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Tampa Bay’s long journey in becoming a Stanley Cup Champion, Part Three

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Every team starts somewhere, but not all of them make it to the top.

Tampa Bay Lightning Victory Rally & Boat Parade Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

The journey is over! The Tampa Bay Lightning have become champions once again with their 2-0 victory over the Dallas Stars in Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. To say this championship was a long time coming would be an understatement. However, the journey taken by this organization, and two key pieces of its core (Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman), started over a decade ago.

In this three part series, I will go through the phases the Lightning went through to reach the pinnacle of the hockey world. There will be some great and painful memories as we go traverse how Tampa Bay changed over the years. Buckle up folks!

It all started on May 25, 2010. The day the Tampa Bay Lightning decided to take themselves seriously as a NHL franchise once again. The day new owner Jeff Vinik hired legendary Hall of Famer, Steve Yzerman to guide the franchise forward as Vice President and General Manager.

It was under Yzerman’s watch that the Lightning would eventually transform into one of the model franchises in the NHL. He provided stability, clear vision, and a patient outlook in the front office for the organization to rally around and identify itself with. This championship team does not happen without the work of Steve Yzerman.

Read Part One.

Read Part Two.

Note: I will be annotating the integral players that helped Tampa Bay hoist the cup this season. So, please, do not get upset that I gloss over other players who had good tenures with the Lightning. This is already a long enough piece as is, haha.

Part Three: A Reset, A Humbling, and A Redemption

After the failure of the 2016-2017 season, general manager Steve Yzerman had two pressing matters that needed attending: the NHL Expansion Draft for the newly formed Vegas Golden Knights and improving the Lightning roster for 2017-2018. Yzerman decided to approach his immediate roster first.

On June 15, 2017, Yzerman made what could be argued was the best trade of his tenure as Lightning general manager - Jonathan Drouin and a 2018 conditional sixth round pick for Mikhail Sergachev and a 2018 conditional second round pick. The trade came as a bit of a shock given how strong Drouin’s 2016-2017 season was, but the tumultuous relationship between the player and team had been in the public for some time. Yzerman, being the stoic face of the franchise, could not sit by and have a player stir up the nest moving forward.

In came Marc Bergevin, the Montreal Canadiens general manager who was looking for the next star player for the Canadiens. Negotiations came and went, eventually leading to the trade that would help solidify a core piece of Tampa Bay’s defense in 2020. In Sergachev, Tampa Bay received a prospect, drafted the year prior, expected to develop into a top pairing defenseman. Given the Lightning’s prowess in finding and developing forwards outside of the first round, giving Drouin to his hometown Canadiens seemed like a good move to address the lack of defensive depth that was beginning to show in the Lightning organization.

Days later, on June 21, 2017, Tampa Bay traded the rights to forward Nikita Gusev, a 2017 second round pick, and a 2018 fourth round pick. The trade was made so the Golden Knights would select Jason Garrison in the expansion draft.

Next, in the NHL draft, the Lightning would select Cal Foote, Alexander Volkov, Alexei Lipanov, Nicklaus Perbix, Cole Guttman, and Samuel Walker.

In free agency, Yzerman made another trade; Kristers Gudlevskis went to the New York Islanders while Carter Verhaeghe came down south. He then signed Dan Girardi to a two-year contract worth six million dollars, and Chris Kunitz to a one-year, two million dollar contract. Additionally, throughout June and July, Yzerman re-signed Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Peter Budaj, Cory Conacher, Michael Bournival, and Gabriel Dumont.

He also made a minor trade in November bringing Louis Domingue over from Arizona to help the Syracuse Crunch.

The 2017-2018 season saw Tampa Bay regain their form as they plowed through the regular season with a 54-23-5 record securing first place in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. During the season stars from around the league came to town as Tampa hosted the NHL NHL All-Star game.

Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Andrei Vasilevskiy all represented the Lightning in the event. This was also where Point had his name be nationally recognized after barely losing to Connor McDavid in the fastest skater competition. This season would also see the Lightning debut Mikhail Sergachev (October 6, 2017) and the NHL debut of Anthony Cirelli (March 1, 2018).

It wasn’t clear if Yzerman was going to add impact players at the trade deadline given how strong the Lightning were this season, but there were still questions about their blueline with players like Andrej Sustr, Jake Dotchin, and Slater Koekkoek all struggling to fill their roles. So, Yzerman made a bombshell trade late in the day on February 26, 2018; Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller for Vladislav Namestnikov, Brett Howden, Libor Hájek, a 2018 first round pick, and a conditional 2019 second round pick (it would turn into a first round pick if Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup in 2017-2018 or 2018-2019).

