point where they make you look bad.

Semi-new wrinkle: trading for cap-friendly depth

Over time, some might have exaggerated the impacts of the Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman trades.

Sure, they both helped the Lightning during their repeat runs — Coleman, especially. But the Lightning still lean heavily on their top players: Kucherov, Hedman, Vasilevskiy, Point, Stamkos, and Cirelli.

Still, those trades laid down a template for Lightning trades that help them survive the salary cap squeeze. At this past trade deadline, the Lightning rolled out that blueprint for Brandon Hagel.

Hagel, 23, has already been a find. He’s not only cheap now, but also in the future, as his $1.5 million cap hit runs through 2023-24. The Blackhawks landed a pretty noteworthy haul for Hagel, yet it follows the Coleman and Goodrow examples. A rebuilding/retooling team gets serious assets, like a first-rounder (or more). The Lightning buy themselves some salary cap relief by adding a player who’s almost certainly worth more than they’re getting paid.

Everyone wins, right? Pretty much. But it’s probably not a coincidence that the Lightning win more. They tend to do that.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Rangers sign Filip Chytil to 4-year extension

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    Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

    NEW YORK — The New York Rangers have signed forward Filip Chytil to a four-year contract extension worth $17.75 million, locking up another member of their core long term.

    The team announced the deal Wednesday night. Chytil will count just under $4.44 million annually against the salary cap through the 2026-27 season.

    Chytil, 23, is in the midst of a career year. He has set career highs with 22 goals, 20 assists and 42 points in 66 games for the playoff-bound Rangers.

    The Czech native is the team’s sixth-leading scorer and ranks fourth on the roster in goals. The 2017 first-round pick has 144 points in 342 NHL regular-season and playoff games. He was set to be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer.

    New York already had top center Mika Zibanejad signed through 2030, No. 1 defenseman Adam Fox through 2029, veteran Chris Kreider through 2027, winger Artemi Panarin through 2026 and reigning Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Igor Shesterkin through 2025.

    General manager Chris Drury’s next order of business is an extension for 2020 top pick Alexis Lafrenière, who is only signed through the remainder of this season and can be a restricted free agent.

    Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews returns to ice, hints at retirement

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    CHICAGO — Longtime Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews returned to the ice but hinted his stellar NHL career could be winding down after 15 years.

    Toews, 34, skated with teammates prior to Chicago’s game with the Dallas Stars. It was his first time practicing with them since a game in Edmonton on Jan. 28.

    He made a statement through the team on Feb. 19 saying he would be stepping away because of the effects of Chronic Immune Response Syndrome and “long COVID.”

    In meeting with reporters, Toews stopped short of saying he hoped to play in any of last-place Chicago’s nine remaining games. His eight-year, $84 million contract is set to expire at the end of the season.

    Toews said he’s feeling stronger, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play again for the Blackhawks or another team.

    “Both if I’m being fully honest,” Toews said. “I feel like I’ve said it already, that I’ve gotten to the point where my health is more important.

    “When you’re young and you’re playing for a Stanley Cup and everyone’s playing through something, that means something and it’s worthwhile. But I’m at that point where it feels like more damage is being done than is a good thing.”

    Toews, the Blackhawks’ first-round draft pick (third overall) in 2006, joined the team in 2007 and was a pillar of Stanley Cup championship clubs in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

    At the peak of his career, he was one of the NHL’s top two-way centers, winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 2013.

    In 1,060 regular-season games, Toews has 371 goals and 509 assists. In 139 playoff games, he’s posted 45 goals and 74 assists, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2010.

    Toews missed the entire 2020-21 season with Chronic Immune Response System, which caused debilitating inflammation and fatigue.

    He appeared in 71 games in 2021-22, then started this season with renewed energy before slowing and eventually shutting himself down.

    Entering this season, it looked as if Chicago might deal him, as it did fellow star Patrick Kane, before the March trade deadline. But Kane went to the New York Rangers and Toews to injured reserve.

    Toews believed he was progressing before a relapse in January left him so sore and tired that he could barely “put on my skates or roll out of bed to come to the rink.”

    Toews said his progress over the past month has been “pretty encouraging” and he’s delighted to be back among his teammates. He has no timetable beyond that.

    “We’re just going to go day by day here,” Chicago coach Luke Richardson said. He deserves anything he wants to try to achieve here.”

    Richardson hoped Toews “can take that next step later in the week and hopefully (he) gives us the green light to go in a game.”

    But Toews emphasized his long-term health and ability to lead a “normal life” is most important. He wants to go out on a positive note and not hit the ice for a game playing through excessive pain and dysfunction.

    “It’s definitely on my mind that this could be my last few weeks here as a Blackhawk in Chicago,” Toews said. “It’s definitely very important for me to go out there and enjoy the game and just kind of soak it in and just really appreciate everything I’ve been able to be part of here in Chicago.”

    Budding Wild star Matt Boldy more willing to shoot, and it shows

    Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports
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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Boldy was unable to resist a smile in the aftermath of his second hat trick in five games for the Minnesota Wild, a young right wing and reluctant star trying to make sense of a remarkable hot streak.

    Does the puck feel as if it’s automatically going in the net these days each time he shoots?

    “Yeah, it does,” Boldy said in the locker room after leading the first-place Wild to a 5-1 win over Seattle. “My linemates are playing great. Hopefully you guys are giving them a lot of credit. You look at some of those goals – just putting it on a tee for me.”

