Well, I guess the 2020-2021 NHL season is officially over. The boats are back in their docks, the Bud Light cans have been swept up, and the Stanley Cup is back on its way north to get the dent fixed. For the final time as a team, the 2021 Stanley Cup champions gathered together to celebrate their victory and thank the fans.
The championship parade, be it on land or sea, always has a tinge of bittersweetness hanging in the air. While it’s great to see everyone having a good time, you also know that changes are coming and the group of players that show up for training camp in September are going to be vastly different than the ones we saw parading around shirtless in Tampa yesterday. That happens every year, with every team, it’s just the economics of sports. Throw in expansion and their issues with the salary cap and the changes will escalate for the Lightning.
Still, the one thing about this season that makes me the happiest is that the Bolts were able to defend their Cup from 2020. When they won the Cup in 2004, a lockout followed, and when the team returned in 2005-06, several key pieces had departed due to the salary cap that had been installed in the league.
It looked like there might be a repeat of a lost season for the NHL in 2020-21 as they dealt with the lingering effects of COVID, but the league and the players managed to come together to put a partial season together. It had its ups and downs, stops and starts, but for the most part the league did as well as can be expected in uncertain times.
As for the Lightning, they also had their ups and downs, stops and starts, but despite maddeningly inconsistent play without their top offensive player, they made it back into the playoffs. From there they got stronger as the series wore on, holding off a pesky Florida team before matching up against Carolina and defeating them. The Islanders had revenge on their mind and pushed the Lightning to their only elimination game during this back-to-back run before getting stifled by Andre Vasilevskiy in Game Seven. Montreal was tough, but couldn’t quite match the Bolts line-for-line and when Carey Price faltered a bit early in the series, dug themselves a hole that was too deep to get out of.
The most impressive thing about this year’s version of the Lightning, which was basically the same cast of players from the 2020 Cup victory, was how they adapted to their opponents in the playoffs. Florida wanted to run-and-gun, and the Bolts outran them and outgunned them. Carolina wanted to push them with their speed and forecheck, no problem. The Islanders wanted to play physical? Again, the Lightning not only matched the style, but out-Islandered the Islanders. Montreal wanted to shut down the top line and the power play. They did that so the Lightning beat them with depth and even-strength goals.
I believe the 2020 Cup team was better than the 2021 Cup team based on pure talent, but this year’s Cup win was somewhat more impressive. They took one of the toughest routes to the Finals and never blinked. Heck, the barely seemed to break a sweat. Even when the fan base was freaking out, the Lightning players just calmly went about their business. They knew they were the best team on the ice and that, as Nikita Kucherov exclaimed on a boat, “no one could beat us.” Even when the Lightning lost, more times than not, it was because of mistakes they made, not because the other team was better.
It was a fun ride along the way. I’m glad Steven Stamkos was healthy and productive for the playoffs. Yes, he didn’t put up the points against Montreal that he would have wanted to, but guess who was digging in the corner and winning the puck battle for Ross Colton’s Cup-clinching goal? That’s right, it was the Captain.
Nikita Kucherov proved that he is very good at hockey even with a broken rib. Brayden Point somehow remains vastly underrated. Andrei Vasilevskiy continues to be a big game goaltender, putting up stupid numbers following a loss. Victor Hedman seemed to be at roughly 50% effectiveness yet still logged a tremendous amount of ice time. Ryan McDonagh was a revelation in the finals, even blocking one last desperate shot from the Canadiens as time expired in Game Five. Heck, even Tyler Johnson, often maligned over the past few seasons, had one last shining moment in a Lightning uniform as he scored twice in Game Three.
It’s so hard to defend a championship in sports these days. Not only is every team gunning for you, but finding that extra bit of motivation can be hard once you sipped champagne out of a silver chalice. At moments in the regular season it seemed the team was just biding its time until the playoffs. We often say you can’t throw a switch and turn on the intensity at will, but the Lightning may have proved us wrong this year. Yes, getting Kucherov back was a big boost, but the dedication throughout the line-up through the four playoff rounds was a night and day difference from the regular season.
Things are going to be different next season. They just are. Will they be able to three-peat? I’m not ready to write off any team with Andrei Vasilevskiy in net so maybe, despite the talent they lose in the expansion draft and as a salary cap casualty, they can pull it off again. The main core of Stamkos, Kucherov, Point, Hedman, and Vasilevskiy will be there and that’s a solid foundation, but it won’t be the same. It just wont. That’s okay. We all have to move on in life and whatever the next iteration of this team is, we can trust Mr. BriseBois to do his best to make it competitive.
Until then I just want to say thank you to Jeff Vinik and Julien BriseBois for running it back a second time and giving the team a chance to defend their title. Thank you to the players for pulling it off. Thank you to the staff of Raw Charge for another fantastic season of writing.
Finally, thank you to all of you out there that take the time to read the words we put out into the ether. We appreciate it more than you can know. Thank you for all of the re-Tweets, likes, and comments (yes, even the negative ones about how the Lightning are going to blow a 3-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final). If you keep reading, we’ll keep writing.
When you take the Stanley Cup on back-to-back boat parades there is a good chance a little damage may occur. I, for one, can’t wait to find out the story behind this:
The Conn Smythe as a hat. The t-shirt. It’s all just a wonderful reminder that somewhere along the way the Lightning embraced their heel turn.
Okay, now he’s not even trying to hide it. Vasilevskiy’s new mask is CLEARLY illegal. pic.twitter.com/UcRtFYpQsZ— Gregory Balloch (@GregBalloch) July 12, 2021
Drunk Kucherov continues to be a national treasure. He celebrates for a week and then disappears, replaced by the stoic point-producing on-ice machine.
Yanni Gourde aspiring to Kucherov-level partying
Best player in hockey with the best owner in hockey.
So, the injury tally as we know it:
Victor Hedman - Knee surgery
Anthony Cirelli - Wrist surgery
Nikita Kucherov - Broken rib
Ryan McDonagh - Broken hand
The Chicago hockey team honors Duncan Keith’s wish and sends him westward. The Edmonton Oilers sent a conditional third round pick (2022) and Caleb Jones the other way in exchange for the veteran defenseman and his full cap hit.
This deal feels like a massive win for the Blackhawks, who shed the final two years of Keith’s contract worth just over $5.5 million AAV, freeing up additional cap space to make a bigger splash in the offseason. Adding Jones also provides yet another young blue-liner to Chicago’s glutton of prospects at that position.
Pierre McGuire? Okay. Cool. Let’s see how this plays out (narrator: it will turn out less than ideal)
“He’s another piece and he’s going to be perfect for everything,” the Senators’ owner told Postmedia. “(McGuire) just adds another piece to what is hopefully a Stanley Cup winning team. Our general manager and his group is second to none, our scouting is second to none and we have our coaching in place with a new goalies coach with D.J. and the assistants all lined up.”