By adding McDonagh and Miller, Yzerman was sending a message to the rest of the league. The Lightning weren’t playing around this season. Due to a hand injury McDonagh didn’t play immediately, but integrated himself quickly once he entered the lineup in March. Miller, on the other hand, exploded offensively and meshed well with Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

Still, Tampa Bay needed to perform in the playoffs to remind the NHL that 2016-2017 was a fluke. The Lightning did just that as they took care of business by dismissing the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins in five games, each. This set up an Eastern Conference Final against the Washington Capitals.

In a series that saw the Lightning trail 2-0 early in the series, battle back for a 3-2 series lead, and then be shut out in Game 6 and 7, it felt as though Tampa Bay let this one slip out of their hands. They had to sit on the sidelines as Alexander Ovechkin lifted the Stanley Cup for the first time in his career and wonder what could have been.

Still, returning to the Eastern Conference Final (their third in four years) after the disappointing 2016-2017 season, there was reason to be optimistic about 2018-2019. Especially with the continued rise of Brayden Point, Sergachev, and the late arrival of Cirelli into the lineup.

However, Yzerman still had work to do in the offseason. There was a shake-up behind the bench with the mutual parting of associate head coach Rick Bowness and Brad Lauer. That opened the door for future assistant coaches Jeff Halpern and Derek Lalonde to be brought aboard.

The offseason was centered around re-signing players instead of spending in free agency. The biggest moves made were re-signing Kucherov to an eight-year $76 million contract, McDonagh to a seven-year $47 million contract, J.T. Miller to a five-year $26.25 million contract extension, re-signing Domingue, Koekkoek, Adam Erne, and Cameron Gaunce to short term extensions, and trading Budaj to Los Angeles for Andy Andreoff.

Then, on a normal September afternoon and just days away from training camp, a bombshell went off for Tampa Bay; Yzerman elected to step down from his position as general manager after eight years on the job. Taking his place would be Assistant General Manager Julien BriseBois, who had been in the Lightning organization since day one of Yzerman’s reign. BriseBois was known for being a cap specialist and helped create the structure of the contracts Yzerman signed. The confidence in BriseBois was sky-high from Yzerman and Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.

Afterward, as training camp opened, the Lightning surprisingly placed Jake Dotchin on unconditional waivers for the purpose of terminating his contract. The team stated this was due to a material breach of contract. It was later reported by Elliotte Friedeman that Dotchin had shown up to camp with a body fat percentage as high as 25 percent. Bob McKenzie also reported that Dotchin was 30 pounds heavier than his normal playing weight. The NHLPA eventually got involved and the team and Dotchin reached an undisclosed agreement months later.

If there was any worry about Yzerman’s decision affecting the Lightning during the regular season, the team’s rampant run through the regular removed any doubt.

Mathieu Joseph (October 7, 2018) and Erik Cernak (November 13, 2018) would make their NHL debuts this season.

Tampa Bay dominated the NHL regular season. They tied the all-time record for wins (62), led the league in power play percentage, penalty kill percentage, goal differential, goals scored, Kucherov led the league with 128 points (setting a franchise record), Stamkos and Point both cleared 90 points, and all three players became the first trio to all score 40-goals in a season on the same team.

BriseBois felt as though his team didn’t need any major additions at the trade deadline. His only in-season trade saw Koekkoek (and a 2019 fifth round pick) head to Chicago for Jan Rutta (and a 2019 seventh round pick). Afterward he decided to stand behind his roster. Who could blame him at the time, it looked as if no team would be able to stand up to Tampa Bay as the playoffs approached.

What followed was the most embarrassing playoff series, not only in Lightning history, but league history.

We all know what happened.

After the sweep, Yzerman’s contract ended and he was eventually hired to be the new General Manager of the Detroit Red Wings.

The individual awards rolled in as Kucherov collected the Art Ross, Hart, and Ted Lindsay trophies while Andrei Vasilevskiy won the first Vezina trophy in Lightning history. President Trophy winning teams had failed in the postseason before, but never as spectacularly as the Lightning did. Despite the historic regular season, the franchise became a punchline as a disastrous post-season joke.

