Tampa Bay’s long journey to becoming a Stanley Cup Champion, Part Two

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

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.

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 Two: On The Brink, Not Close Enough (2014-2015 to 2016-2017)

The 2014 Lightning surprised a lot of teams across the league, but there were adjustments to the roster that needed to be made. So, Yzerman went to work in the offseason by re-signing Ryan Callahan to a six-year, $34.8 million contract. He followed that signing by conducting eight trades, four during the NHL draft, to free up cap space and gather assets. Of note, the two most impactful trades saw the acquisition of defensemen Jason Garrison from Vancouver for a 2014 second-round pick, and trading up one spot with the Minnesota Wild to select Brayden Point 79th overall. In free agency, Yzerman signed Brian Boyle (three years, $6 million) and Anton Stralman (five years, $22million).

The 2015 Lightning were expected to make the playoffs and maybe win a series or two. Instead, they became a darkhorse Stanley Cup contender as they posted a 50-24-8 record and secured a second place finish in the Atlantic division once again.

The integral players to make their debut for the Lightning during the 2014-2015 season were Andrei Vasilevskiy (December 16, 2014), who replaced Evgeni Nabokov in the backup position behind starter Ben Bishop, and Braydon Coburn (March 3, 2015), who was acquired at the trade deadline as Radko Gudas, a 2015 first and third-round pick were sent to the Philadelphia Flyers.

This season was one to remember for Lightning fans. There are far too many highlights to reminisce over. The biggest surprise for the Lightning came from the emergence of the Triplets line (Kucherov, Johnson, Palat) which propelled Tampa Bay through the regular season (one where they never lost more than two games in a row ) and playoffs as they defeated the Detroit Red Wings (seven-game series), Montreal Canadiens (six-game series), and New York Rangers (seven-game series) to earn a berth in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

Tampa Bay ultimately fell to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, but the question still lingers, if Bishop, Johnson, and Kucherov weren’t injured, could they have taken the series?

Losing in the cup final stung, but it provided legitimacy to the kind of roster Tampa Bay was building. The core of this team was young, hungry, and ready to take another shot at a championship next year. Yzerman spent the offseason re-signing young players (Vladislav Namestnikov, Jonathan Marchessault, and Andrej Sustr) to short term contract, but two notable offseason moves were signing Erik Condra to a three year $3.75 million contract to help fill out the bottom six, and trading the 28th overall pick to the New York Islanders for the 33rd and 72nd picks. Yzerman turned those picks into Mitchell Stephens and Anthony Cirelli.

The 2015-2016 season did not start as Tampa Bay planned. At the start of the new year, the Lightning were 18-16-4 and struggling to find consistency. However, after the new year rang in, Tampa Bay found their groove going 28-15-1 while stringing together two separate winning streaks of seven and nine games. They secured second place in the Atlantic for the third consecutive season and another first round match-up with the Detroit Red Wings.

Only one integral Lightning player made their debut this season, Yanni Gourde (December 15, 2015).

Unfortunately, Tampa Bay would lose Stamkos for the majority of the postseason as the captain was sidelined with a blood clot issue that required surgery on April 4, 2016.

However, Tampa Bay would not need their captain (foreshadowing much?) as they made quick work of the Red Wings (five-game series) and the New York Islanders (five-game series), before facing off against the Sidney Crosby led Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final.

In a series that went the distance, the most notable occurrences that happened were Stamkos’ return in Game Seven and, sigh, get ready folks...

Jonathan Drouin’s overturned goal in Game Six.

Tampa Bay would fall to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in Game Seven, 2-1.

Making it to consecutive Conference Finals is a feat in and of itself, but not returning to the Cup Final only emboldened the team to push for a championship even harder.

The ensuing offseason was looking to be an impactful one for the franchise. Tampa Bay needed to re-sign Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Cedric Paquette, J.T. Brown, and, most importantly, Steven Stamkos in the summer of 2016.

Prior to the re-signings, Yzerman hired former Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards as an assistant to Jon Cooper. He also extended associate head coach Rick Bowness for two years.

At the draft, Yzerman made one move: trading former first round pick Anthony DeAngelo to the Arizona Coyotes for the 37th pick (Libor Hájek).

Yzerman then went to work on re-signings. First, he re-signed Brown and Paquette to cheap two year deals. Then, on one of the craziest days in NHL history, Stamkos re-signed in Tampa Bay on an eight-year $68-million dollar contract. Two days later, Hedman signed an eight-year contract extension worth $63-million dollars, and Vasilevskiy signed a three-year bridge deal worth $10.5-million dollars. In July, yzerman re-signed Alex Killorn to a seven-year $31-million dollar contract, Vladislav Namestnikov to a two-year contract extension, and Yanni Gourde and (the return of) Cory Conacher to one year contracts. In between all of these signings was the buyout of maligned defensemen Matt Carle.

This left Kucherov as the lone player without a contract as training camp approached. As the season opener drew nearer, Kucherov’s status became the sole focus for Yzerman entering the season. Then, two days before the season began, there was a resolution; Kucherov signed a three-year bridge deal worth $14-million dollars.

The band was back together for another run, and the 2016-2017 season was sure to be a great one for the Lightning.

Then the actual season happened...

Stamkos tore his meniscus on November 15, 2016 and wouldn’t return for the remainder of the season. Tampa Bay suffered injury after injury, combined with inconsistent play, during the 2016-2017 season which held the team back from performing up the expectations for most of the year. Not even a spirited run after the All-Star break where the Lightning won 20 of their last 31 games was enough to regain the ground they had lost earlier in the year. They eventually missed the postseason by a single point.

A bright spot for Tampa Bay during a down year was the emergence of a young center who impressed the coaching staff during training camp; Brayden Point. The 20-year old debuted for the Lightning on October 13, 2016 and was eventually thrust into the top center position after injuries decimated Tampa Bay’s depth: he thrived.

Given the reality of Tampa Bay’s chances of making the playoffs, Yzerman decided to move some players and make the best of a disappointing year.

On January 26, 2017, Yzerman shipped Nikita Nesterov to the Montreal Canadiens for Jonathan Racine and a sixth round pick. On February 26, 2017, Yzerman traded Ben Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings for Peter Budaj, Erik Cernak, and a 2017 seventh-round pick (there was a conditional pick attached as well, but the conditions were never met). A day later, Yzerman sent Boyle to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Byron Froese and a 2017 conditional second-round pick. On March 1, 2017, Yzerman traded Valtteri Filppula, a fourth and a conditional seventh round pick for Mark Streit. Streit was flipped hours later to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a fourth round pick in 2018 (triggering the conditions of the seventh round pick to Philadelphia).

As disappointing of a season as 2016-2017 was, the moves Yzerman made both in the offseason and at the trade deadline helped supplement their AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch. The Crunch marched their way into the Calder Cup Final, but were ultimately defeated in six games by the Grand Rapids Griffins.

Missing the postseason made Yzerman re-examine some players on his roster. He was going to make some changes, especially with the expansion draft coming in a few months. The moves he makes over the next year would eventually solidify a large sect of the 2020 roster.

You’ll just have to wait til tomorrow though...