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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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