The post-mortems, the hot takes, and the repercussions of this series would have far reaching consequences heading into next season. More than anything though, it lit a fire under the Lighting. It made them take a hard look at themselves and ponder why they lost the way they did. The ensuing moves would be the first inclination to what BriseBois had in mind.

On June 14, 2019, after a tumultuous season, prospect Connor Ingram was traded to Nashville for a 2021 seventh round pick. On June 22, 2019, J.T. Miller was sent to Vancouver for Marek Mazanec, a 2019 third round pick, and a 2020 conditional first round pick. On July 30, 2019, Ryan Callahan was sent to Ottawa for Mike Condon and a 2020 sixth round pick. On August 14, 2019, Adam Erne was sent to Detroit for a 2020 fourth round pick.

Aside from Vasilevskiy’s eight-year $76 million contract extension the remainder of Tampa Bay’s re-signings were intended to be depth signings or reinforcements for Syracuse. Most of their free agents signings were the same, except for two. The recently bought out Kevin Shattenkirk was signed to a one year $1.75 million contract, and recent Stanley Cup champion Pat Maroon was also signed to a one year $900,000 contract.

Tampa Bay also lost fan favorite Anton Stralman to free agency as the veteran defender went to the Florida Panthers on a three year deal.

There was one big issue heading into training camp for the Lightning; Brayden Point’s next contract.

Primarily due to the overpay the Toronto Maple Leafs committed to Mitch Marner, and the constant talk of offer sheets threatening teams like Tampa Bay, the restricted free agent negotiations for the class of 2019 seemed to drag on longer than normal. Point’s stalemate lasted until September 23, 2019 when he signed a three-year bridge deal worth $20.25 million.

With their promising star center back into the fold, Tampa Bay focused on the 2019-2020 season. The players and coaches brushed off the questions of 2018-2019’s sweep. They claimed that it was something they needed to learn and move on from.

The regular season was almost an afterthought, reaching the postseason was expected from Tampa Bay entering the 2019-2020. The fact that they started slow only magnified the dread that was dragging over from last year. However, a bonding moment happened as the team travelled to Sweden for their Global Series matchup against the Buffalo Sabres. After returning to the United States, the Lightning regained their dominant form and won 37 of their next 50 games, including two separate winning streaks of 10 games.

BriseBois went to work near the trade deadline by trading first round pick Nolan Foote and the conditional first round pick from Vancouver for Blake Coleman on February 16, 2020. He followed that up on February 24, 2020 by trading his second first round pick in 2020 for Barclay Goodrow and a 2020 third round pick.

BriseBois also brought in another defender who was recently bought out: Zach Bogosian.

With these moves in place, BriseBois felt he had added the requisite sandpaper needed to succeed in the postseason, but the world had other plans for 2020. Unfortunately, the Lightning were hit with the injury bug as the season wound down. Tampa Bay had dealt with nagging injuries on the back end all season, but they had managed quite well for the most part. But, once Steven Stamkos was side lined with a lower body injury that would require surgery and keep him out of the lineup until the late stages of the postseason; there was worry about how the Lightning would manage without their captain.

However, those worries were overshadowed once the outbreak of COVID-19 hit North America. This led to every major sporting league in the world to be postponed indefinitely. After months of speculation and worry, it wasn’t until July where league officials felt they understood the situation well enough to suggest a Return-To-Play idea.

After negotiating with the NHLPA, the NHL announced their intentions to return starting in August with a special playoff format designed to give 24 teams a shot at the postseason.

In hindsight, the one-off playoff format ended up being wildly successful and entertaining, so, full props to the NHL for pulling it off. Especially on the COVID front where there wasn’t a single positive COVID test for the entirety of the Return-To-Play once the teams reached the bubble cities.

Tampa Bay had done well enough in the regular season to earn an automatic berth into the actual Stanley Cup Playoffs, but were still required to play in a round robin against the other top three seeds in the Eastern Conference. The Lightning would end up going 2-1 and securing the second seed in the East as the play-in rounds progressed.

As fate, and storytellers, would have it, Tampa Bay’s first round opponent would be last year’s demons: the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The coaching staff and players downplayed the impact of last postseason, but deep down everyone knew they wanted revenge. Given that Columbus was riding the stellar play of Joonas Korpisalo (who, in tandem with Elvis Merzlikins, had driven the Toronto Maple Leafs mad during the play-in), it felt as though another upset could be in the making.

Then Game 1 happened, and we went on a ride that no one could’ve expected.

