Well, they finally did it.
It is with great relief that I announce that the Tampa Bay Lightning are your 2020 Stanley Cup Champions.
It has been a long, bumpy road for this core and despite the circumstances, this is a well-deserved championship and one that should be celebrated by Lightning fans and the hockey world as a whole.
I would like to think I am speaking on behalf of the entire hockey community (or it could just be me), but there’s something frustrating about seeing a team play so dominantly over such a long period of time and not have anything to show for it. That was the case for the Tampa Bay Lightning. There is no other club in the National Hockey League who has been so close to the Cup for so long, yet never capitalized on their opportunities.
Whether it was a slew of injuries to key players or becoming victim of one of the biggest upsets in NHL history (after a record-tying season), there was always controversy shrouding the Bolts’ season-ending pressers.
When you build a team this good it warrants criticism.
This year was no different. They had to make some tough roster decisions in the offseason and played the near entirety of the bubble playoffs without captain Steven Stamkos. Each offseason over the past few years has felt to be instrumental in the makeup of this team, and despite falling short many times (as most teams do), they finally reached their goal.
The Lightning faced a major cap-crunch following the 2018-19 season and one that many found to significantly hamper their future Cup chances. However, a number of shrewd deals facilitated by general manager Julien Brisebois not only gave Tampa much-needed cap relief but also returned assets that could be leveraged into deadline additions (we will discuss this shortly).
On June 20th, 2019, the Lightning announced that forward Ryan Callahan would be placed on LTIR due to lingering back issues which had worsened over the course of the past few seasons. On June 22nd, 2019, the Lightning suffered their inevitable cap casualty, trading forward J.T. Miller to the Vancouver Canucks for a return of a 2019 third-round pick, a conditional first-round pick (now known to be Vancouver’s 2020 selection) and goaltender Marek Mazanec.
In hindsight, this was a win-win for both teams, however, at the time the Lightning seemed to hit a home run, considering their lack of leverage from a cap standpoint. After Callahan’s LTIR placement, he was subsequently traded on July 30th, 2019 to the Ottawa Senators along with a 2020 fifth-round draft pick for goaltender Mike Condon and a 2020 sixth-round pick.
These moves relieved $8.65-million in cap space, while simultaneously acquiring a wildcard of an asset in Vancouver’s first-round pick in 2020 or 2021. I consider these moves the critical juncture in the Bolts season, as it set up many of the moves to follow, leading us to where we are now.
Throughout the course of the summer, the Lightning brass got down to business, re-signing star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to a monster 8-year, $76-million contract off the back of his Vezina-winning season. The Lightning also re-signed depth players Carter Verhaeghe & Cedric Paquette to one and two-year extensions, respectively for inexpensive cap-hits, considering their value on the ice.
While these depth free agent signings made a tremendous impact throughout the Lightning’s run, their efforts to create cap-space were not arbitrary; they still needed to sign RFA-holdout Brayden Point. Negotiations spanned the course of the entire summer and into training camp (however, Point was still recovering from offseason surgery, so the beginning of the season was not a hard deadline to get a deal done).
Coming off a monstrous 41-goal, 92-point season, you would expect Point to cash in. However, Brisebois pulled off a GM masterclass in delaying Point’s inevitable payday, penning him to a three-year, $20.25-million deal. It cannot be stressed enough how pivotal this deal is to solidify the Bolts’ cap stability over the course of the next two seasons, as Point’s contract, albeit a short-term deal, is one of the best-value deals in the league.
With Point re-signed, the Bolts set their roster for the 2019-20 season.
The Tampa Bay Lightning roster — A crucial supporting cast
Skipping towards the trade deadline, we return to the asset the Lightning received in return for J.T. Miller – Vancouver’s first-round selection in 2020 or 2021.
The Lightning traded for two of the marquee names amongst this year’s pool of deadline trade-bait, acquiring forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow around the deadline, and for no small cost. For Coleman, the Lightning sent 2019 1st-round pick Nolan Foote and Vancouver’s conditional first-rounder to New Jersey, and sent their own 2020 first-round pick and forward Anthony Greco in exchange for Goodrow and a 2020 third-round pick from San Jose.
The genius behind these moves lies in the forward duo’s two-way value, paired with team-friendly contracts, hence the myriad of assets Tampa forked over for them. Coleman carries a cap-hit of $1.8-million, while Goodrow only $925,000, and both are under contract for one more year. When talking about cost-effective players, these are the deals that come to mind.
