Three-on-three hockey. Love it or hate it at least it’s better than the shootout. The NHL’s tweaking of overtime hockey has been around for five seasons now. For most of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s history, though, overtime was played with five skaters aside. It was like regulation except the next goal ended the game. There was even a time when, if no one scored in overtime, the game ended in a tie and everyone went home.
The problem was that if a team lost in overtime they wouldn’t get a point at all. It was all or nothing. So, at some juncture NHL coaches decided it was better to go home with one point than to actually try and win the game. Things got boring. Like really boring. Hence the post-lockout addition of the shootout and the infamous “Bettman” point - make it to overtime and you’re at least guaranteed one point.
Coaches then figured that they would rather take their chances in the skills competition-esque shootout than to try and win in the five-on-five overtime. Despite not having to worry about losing a point, things still stagnated. Hence, the introduction of three-on-three. Coaches have tried their best to diminish the joy factor of that, but every once in awhile actual excitement happens.
If we could wave a wand and change the past and make three-on-three the default at the dawn of the NHL, or at least the beginning of Lightning history in 1992-93, how would they line up in the extra session?
One of the oddities of the stability of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s roster over the past few seasons is that they’ve pretty much been able to roll out some version of the same combinations since the rule was instituted in the 2015-16 season. Steven Stamkos is usually out there. Brayden Point is definitely out there along with Nikita Kucherov while Victor Hedman would play all 5:00 minutes if Coach Jon Cooper would let him.
What about other teams though? Let’s take a few moments to go back through history and check out some possible trios at various points in the organization’s history. For the most part I went with the standard center-winger-defender line up in order to keep it as realistic as possible.
The Inaugural Team (1992-93):
Brian Bradley-Chris Kontos-Doug Crossman
There is no doubt that a healthy Brian Bradley would be taking the draws when the puck dropped in overtime. He was a beast in his first year with the Lightning, scoring 42 goals and leading the team in offense. While Kontos might have been a one-year wonder, he was a heck of wonder with 27 goals.
It’s tempting to put 18-year-old Roman Hamrlik on the blueline, but he might be a little too young and free spirited to be trusted with the responsibility. Crossman isn’t a sexy pick, but he was reliable enough in his own zone and could chip in a little offense as well.
The First Playoff Team (1995-96):
Brian Bradley-Alex Selivanov-Roman Hamrlik
Bradley is still around and leading the team on offense. He was more of a set-up man in this season, leading the team with 56 helpers. The injury bug would catch up to Bradley after this season (his injury issues along with Daren Puppa’s balky back are the two biggest contributors to the downfall of the Lightning in the late 1990s) but he had one last really good season with the Bolts.
Bradley as the set-up man meshes nicely with the finishing ability of a young Selivanov. There’s no was you can not go with the player who provided the lone playoff highlight for the first half of the franchise’s history:
While still just 21-years-old Hamrlik has grown into an offensive force. He racked up 49 assists from the blue line, a team record that would stand for 20 years before Victor Hedman put up 56 in 2016-17.
The Worst Team in Franchise History (1997-98):
Daymond Langkow- Rob Zamuner - Karl Dykhuis
This team was so bad they couldn’t even win the draft lottery (they only had the top pick because of a trade that allowed them to switch picks with San Jose AFTER the order was determined. Seriously, that may be the greatest trade Phil Esposito ever made).
Due to a constantly churning roster and injuries it’s a pretty open competition for spots on the overtime line-up. The good news is that the overtime periods would probably have been fairly short. Sure, it would end with one of the five different goaltenders the Lightning used that season picking the puck out of the back of the net, but it would be quick and merciful.
Langkow only had 8 goals on the season, but that was still good for second among centers on the team. Paul Ysebaert had a few more goals than the 21-year-old Langkow, but wasn’t as dynamic of a player as the youngster. A couple of strong individual plays by Langkow might lead to the occasional win. Of course, on the flip side I’m sure there would be plenty of turnovers as well.
Zamuner provides a little defensive cover (he had finished 7th in Selke voting the season before) along with a potential for offense. Yes, that’s odd to say about someone who finished the season at a -31. Say what you will about +/- as a stat, but a lot of things are going badly if you’re -31 and you’re only the 4th worst on the team. Ysebaert led the team at -43. Again, there isn’t a lot to choose from on this team.
Dykhuis was perfectly fine. Maybe even a little better than fine as he posted a 3.3 Defensive Point Share, far and away the highest number on the team.
The First Cup (2003-04):
Vincent Lecavalier-Marty St. Louis- Dan Boyle
This may have been the easiest line to put together. St. Louis is responsible enough on defense that it’s tempting to go with three forwards and have Brad Richards replace Dan Boyle, but there is no way John Tortorella would have done that. Besides it also sets up a nice breather line of Richards-Freddie Modin-Pavel Kubina if the first line doesn’t end it in 45 seconds.
They did alright under five-on-five overtime rules combining to score 21 goals during their Lightning careers which isn’t too shabby. St. Louis still holds the franchise record with 10 OT goals.
Not so OK Hockey (2009-10):
Steven Stamkos- Vincent Lecavalier - Andrej Meszaros
This one is a little tough for a team that only put up 80 points. Yes, I’m leaving a 94-point Marty St. Louis off of the top line in lieu of two centers, but the dynamics of Lecavalier setting up the young phenom with a ton of open ice is just too much fun not to do.
As for the defense, well there wasn’t much to choose from. A really young Victor Hedman would have a strong case to see some time with the big guys, but I don’t mind saving him for the second line with St. Louis and Jeff Halpern.
Meszaros was a decent, steady presence and the best non-Hedman defensive option on a team that wasn’t exactly overflowing with defensive talent. This was the season that thirteen different players saw time on the blue line, with all of them except for Scott Jackson seeing multiple games.
The dawn of the Lightning as a consistently good team (2013-14):
Tyler Johnson - Ondrej Palat - Victor Hedman
The TampaCuse invasion has begun and the foundation for the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2019-20 has been set. Stamkos is out due to injury and St. Louis is out due to his trade demand. That leaves plenty of room for the young kids to take over.
This is Tyler Johnson pre-2015 injury. As in the “Tyler Johnson is good at hockey” version. There would be no problem finding a trade partner for a 23-year-old center that posted a 50 point season (24 goals, 26 assists).
Ondrej Palat is a no-doubter as the defensively reliable forward who can also score while Hedman is the preferred choice over veterans Eric Brewer and Matt Carle (before you laugh, Carle was sixth on the team with 29 assists that season).
Never forget that despite all of the offensive talent on the 2015-16 Lightning team (30 goal scorers in Kucherov and Stamkos while Hedman had 47 points) it was Jason Garrison who scored the first three-on-three overtime goal in NHL history.