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How the Tampa Bay Lightning built a perennial contender

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For nearly a decade, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been among the most consistently entertaining and successful teams in the NHL. From a Steve Yzerman-engineered rebuild to the team’s continuation under Julien BriseBois — who has the top job after years as a loyal lieutenant — the Lightning have fielded one of the most, if not the most, complete rosters in the game.

Since Jon Cooper’s first full season as the head coach in 2013-14, the Lightning have led the NHL with 343 regular-season wins and a .652 points percentage. They have scored 1,797 goals — 57 more than the next-closest team over that span — for an average of 3.20 per game while also allowing the fourth-fewest goals per game at 2.64.

Despite that regular-season success, the NHL’s ultimate prize has eluded this era of the Lightning. They’ve been compared to the San Jose Sharks and the pre-Stanley Cup Washington Capitals for not being able to get it done in the postseason, even though they have the second-most playoff wins in the NHL since 2013-14 with 46, including this postseason. Tampa Bay has been close, going to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, and this year marks its fourth Eastern Conference final in the Cooper era. But for whatever reason, the franchise hasn’t won it all during this stint of regular-season dominance.

This postseason is unlike any in the history of the game, but the Lightning have looked locked in, beating the Columbus Blue Jackets and Boston Bruins through two rounds. The core has carried a lot of the load, with injured captain Steven Stamkos not yet suiting up for a single game. Much of that core was built by Yzerman or just before he came in during the 2010 offseason, but BriseBois has put his stamp on this team, filling gaps that have been exposed in past postseason failures.

Building Stanley Cup-winning teams is hard. Being as consistent as the Lightning have been, save for the elusive Cup, might be even harder. Tampa Bay may have some helpful advantages, like core players taking less of a cap hit while not sacrificing too much money, thanks to the fact Florida has no state income tax. But you still have to build something players want to come back to. Tampa has had a wide-open Stanley Cup window for the last several years, and it should stay open a few more. And maybe this is the year.

So how do you build a team for sustained success? Here’s a player-by-player look at how Tampa Bay built this contender.

Note: All salary figures are courtesy of CapFriendly.com.

The homegrown talent

The key to Tampa Bay’s sustained success is building its core through the draft. It started with the fortune of picking No. 1 (Stamkos) and No. 2 (Victor Hedman) in consecutive drafts, but there has also been a great deal of finding value late and not shying away from second- and third-year eligible players. Being aggressive yet selective about going after undrafted free agents has also been crucial.

The Bolts’ top-six is entirely constructed through the draft or undrafted free-agent signings. Every center on the team is a homegrown talent. And each franchise cornerstone was a Tampa Bay draft selection.

Still, only one of the players Yzerman selected in the first round during his tenure remains with the team: Andrei Vasilevskiy. (Stamkos and Hedman were earlier.) Most Round 1 selections have been largely disappointing but effectively spun off in other trades. You need a combination of luck and strong scouting to hit in the later rounds, but as you’ll see, the Lightning have done more damage in the second and third rounds than they have in the first.

How he got here: Drafted No. 77, 2007

One of three remaining draft picks pre-Yzerman, Killorn has been a career Bolt and an absolute force in the playoffs (48 points and 18:27 average ice time over 81 games). He has been reasonably affordable relative to his role on the team with a $4.45 million cap hit. Starting next season, his no-trade clause becomes a modified no-trade.

How he got here: Drafted No. 1, 2008

Stamkos needs no extended description. The team is playing well without him but would be much better with him in the lineup. His No. 91 surely will hang in the rafters in Tampa when his career comes to a close. His contract, with an $8.5 million cap hit, runs through 2023-24.

How he got here: Drafted No. 2, 2009

A Norris Trophy winner and one of the top defensemen in the game today, Hedman overcame a slow-ish start to his career to ascend in mirror image with the rest of the franchise. With 473 career points, he has made good as the second overall pick behind John Tavares (just ahead of Matt Duchene and Evander Kane).