In terms of output, both forwards produce at a level that you would expect from players in a far higher tax bracket than they are. Add in another year of team control into the mix, and you can see why they commanded the packages that they did. I must add that the trade market at the deadline this year for forwards was not as deep as other years which may have buoyed their value, but their production speaks for itself nonetheless.
Throughout the playoffs, Coleman and Goodrow, along with linemate Yanni Gourde, were the Lightning’s second-best forward unit, controlling roughly 55% of possession at 5v5. Considering their deployment was primarily as a matchup line, it makes these numbers even more impressive. Throughout the playoffs, they produced 18 even-strength points as a trio, second to only the Point line.
Before moving on, one quick note on Yanni Gourde. In every Lightning game I watched this post-season, he never failed to catch my attention. Despite his size, he is not afraid to get in the mix on the forecheck – he is fearless. His aggression and ability to retrieve puck possession along the boards complement Goodrow and Coleman perfectly, forming the quintessential shutdown line.
Looking at Coleman specifically, his defensive impact is exceptional, while also chipping in a considerable amount in the goals department. Taking a deeper look, we can visualize Coleman’s defensive impact by looking at his shot suppression at a 5v5 rate.
In this graphic, the red areas highlight shot allowance above league average, whereas the blue recognizes shot allowance below league average. Overall, Coleman has been excellent in his shot suppression at 5v5, limiting shots to the top of the blueline and outside the faceoff circle, away from the prime areas in and around the slot.
Every year, analysts always point to the “key deals” at the deadline that make-or-break a team’s Cup opportunities and the acquisition of Coleman and Goodrow paid immediate dividends in the Bolts’ quest for the Cup.
However, while such key acquisitions were paramount to Tampa Bay’s success, as I mentioned earlier the gradual construction of this roster is what catapulted this team to the top, compared to their NHL cohorts.
I always find it funny when people exert their energy over the “size vs. speed” argument in hockey because, in reality, you need both to win. The debate itself is quite archaic, and while both sides have merit, they are arguing a moot point. The notion that one is more superior than the other is not grounded in reality. You need to comprise your roster with players that not only excel in one of those physical areas but possess both attributes.
The Tampa Bay Lightning’s roster makeup is an exemplary Cup roster. They possess star-power that dominate on both ends of the ice, defensemen with size and speed, effective depth players with Cup experience and rookie contracts that play above their paygrade. There are few, if any, weak links on this team. Although, you could make an argument for their goaltending depth (but when you have The Big Cat in net who cares?).
On the backend, there is a plethora of talent, both technically and physically. Of course, the big name on defense is 2018 Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman, but I want to put a focus on two of Tampa’s defensive stalwarts in Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak.
The towering duo has been exceptional defensively, leading the charge in their own zone for the Bolts. At 5v5, they have logged the most minutes as a pair amongst Lightning defenseman (178:22). They have been exceptional in suppressing scoring chances, limiting opponents to 1.43 expected goals against per 60 minutes, behind only the pairing of Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev (who have been paired together for 20:21 less in the postseason). As I have mentioned previously, the pair have also led Bolts defensemen in penalty-kill time (54:40) and own the seventh-best xGoals Against/60 (7.22) in the playoffs (min. 22 minutes played).
Turning the focus to Cernak, he has been outstanding in his role as a fourth/fifth defenseman for the Lightning.
As I illustrated above, Cernak’s impact on the penalty-kill places him amongst the very best in the league, as his play ranks him in the 99th percentile of NHL players. His ability to position himself at net-front pressures opposing players outside the “danger zone” in terms of scoring opportunities, allowing time for his teammates to venture in on their help-side along the boards and transition the puck back up the ice.
Having players like Cernak on rookie deals is one of the most crucial aspects of building a Cup-winning roster. When you receive immediate contributions from your young players, you not only have the flexibility to improve other aspects of your roster (notice how Cernak\’s play values him at $5-million), but also the ability to cater your players’ minutes to their strengths.
With this in mind, Mikhail Sergachev and Kevin Shattenkirk have been important offensive drivers for the Bolts, specifically on the second powerplay unit.
As a number-five defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk provides stability on the backend in terms of offense. With 3 goals and 13 points in the postseason, Shattenkirk ranked second amongst Lightning defensemen in playoff points.
Throughout his career, Shattenkirk has been widely regarded as a high-IQ offensive defenseman (let’s forget his time in New York for a minute, just bear with me). Given his relatively sheltered role on the Lightning, where 62% of his starts were in the offensive zone, Shattenkirk can flex his offensive muscle by taking smart shots from high-efficiency areas. It also helps to have the likes of Erik Cernak and Ryan McDonagh bearing the majority of the defensive burden during the postseason, but it is a group effort, right?