After a few seasons of coming up short, the Tampa Bay Lightning finally made it back to the Stanley Cup Final. While the first game didn’t go as planned (three Stanley Cup Finals, three Game One losses in history) they are still a long way from being eliminated. So, how did this team come together?
It took the work of four different general managers to construct the roster that will be on the ice over the next ten days or so. Two of those gentlemen laid the foundation by drafting generational players, the next built the framework, and the fourth added the final touches that put the team over the top.
So, it’s impossible to give one man full credit for the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning. Many will refer to it as “Steve Yzerman’s Team” and while he deserves recognition for putting the bulk of the roster, this team doesn’t make it this far without the work of Julien BriseBois, Jay Feaster, and yes, even Brian Lawton.
Let’s take a look at how these players joined the team, and who was responsible for the move.
2015, Round 3
All he does is score clutch goals. Memorial Cup overtime goal - check. OHL championship overtime goal - check. Eastern Conference Final overtime goal - check. Will he add a Stanley Cup Final overtime goal to his resume? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Cirelli didn’t put up eye-popping numbers during his junior career and that’s part of the reason he was available in the third round. He was exactly the type of player that Mr. Yzerman loved to pick in the middle rounds - two-way players with a high hockey-IQ. Originally projected as a bit of a long-term project, Cirelli played his way out of the AHL and into the NHL in less than a season. He got his break due to injuries at the center spot that year, but once he joined the Lightning he never gave them a reason to send him back.
He’s had a bit of a spotty postseason, but has spent the better part of the last three rounds against the opposition’s best players. A big goal like he scored in Game Six could get him going offensively.
2009, Round 1
Believe it or not, “Hedman or Duchene” was actually a topic for discussion in 2009 so I guess Brian Lawton gets credit for making the right choice. Hedman is one of the best players in the history of the organization and is smoothly skating his way to the Hall of Fame. Meanwhile Matt Duchene has had a nice career.
If anyone is kicking themselves for not drafting him, it’s the Islanders, although that’s tinged with a little bitterness over the way their relationship with John Tavares ended. Hedman is the engine that drives the Lightning and is in contention for the Conn Smythe.
2007, Round 3
A fun question to ask is, “What current member of the Lightning has been with the organization the longest?” Chances are most folks will answer with “Steven Stamkos”. The answer, of course, is Alex Killorn. Drafted a year prior to Stamkos, Killorn went off to Harvard and then joined the Norfolk Admirals in time for their march to the Calder Cup. He spent part of the next season in Syracuse before getting called up to the Lightning as part of the TampaCuse invasion.
2011, Round 2
Mr. Yzerman’s first draft that he had a reasonable amount of time to prepare for was an outstanding success as all six players drafted reached the NHL. Out of those six, Kucherov was the true gem. He definitely displayed first round talent so why did he drop to 58th overall? Was it his size (he was listed at 5-10, 163 lbs)? Or maybe the always lingering threat that, as a Russian, he may choose to play in the KHL?
Whatever the reason was, the Lightning were more than happy to choose him and he’s rewarded them with dynamic play ever since. A key part of the 2015 run as a member of The Triplets where he recorded 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 26 games, he’s been even better this year. He’s already tied a franchise record with 26 points and his 20 assists is the most a Lightning player has ever produced in a postseason.
2011, Round 7
Sometimes you get lucky. No matter what you see in a player, when he lasts until the 208th pick and then succeeds at the NHL level, you are lucky. Like Kucherov, Palat was part of that historic 2011 draft and part of the TampaCuse invasion. He never seems to get the press that some of his teammates garner, but he has played such a vital role for the Lightning over the years.
After a few seasons of dealing with injuries, Palat returned to the form that he showed as a young player during the 2015 run. He’s one of the better defending forwards for the Lightning and his offense is better than people think. You don’t gel with Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov without having some skills.
2012, Round 4
Another one of the players that didn’t receive a lot of hype in junior hockey, but met the criteria that the organization really likes to see in players drafted in the middle rounds. Paquette is a favorite of Coach Cooper and while he’ll never light up the scoreboard always seems to do the little things asked of bottom-six forwards. Oh, and he’s pretty darn good at face-offs.
2014, Round 3
Maybe the best pick during the Yzerman Era, the Lightning did trade up to pick him in the third round after it seemed like the Minnesota Wild might be interested in drafting him. Why was he still available? Questions about his size and his skating. Watching him zip around the ice now, that’s kind of hard to believe, right? Thank you Barb Underhill. While he was projected to be a good NHL player, no one thought he would be arguably the best player on a team with Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman.