How he got here: Drafted No. 58, 2011

A Hart Trophy and a whole bunch of points have followed Kucherov to the Lightning. He has proven to be one of the biggest draft steals outside of the first round in the past decade. Kucherov is the team’s offensive engine and is paid like it, with this being the first year in an eight-year, $76 million deal.

How he got here: Drafted No. 208, 2011

Getting draft value takes good scouting, but it also takes luck. Palat becoming an everyday NHLer as a seventh-round pick is a little bit of both. He has been a vital middle-six forward for years and still has two seasons left on his deal with a $5.3 million annual cap hit. As the need to re-sign restricted free agents comes, this might be one of those contracts the Lightning have to reluctantly jettison after the season.

How he got here: Undrafted free-agent signing, 2011

Undrafted out of junior hockey, the undersized Johnson has continually proved doubters wrong — highlighted by his star turn during Tampa’s run to the 2015 Stanley Cup final, where he led the team in scoring. His role and production have diminished over the past few seasons, but he has provided more than fair value on the Lightning’s initial investment. Johnson has four years remaining on his current contract at a $5 million cap hit.

How he got here: Drafted No. 19, 2012

He was actually the second of two first-round picks by the Lightning in that draft, but undoubtedly the most valuable (sorry, Slater Koekkoek). With a Vezina Trophy already in tow, Vasilevskiy has been leaned on by the Lightning, who committed to him as the full-time starter when they shipped Ben Bishop to Los Angeles in the middle of the 2016-17 season. Vasilevskiy’s eight-year, $76 million contract kicks in next season.

How he got here: Drafted No. 101, 2012

One of the few players who brought the snarl that teams seem to need in the playoffs, Paquette is an excellent player down the lineup for Tampa. The 2012 draft saw six of eight picks reach the NHL, but Paquette is the games-played leader with 377, all with Tampa. He has one year left on his current deal, which he’ll conclude as an unrestricted free agent.

How he got here: Drafted No. 79, 2014

The Lightning bridged Point last offseason with an especially affordable three-year, $20.25 million contract. They are probably going to have to clear their books a bit more after this deal is up, but the contract locked down a core player who is vital to keeping the Stanley Cup window wide open in the short term. He has capped off a 25-goal season with six more through 13 playoff games this summer.

How he got here: Undrafted free-agent signing, 2014

Undervalued for size like Johnson, Gourde slipped through the draft and began his pro career in the AHL without any NHL offers. After being acquired by the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse, he worked his way up to the NHL and has been an excellent middle-six pivot, currently anchoring the team’s third line.

How he got here: Drafted No. 33, 2015

Stephens made his NHL debut earlier this season and has appeared in six postseason games. He had six points during the season and scored during the postseason round-robin in early August.

How he got here: Drafted No. 72, 2015

Cirelli has become one of the best two-way centers in the game in a short amount of time. He is in the last year of his entry-level contract, which means he should be expecting a fairly significant raise this offseason. What will the Lightning have to move around to make it feasible?


Veteran free-agent signings

The Lightning have been pretty good at keeping their own talent, so their need for big free-agent moves is minimal at best. They also have a penchant for adding players who struggled elsewhere but can thrive while insulated by a more talented team. All of these recent free-agent signings have been great bargains, with players largely outperforming their contracts’ monetary value.

How he got here: 2-year, $2.6 million deal in 2019

The Lightning hope they don’t have to go without Vasilevskiy at any point, but if they do, they have a veteran backup with 237 NHL games under his belt. It’s not the best insurance option, but McElhinney has been dependable in spot duty throughout his career.

How he got here: 1-year, $700,000 deal in 2019

Affordable veteran depth is kind of the theme of the latter portion of Schenn’s career, but he allows the Lightning to use him in a variety of ways. He’s not a regular, but he’s there when you need him.

How he got here: 1-year, $900,000 deal in 2019

With a Stanley Cup on his résumé, Maroon still couldn’t find a multiyear deal for some reason. He did, however, find another contender that needed a guy to provide that heavy presence and postseason success the Lightning lacked. He has played every playoff game this summer and helps make the Lightning’s fourth line more formidable.