    This non-attention-seeker has found himself squarely in the NHL spotlight. Boldy has 11 goals in nine games since Wild superstar Kirill Kaprizov was sidelined with a lower-body injury to raise his goal total to 28, in part because he’s been more willing to shoot. With vision and stickhandling as strengths and the humility of being a second-year player, it’s easy to be in a pass-first mindset.

    “Everybody kind of took turns talking to him. But it’s not that he didn’t want to. A lot of times a situation like that where a guy’s got that skillset, it’s a real unselfish quality, right?” coach Dean Evason said. “But I think he gets now that he helps the team a lot when he scores goals.”

    The Wild were confident enough in Boldy’s scoring ability to commit a seven-year, $49 million contract extension to him earlier this winter, after all.

    “I think I’ve always had that mentality, but sometimes you just get into spots and it comes off your stick good,” Boldy said. “When things are going well, the puck goes in the net.”’

    The Wild are 6-1-2 without Kaprizov. Boldy is a big reason why.

    “You go through the slumps, you learn what you need to do to score. I think he’s found a good way to be in the right spot and shoot the puck when he had a good opportunity,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said.

    The Wild have only won one division title in 22 years, the five-team Northwest Division in 2007-08. They’re leading the eight-team Central Division with eight games to go, with both Colorado and Dallas too close for comfort. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2015.

    With Kaprizov due back before the postseason and Boldy on this heater, a Wild team that ranks just 23rd in the league in goals per game (2.93) ought to have a better chance to advance. Eriksson Ek and Marcus Johansson have been ideal linemates for the Boston College product and Massachusetts native.

    Since the Wild entered the league in the 2000-01 season, only five NHL players have had more hat tricks at age 21 or younger than Boldy with three: Patrik Laine (eight), Marian Gaborik (five), Steven Stamkos (five), Alex DeBrincat (four) and Connor McDavid (four). Boldy turns 22 next week, so there’s still time for one or two more.

    “He’s big. He controls the puck a lot. He’s got a good shot, good release. He’s smart. He switches it up. He’s got good moves on breakaways. He’s a total player,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Fun to watch him grow this year.”

    Pezzetta scores shootout winner; Canadiens beat Sabres 4-3

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    Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports

    BUFFALO, N.Y. ⁠— Brendan Gallagher and the Montreal Canadiens rallied back to avoid playoff elimination with less than three weeks left in their season. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, are running out of chances to stay in the Eastern Conference wild-card hunt.

    Gallagher forced overtime by scoring his 200th career goal, and Michael Pezzetta scored the decisive shootout goal in a 4-3 win over the Sabres on Monday night.

    “It’s one of those things I think we earned that chance. We weren’t fantastic but we did enough on the road tonight to get a win,” Gallagher said. “Smiles all around.”

    The Canadiens could laugh, especially after Pezzetta celebrated his goal by putting his stick between his legs and riding it like a wooden horse — much like former NHL tough guy Dave “Tiger” Williams did during his 14-year NHL career spanning the 1970s and 80s.

    “I’m not sure we’ll see that again. One of a kind,” said Gallagher. “I’d be worried about falling over.”

    Pezzetta scored by driving in from the right circle to beat Eric Comrie inside the far post. Buffalo’s Jack Quinn scored in the fourth shootout round, but was matched by Montreal’s Jesse Ylonen, whose shot from in tight managed to trickle in through Comrie.

    Jordan Harris and Alex Belzile also scored for Montreal, and Jake Allen stopped 30 shots through overtime, while allowing one goal on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal would have been eliminated from playoff contention for a second straight season – and two years removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final – with any type of loss.

    The Sabres squandered a 3-2 third-period lead to drop to 3-6-3 in their past 12. Buffalo also blew a chance to move to within four points of idle Pittsburgh, which holds the eighth and final playoff spot.

    “Just a little hesitation,” forward JJ Peterka said of the Sabres third-period lapse. “We didn’t play with much energy and we didn’t play that aggressive as we played the two periods before. I think that was the difference.”

    Buffalo’s Lukas Rousek scored a goal and added an assist while filling in for leading scorer Tage Thompson, who did not play due to an upper body injury. Peterka and defenseman Riley Stillman also scored, and Comrie stopped 38 shots through overtime, and allowed two goals on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal blew two one-goal leads to fall behind 3-2 on Stillman’s goal at the 8:31 mark of the second period.

    Gallagher scored on the fly by using Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin as a screen to snap in a shot inside the far left post. With the goal, Gallagher tied Bobby Rousseau for 24th on the Canadiens career scoring list.

    “I liked the way we corrected ourselves, it’s a sign of maturity, in the way we stayed on task,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said, in recalling how the Canadiens recently unraveled in an 8-4 loss two weeks ago to Colorado, which plays a similar up-tempo style as Buffalo.


    The Sabres hosted their third Pride Night, with Russian D Ilya Lyubushkin electing not to participate in warmups by citing an anti-gay Kremlin law and fears of retribution at home in Moscow, where he has family and visits in the offseason. The remainder of the team wore dark blue jerseys with the Sabres logo on the front encircled by a rainbow-colored outline.

    During the first intermission, the Sabres broadcast a video in which GM Kevyn Adams said: “This is about recognizing someone’s humanity and true identity. We know there are people out there struggling with who they are, and we want them to know that they have an ally in the Buffalo Sabres.”


    Canadiens: At the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

    Sabres: Host the New York Rangers on Friday night.