2008, Round 1
Jay Feaster? Brian Lawton?
I guess Feaster gets credit for this pick since he was the titular General Manager at the time. Was he actually in charge? Hard to say since he resigned as GM a few weeks after the draft and stated, “During that time [the previous two weeks] it became apparent to me that this new ownership group did not need my advice or expertise”.
No matter who gets the credit, it was one of the most important picks in the history of the franchise. Thrown right into the mix as “The Chosen One” Stamkos survived a tumultuous start to his career and emerged as one of the dominant scorers of his generation. Injuries have prevented him from appearing in the playoffs to this point, but don’t count him out just yet.
2015, Round 2
See the write-ups for Cirelli, Palat, and Paquette. Smart, two-way player with speed, Stephens hasn’t quite had the impact that Cirelli has, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him in Tampa full-time next season especially if Paquette is moved for cap reasons.
2012, Round 1
Draft a goalie, let him develop in Russia for a few seasons and then bring him over and let him run wild in North America. Seems like a sound strategy. It worked out for the Lightning as Vasilevskiy developed as a NHL netminder just as Ben Bishop was looking for a big paycheck. He may not have been expecting to play in the Stanley Cup Final as a rookie, but that worked out pretty well and probably helped him prepare for this season.
Mr. Yzerman - 7
Mr. Feaster - 2
Brian Lawton - 1
Mr. BriseBois - 0
Not all free agents are signed to play big minutes and score big goals. Sometimes, if you have the cap space, you bring in a player that can give you depth. Much like Luke Schenn, Bogosian wasn’t brought in to play 20 minutes a game or be the player people thought he would be when he was drafted in 2008. In fact, the Lightning probably thought he would be watching most of the playoffs from the press box unless there was an injury. Who knew that he would mesh well with Victor Hedman and end up on the top pairing? Life is funny that way.
Yanni Gourde -
When you have a GM and an assistant GM that work really closely together, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish who should get credit for signing a player. Gourde was signed to play for the Syracuse Crunch, a team that Mr. BriseBois was in charge of running. The fact that he signed a bit of a hybrid contract (the remainder of the 2013-14 season was an AHL deal and the next two seasons were two-way deals) shows how close the two worked together.
Gourde flourished in the Lightning’s system and parlayed his excellent play to a long-term deal which Mr. Yzerman affixed his name to. There are times when fans grumble about the contract, but throughout the playoffs Gourde has spearheaded the Lightning’s most surprising line.
Tyler Johnson -
One of Mr. Yzerman’s first signings, he showed that he was willing to think outside the box and take chances on players that other teams might see as flawed. Yes, Tyler Johnson was undersized, but everywhere he went he produced. The same held true in the AHL and carried into the NHL. He isn’t the top line center that it seemed he was striving to be when he first came onto the scene, but he is a versatile forward who gives the team added scoring
They signed a Stanley Cup winner who filled a role on the bottom-six role and provided a voice in the locker room. One of the things about the Lightning’s leaders is that they aren’t the most vocal. Maroon has the “been-there-done-that” gravitas that makes other, especially younger, players listen.
The Lightning had a back-up goalie under contract last summer when they signed McElhinney as a free agent so it seemed kind of odd that they would offer him a deal. The key was that he was willing to sign for two-years, providing the Lightning a little cap certainty that Louis Domingue didn’t. Mr. BriseBois brought in a capable back-up and eliminated a problem that would have shown up after the 2019-20 season.
Luke Schenn is a veteran defenseman who knows exactly what he brings to the ice. He is depth personified, an experienced player who knew when he signed that ice time in Tampa would be limited and that a shuttle to Syracuse was likely in his future. He accepted that role and now he’s suiting up for Stanley Cup games.
Mr. BriseBois wanted size in front of the net and someone with a more physical edge. That’s what Luke Schenn has provided. Sometimes the little signings are just as important as the big ones.
The stars can occasionally align and a player that fills a need drops right into a GM’s lap. So was the case with Kevin Shattenkirk. With the Rangers needing to free up cap space to pay for their free agent signing binge, and Shattenkirk not quite living up to expectations they bought him out. That allowed the Lightning to pick him up on the cheap and he has slid in perfectly in a defensive corps where he doesn’t have to be “the man”.
Can the Lightning re-sign him? Probably not, but if he helps them win a Cup it won’t really matter.
Mr. BriseBois - 5
Mr. Yzerman - 2
Brian Lawton - 0
Mr. Feaster - 0
Did Mr. Yzerman hold onto Ben Bishop a little too long? When it comes to maximizing his trade value, probably. In one of the few recent trade deadlines where the Lightning were sellers, he took the best deal he could and as time has gone on, it’s worked out alright.
