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Next man up: How the Tampa Bay Lightning built depth to (out)last

A first-class scouting apparatus, AHL organization, and a willingness to move first-round picks smartly.

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Montreal Canadiens at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Instead of discussing the players the Tampa Bay Lightning should have lost to their cap crunch from last offseason, and whether or not they circumvented the cap, and whether even if they did it’s not really fair to whine about it because they wanted this loophole closed after losing in the Final to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015 — let’s talk about the impact depth players had on this team that just won back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Make no mistake, this piece is to boast about the Tampa Bay Lightning’s deep, solid organization.

Consider the players who scored the last six goals in the Final against the Montreal Canadiens: Ross Colton. Pat Maroon. Barclay Goodrow. Blake Coleman. Tyler Johnson, twice. A shade over $9 million in cap space taken up between the five of them, more than half of it going to Johnson who was on waivers twice this year. The line between “stars” and “depth” blurred to the point of non-existence. I mean, by ice time, captain Steven Stamkos was a depth player:

But they’re $18 mil— I hear you. Again, set aside the dollars and cents for a moment, and the cap controversy, and just admire what this organization has built. Even if you believe that Kucherov unfairly being on LTIR allowed them to add and keep the right pieces to win another Cup, they still had to identify those pieces in the first place. Any team can claim to have an outstanding scouting department, AHL team, and development structure, plus the acumen to target players in trades that return value.

The Tampa Bay Lightning actually have those things.

Building this team starts with the amateur scouting department headed by Al Murray. Murray probably deserves more public recognition for the role he’s had in shaping this organization over the past decade.

In the past five seasons or so, the team has regularly drafted towards the bottom half of the first round. Rather than using first-round picks to snag a project player and waiting three to five years to see if they’ll ever suit up for meaningful NHL minutes, the organizational strategy has shifted towards first-round picks being more valuable in trade fodder for adding experienced, established NHL depth right now.

This puts more pressure on Murray to land good players that can contribute outside the first round. He has done this most recently with Colton (4th round, 2016), Anthony Cirelli (3rd round, 2015) and Mathieu Joseph (4th round, 2015) — to make no mention of Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh (both 2nd round picks in 2016) waiting in the wings with the Syracuse Crunch.

But let’s do mention the Crunch and why that team and its coaching staff are so invaluable to what the Lightning have built:

This is an impressive list, no doubt. No, seriously, read it again. Syracuse alumni make up most of the major star talent on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster, save the two top picks that were on the team in the pre-Steve Yzerman era.

Syracuse alumni also make up the front office: the head coach, Jon Cooper, who is now sporting an unbelievable .603 winning percentage in the playoffs. His assistants, including Rob Zettler, who was formerly a head coach for the Crunch. The GM, Julien Briseboise, who guided the Crunch before Yzerman left to run the Detroit Red Wings. Hockey operations and player personnel guys, one of whom, J.P. Côté, I want to single out specifically. After years as an invaluable leader on the ice for the Crunch and in the community, Côté headed for Europe in 2015, and I had this to say:

At the time I was only referring to the work he put in helping Tampa Bay’s prospects to grow and learn the professional game. Now he’s got two Cup rings as the Lightning’s director of player personnel.

The organization’s utter confidence that the AHL squad will continue to turn late round picks and undrafted guys into NHL players ready to contribute right away — the way Colton and Joseph did on this playoff run — lets GM Julien Brisebois use his (usually pretty late) first-round pick as ammunition to add NHL talent right now.

Tampa’s pick is more valuable to other franchises who struggle to identify or fail to consistently develop late-round talent.

Trading those picks to add Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman at last year’s deadline is heralded as the Lightning adding more “grit” and getting “tougher”, which dramatically undersells their skillsets. Really, the Lightning just got deeper and better.

With the cap crunch rearing its ugly head once again this summer, both guys may walk in free agency. Both deserve a raise, and while they are fantastic players critical to the Lightning’s success these past two seasons, it’s not hard to see them overpaid by a middling team, given a larger role, and underwhelming as a result. The Lightning are also likely to lose a very good player to the expansion draft, though it remains to be seen who that will be.

But luckily, fans can sit back and wait for Syracuse’s next man up.