We've mentioned several times in these little write-ups that The Sweater Series is not a referendum on who is the "best" player to have worn a specific number for the Lightning (Hello #4, Cory Cross vs. Vincent Lecavalier), or even the "coolest," or "most important" player to have worn a number. But today's column is actually just that: it's a discussion of who is the best, coolest, and most important player to have worn the number 19 for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and it's a two horse race: former Conn Smythe Trophy winner and former "Big Three" forward Brad Richards, and the Original Bolt, The True Leader, Brian Bradley.
Fact: expansion teams are always brutal. They typically have one or two solid players who can put up half-decent numbers, but disappear once the team starts getting filled out with better players, or disappear because they just happened to be the best of the worst in those first few seasons. For example, Terry Yake led the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in scoring in their first season, but didn't even make the team the following year. Chubby heart-throb Norm Macivor lead the Senators from the blueline during Ottawa's first season back in the NHL, and disappeared from consideration almost immediately after. Scott Mellanby was a standout for the Florida Panthers for their first eight years, although John Vanbiesbrouk was their real star.
And who led the Lightning, those scrappy, underpaid underdogs on Florida's gulf coast? Brian Bradley, and it wasn't even close.
The Tampa Bay franchise has had some up and down times. Up until recently they've suffered through some really terrible ownership, but one thing they've at least been able to say for the last fifteen years or so is that they've had some really talented forwards, including Rocket Richard winners in Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos, two-time Art Ross winner Martin St. Louis, and the aforementioned Richards. The early years of the franchise's history were definitely leaner, but among plugs like Danton Cole, early retirement seekers like Stephane Richer, and so-so prospects like Jason Weimer, there was Brian Bradley, the beating heart of the Lightning offense through the mid-nineties.
Trivia question: what players have led the Lightning in scoring in more than one consecutive seasons? There have been three: Lecavalier in 2007 and 2008, Richards in 2001 and 2002, (Stamkos and St. Louis have traded off seasons and have never led twice consecutively, although Marty would have in 2013 and 2014 IF HE HAD FINISHED THE SEASON WITH THE BLING-BLANG %@$! TEAM), and the third player was Bradley, who led the team in scoring four years in a row, from the 1992-93 season through the 1995-96 first-playoff season.
And let me say this, it wasn't even close. He was their best offensive player by a mile in these first four years, leading the team in scoring by 30 (!), 9, 13, and 14 points. He was the Lightning's representative at the NHL All-Star Game in 1993 and 1994 before making way for Roman Hamrlik in 1996 (there was no ASG in '95 due to lockout, right Gary?)
But his importance was not just on the scoreboard. He gave the team a face. He was the leader, the guy, the man. In a star-filled league he wasn't Gretzky or Lemeiux or Hull, but he was the Lightning's star player.
And if you have any question about who has been the Lightning's most important player, remember this: the Lightning made the playoffs in 1996 (sweeeeet), with Bradley scoring 79 points. He missed significant chunks of the following season with injuries, appearing in only 35 games. Although a team is not only one player, the Lightning missed him a lot, and missed the playoffs.
The season after that, 1997-98, Bradley appeared in only 14 games before his career was cut short by the effects of a concussion. Without him, the Bolts fell off the freaking planet, winning only 17 games. Um, yeah, they missed him, and it would be years before the Lightning really had a go-to guy again, when the "Big Three" eventually got rolling in the early 2000s.
And as for the other #19, Brad Richards? True respect to him. He was awesome in the 2004 Stanley Cup run, and he piled up a lot of points with the Lightning. But he always had support from other big guns. Bradley practically had the carry the offensive load alone.
Brian still works for the Lightning as a community representative, so you know, if you meet him, shake his hand and tell him he's awesome. He'll be really humble about it, I promise.
Nolan Whyte writes for Raw Charge, and produces novels including Among the Humans, which would be very well reviewed if you read it and wrote a review.