The Blue Jackets tried to replicate what led them to one of the greatest upsets in NHL history, but this Lightning team wasn’t like previous iterations. This squad was mean, angry, focused on one goal, and proved to be too much for Columbus to handle. As much as some want to boast about how ‘close’ this series was, the Blue Jackets playing style and lack of elite finishing talent left them listless offensively and entirely too dependent on their goaltender to bail them out. Tampa Bay wasn’t as offensively challenged as Toronto, and the Blue Jackets were dismissed in five games.

Next up were the rival Boston Bruins, and the supposed best team in the NHL. Tampa Bay fell in Game 1 of the semi-final, but followed that loss with four consecutive wins where Boston struggled to match the Lightning’s depth much in the same way they did in 2018.

In the Conference Final, Tampa Bay waited for the winner of the Philadelphia New York series. Once the Islanders secured that series, it was time for Tampa Bay to tackle another demon from the past: Barry Trotz. Trotz had foiled Tampa Bay’s run during the 2017-2018 season as the Washington Capitals head coach and seemed to be the perfect challenge for Tampa Bay to overcome on their run to the cup.

In a series that saw big hits, injuries to crucial players, fights, momentum swings, and overtime heroics, it was Tampa Bay who came out on top in six games over the Islanders to secure their second Stanley Cup berth in five years. Finally, after four seasons of missed opportunities, the Lightning were back in the Stanley Cup Final.

Throughout their run to the final, the Lightning had yet to see their captain, Stamkos, play a single second. There were rumors he had left the bubble, that he wasn’t going to play, that he was going to play, etc. It was unclear if Lightning fans were ever going to see the captain play this postseason.

Regardless, Tampa Bay had one last obstacle in their way: the Dallas Stars.

The Stars were on a Cinderella run. They were a team that struggled to produce offense during the regular season, but was marvelous defensively and had found their offensive jive during the postseason. They had taken out the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, and the Vegas Golden Knights. Battle tested and feeling confident, the Stars were a scary matchup if their offense could keep going. Unfortunately, for Dallas, their offense couldn’t find enough firepower to matchup with Tampa Bay.

After falling in Game 1, Tampa Bay rattled off three consecutive wins to put the Stars on the brink. None more resonating than Game 3 where Stamkos returned in what will be remembered as the greatest cameo in Stanley Cup Final history.

On his third shift of the game Stamkos flew past Esa Lindell and into the offensive zone on the right side. The captain kept his eyes locked on Anton Khudobin and gauged his options. In a blink, he wired a wrist shot catching Khudobin cheating too far to the inside. Within minutes, the Lightning were up 2-0 en route to a 5-2 shellacking of the Stars. Stamkos only saw two more shifts for the remainder of the game.

His final stat line of the postseason read: 2:47 of ice time, five shifts, one shot, one goal.

Kevin Shattenkirk’s overtime winner in Game 4 put Tampa Bay on the verge of a championship. But Dallas wouldn’t go quietly though as they stole Game 5 thanks to the heroics of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry.

Thus came Game 6 where Tampa Bay had another chance to secure a championship. Another chance at redemption. Another chance to shed the labels thrust upon them by onlookers. How did they respond?

With arguably their best game of the entire season.

The biggest thing I kept thinking about during the cup presentation was the journey this organization has gone through. From the hiring of Steve Yzerman to his eventual stepping down. From the 2011 Eastern Conference Final to the 2020 Stanley Cup. The playoff losses to Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Columbus. The growth of players like Stamkos, Hedman, Kucherov, Point, Vasilevskiy, Palat, Johnson, Killorn, Cirelli, Sergachev, etc. The undying support this fan base has given the Lightning organization throughout this journey.

All of it.

Tampa Bay did it the hard way. They took their lumps from teams that were champions in Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Washington. They took a gut punch from a pesky underdog in Columbus. They learned how to maintain the kind of mental toughness that makes Stanley Cup champions. They shed the label of chokers and underachievers.

This championship was a decade in the making and has the fingerprints of Steve Yzerman all over it, but don’t think the moves Julien BriseBois made were superficial. He has as much claim to the core of this roster as Yzerman does. He was here from the start and saw many of these players win in the AHL and knew they could do it at the next level.

There are so many memorable moments over the past decade, and it would be impossible for me to list them all. I’d ask for you all to post your favorite in the comments, whether they be from this season or in years past.

For me though, nothing will ever beat this.

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Unless they do it again...