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Jon Cooper readily admitted this might've been the last stand for the Tampa Bay Lightning shortly after they won their second consecutive Stanley Cup. Pressed against the constraints of the salary cap, and cleverly circumventing the rules this year, the possibility that this would be a final gasp weighed heavily upon the now back-to-back champions.
Tampa Bay will have to give up a contributor in the expansion draft to the Seattle Kraken — Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Yanni Gourde may be exposed, all of whom can play meaningful minutes. Killorn broke his fibula, but assuming he returns to full health, is a constant 40-point scorer with excellent net-front presence, Palat is an indispensable puck-retrieval specialist for arguably the NHL's best line, Gourde is an analytics darling who can operate as a shutdown center, and Johnson can be rotated throughout the lineup, both at center and wing. Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow are slated to become unrestricted free agents, and the team is in salary cap hell.
And yet, the Lightning showed glimpses of a contingency plan during the Final. There is more than enough reason to believe the Lightning will gracefully manage several personnel losses from their 2021 core, and they've been preparing for this outcome well in advance.
Killorn missed the rest of the series after blocking a shot in Game 1, and Mathieu Joseph filled in admirably, drawing penalties and setting up goals while his speed and tenacity gave the Canadiens fits. Tampa Bay held a 73.75 percent share of the expected goals when Joseph was on the ice at 5-on-5 during the Final, according to Natural Stat Trick. He may be their hidden gem in the making. Players like Coleman and Goodrow are so difficult to find, and yet Joseph briefly showed a profile of a player who can readily add secondary offense, operate as a strong two-way player, and get under the skin of opponents.
Ross Colton was the unlikely Game 5 hero, tapping in a well-placed feed from David Savard for the winner. Mitchell Stephens and Taylor Raddysh have been itching to get into the lineup and have been blocked out by Tampa's star-studded, versatile forward corps.
Shortly after the Lightning made their rounds with the Cup in hand, Hardev Lad of Pension Plan Puppets outlined a 2021 roster that would sneak under the cap. And with the vast majority of the core intact, along with some in-house development, there's little reason why the Lightning shouldn't enter the 2022 season as the prohibitive favourites.
There are many people who want to draw an asterisk on the 2021 Lightning, as they placed Nikita Kucherov and his $9.5 million cap hit on long-term injured reserve prior to the season. As Kucherov eloquently said Wednesday night, this is number one bullshit. Kucherov suffered a legitimate hip injury that required surgery. The timeline for his recovery coincided with the duration of the regular season. Utilizing LTIR to house an injured player is well within the rules. This may come off as condescending as the Golden State Warriors declaring they're light years ahead of the competition, but the Lightning were light years ahead of their peers even while Kucherov had a months-long recovery period.
There are some flaws here, to be sure. Coleman is a 1-of-1 specialist, he's elite at drawing penalties and he's very likely going to get the bag in free agency, while Goodrow is a top-tier penalty killer. Tampa Bay's internal development system may not be able to provide a carbon copy of their impact.
But it's not all bad. Boris Katchouk posted 34 points in 29 games with the AHL's Syracuse Crunch, Raddysh chipped in 29 points in 27 AHL contests, while Stephens has shown flashes of being a meaningful NHL contributor. Cal Foote, Tampa Bay's first-round pick in 2017 is ready to graduate and replace Savard on the back end, playing 35 NHL games in 2021.
And if that's not convincing enough, the Lightning have alternatives.
The concept of ring-chasing isn't readily embedded into the NHL as it is in the NFL or NBA, but with two consecutive titles in tow, the Lightning can present a LeBron-era Miami Heat-level proposition for veterans looking to forgo a larger pay check in hopes of getting a ring. The NHL is subject to too much random variation for it to feel like a near certainty, but the Lightning have been far and away the best team in hockey over the past three years (their first-round sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets in 2019 is moot). With no state tax to boot, they're as attractive as a team has ever been during the cap era.
To be clear, this isn't something I'm advocating for! Get your money, we're very pro labour in this space! It is something the Lighting can do, and likely will do, if they feel Katchouk, Raddysh and Stephens aren't ready for this stage. Julien BriseBois took the core Steve Yzerman presented him with, tweaked and improved the roster, and is a top-three GM in the league. If anyone can figure this balance out, it's him and his staff.
Tampa Bay is going to lose a ton of valuable players and its lineup flexibility has arguably been its biggest strength. It feels too formulaic to say that with Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev and three of the four players Seattle won't take in the expansion draft, the Lightning will be ready to rock. Continuity definitely matters, and we'll have to see if their prospects will graduate well to the NHL.
Cooper, Stamkos and the host of Lightning veterans that have marked their place in history had every right to be nostalgic and appreciative of how rare it is to repeat, noting all the challenges they had to overcome to get to this tier, and what lies ahead. They may have been being modest.
It's too early to look ahead, but we all have a tendency to do so, and even with a unique set of circumstances facing them, the Lightning should be the clear favourites to three-peat in 2022.
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