How he got here: 1-year, $1.75 million deal in 2019

The Lightning didn’t have to spend big to go after Shattenkirk, who was bought out by the New York Rangers last season. And yet he averaged top-four minutes while producing 34 points in the regular season, and he has been solid this postseason with four points over 19:18 of ice time per game.

How he got here: 1-year, $1.3 million prorated deal in Feb.

After having his contract terminated by the Buffalo Sabres for refusing to report to AHL Rochester, Bogosian found an especially soft landing spot in Tampa. The Bolts signed him at a prorated cost, and he has played a bunch with Hedman. It has been years since Bogosian looked this solid.


The trades

This is a spot the Lightning have not had to depend on too heavily, either. But the trades made under Yzerman and BriseBois have largely made a positive impact. The Lightning have used a lot of surplus items, often draft picks and prospects, to acquire some key players. By drafting so well to build the core, everything else becomes expendable, especially for a win-now team.

BriseBois caught some criticism for the prices paid to acquire Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, spinning off two 2020 first-round draft picks. Both players, however, have brought an element the team needed, as outlined recently by our own Emily Kaplan. The positive results on the trade market have helped fuel this team, and Coleman and Goodrow just might be enough to help get this team across the finish line.

How he got here: From Philadelphia Flyers, for Radko Gudas, a first-rounder and a third-rounder, in March 2015

Acquired at a pretty significant cost, Coburn has been a dependable depth defenseman. But he has seen his role diminished in 2019-20 and has only appeared in a handful of playoff games this season.

How he got here: From Los Angeles Kings with Peter Budaj and conditional picks, for Ben Bishop and a fifth-rounder, in February 2017

Another defenseman who is still on his entry-level contract, Cernak was not necessarily a sure thing as a prospect. But he has played the past two seasons in the NHL, providing a reliable presence who thrives in a depth role on Tampa’s blue line.

How he got here: From Montreal Canadiens with a conditional second-rounder, for Jonathan Drouin and a conditional sixth-rounder, in June 2017

Tampa Bay’s hand was forced by an unhappy Drouin, who was selected third overall in 2014. He wanted out, and the Lightning managed to bring back better value in the deal, as Sergachev has become a quality top-four defenseman and part of the team’s top power play. He’s in the last year of his entry-level contract and will be due a big raise as a restricted free agent.

How he got here: From New York Islanders, for Kristers Gudlevskis, in July 2017

Verhaeghe starred in the AHL last season and earned a spot on the NHL roster this season. He has appeared in three postseason contests.

How he got here: From New York Rangers with J.T. Miller, for Vladislav Namestnikov, Brett Howden, Libor Hajek and a first-rounder, in February 2018

Arguably the biggest blockbuster ever pulled by then-GM Yzerman, McDonagh has been a key member of the Lightning blue line since, playing big minutes and racking up points. He signed a long-term deal with the Lightning in 2018, coming in at $6.75 million a season until 2025-26. That one may sting a little on the back end as McDonagh skates into his latter 30s, but it’s fair value for a big-time top-four defenseman right now. Miller, who was part of the deal, was traded last offseason to the Vancouver Canucks. The first-round pick received in return was then spun off to acquire Coleman.

How he got here: From Chicago Blackhawks with a seventh-rounder, for Slater Koekkoek and a fifth-rounder, in January 2019

Rutta has appeared in just one postseason contest and is little more than depth help, when healthy.

How he got here: From New Jersey Devils, for Nolan Foote and a first-rounder, in February 2020

The Lightning paid a heavy price for Coleman, but he has been excellent in the postseason. He has scored big goals and brings needed grit. He’s also under contract for another season at a comically affordable $1.8 million. The Lightning have spent years building up assets to make trades necessary to help their team, and Coleman has undoubtedly helped.

How he got here: From San Jose Sharks with a third-rounder, for Anthony Greco and a first-rounder, in February 2020

Another high price to pay to acquire a player for the team’s depth, but Goodrow has settled in nicely on Tampa’s third line with Coleman and Gourde. Those three are really challenging teams at both ends of the ice.

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