Cernak ended up being the prize piece of the return. Peter Budaj was solid as a backup and the two picks that were part of the deal never ended up being used by the Lightning. The seventh round pick was traded to Philadelphia as part of the Mark Streit deal and the conditions weren’t met on the conditional pick.
Cernak rapidly ascended through the system, playing a key role as a rookie last season and earning a reputation as a staunch shotblocker and defensive defenseman.
As the Lightning were making their push for the playoffs during their last Cup run, Mr. Yzerman converted a bevy of assets (Radko Gudas and a first and third round pick in 2015) into a veteran, defensive-minded blueliner in Coburn. The trade was met with mixed reactions at the time (it didn’t help that Coburn missed some games due to an injury following the deal) but he did break a scoreless tie in Game 7 against the Red Wings that year, so that made it all worth it.
He’s served as a valuable depth defenseman ever since. Despite being a healthy scratch for most of the postseason, he showed his worth as he stepped into the line-up against Boston when Ryan McDonagh missed a few games.
The Devils probably didn’t think they would be sellers at the deadline this year. After all they’ve added some nice young talent through the draft and PK Subban on the blueline. Things didn’t work out so Mr. BriseBois came a callin’. He paid a steep price (didn’t like having to give up Little Foote along with the first round pick) but he secured a defensive-minded forward who can chip in 20 goals a season. Oh, and he’s signed at a cheap deal through next season.
The regular season didn’t produce much, but Coleman has been really effective in the postseason on a line with Yanni Gourde and Barclay Goodrow. He’s been exactly what the Lightning were looking for when they made the deal.
Anthony Greco we hardly knew ya. Picked up just before the deadline for Danik Martel, Greco went to San Jose with a first round pick to secure the talents of Goodrow. On the surface it’s a straight up overpay, but honestly, would a late first round pick be as useful as Goodrow has been on the second/third line in these playoffs?
Sometimes a team’s need outweighs the perceived talent of the player they are trading for. The Lightning needed a depth forward to round out a line-up that has no issues scoring goals. Goodrow is the perfect fit for that need so why not pay the price San Jose was asking for?
Mr. Yzerman’s last huge deadline deal during his tenure with the Lightning, he pushed all of the chips to the middle of the table with this deal. The Lightning needed help on the blue line and the Rangers were rebuilding. So Libor Hajek, Brett Howden, Vlad Namestnikov, a first round pick, and a second round pick went to New York for McDonagh and JT Miller.
Then they went out and re-signed McDonagh to a long-term deal and he’s been a steady presence on the blueline ever since.
One of the biggest fears general managers have is trading away a talented young player and seeing him flourish with another team. They are more likely to hold onto that player until they either develop or wash out. Mr. Yzerman has never been part of the mode - take a look at how many players drafted in the first round he traded away during his time with the Lightning. The Drouin deal was the epitome of this mindset. Jonathan Drouin is really good at hockey, but never seemed to fit with the Lightning.
So, Mr. Yzerman traded him. He found a willing partner in Montreal and pulled in a pretty good haul in Mikhail Sergachev. Sometimes trades work out for both sides. The Canadiens got a playmaker that they desperately needed and the Lightning picked up a blue-chip prospect for their defense, something they haven’t had since Victor Hedman was a teenager.
Sergachev was always touted as an offensive defenseman, but this year has added a physical element to his game that few people expected.
Again, how much credit should go to Mr. Yzerman and how much should go to Mr. BriseBois who was the Syracuse GM at the time of the trade. The Crunch needed help up front and had an extra young goalie in the system. So fan favorite Kristers Gudlevskis was sent to the Islanders organization for Verhaeghe. Fifty-one goals over two seasons for the Crunch later and Verhaeghe is skating in the playoffs for the Lightning.
Mr. Yzerman - 5
Mr. BriseBois - 2
Brian Lawton - 0
Mr. Feaster - 0
So, the final tally for roster building is:
Mr. Yzerman - 14 players
Mr. BrisBois - 7 players
Mr. Feaster - 2 players
Brian Lawton - 1 player
With the close relationship that Mr. Yzerman and Mr. BriseBois had, it can be assumed that the current GM had more than a hand in helping acquire some of the players that came aboard during the Yzerman Era.
The breakdown also shows that it takes success in all three means of acquiring players to build a championship roster. The core can be built through the draft, but finding the final pieces to the puzzle often comes through free agency and trades.