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

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

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 longtime coming would be an understatement. However, the journey 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 Steven 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 One: A Promising, Yet Stumbling Start (2010-2011 to 2013-2014)

The first season under Yzerman’s watch saw the Lightning regain form as they compiled a 46-25-11 record, securing second in the Southeast Division. His hiring of Guy Boucher as head coach helped stabilize the team while free-agent acquisitions like Pavel Kubina, Brett Clark, Dominic Moore, Sean Bergenheim, and Randy Jones supplemented the stars Tampa Bay already had in Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.

Tampa Bay also had two young stars in the making with Steven Stamkos (fresh off a 50-goal season the previous year) and Victor Hedman. Yzerman also brought in Simon Gagne via trade from the Philadelphia Flyers during the offseason. There was another key free agent signing that Yzerman, a young, undrafted center named Tyler Johnson.

An important, but underrated move was allowing Assistant General Manager Julien BriseBois to handpick their new AHL head coach. BriseBois chose Jon Cooper from the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers.

St. Louis and Stamkos would maintain their wonderful chemistry as the former led the team in points with 99 while the latter lead the team in goals with 45 (and 91 points). The free agents were playing their roles and the Lightning were winning.

In contention for the playoffs during the second half of the season Yzerman made some more changes to the roster as he brought in Eric Brewer and Dwanye Roloson to help bolster areas he felt were weak.

The additions ended up paying off as the Lightning made an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Final where they lost in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. There was some optimism about the team and head coach Guy Boucher, but also some worry as the core of that group was already on the wrong side of 30.

The following two seasons (2011-2012, 2012-2013) would see Tampa Bay stumble back to mediocrity as they went 56-62-12 over that time span. One thing brightened Lightning fans days in those non-playoff seasons - Stamkos’ emergence as a bona fide superstar as he lit up the league and raced toward the 60-goal mark during the 2011-2012 season.

Interspersed with those miserable seasons were the 2011 and 2012 drafts. In 2011 Yzerman selected two players who would become integral pieces of Tampa Bay’s championship roster. One was a gifted Russian winger who lit up the World Junior’s selected in the second round and the other was an obscure Czech winger playing in Drummondville, Quebec who was drafted at the end of the seventh round. Those players were Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. In 2012, Yzerman drafted two more members of the eventual 2020 Stanley Cup champions: Andrei Vasilevskiy (19th overall) and Cedric Paquette (101st overall).

It was clear after the 2012-2013 season that Yzerman needed to make changes. He fired Boucher with 16 games left in the 2012-2013 season and replaced him with Tampa Bay’s AHL head coach Jon Cooper. Cooper was one season removed from winning the Calder Cup with the Norfolk Admirals. The Admirals were really good.

It was during the lockout shortened 2012-2013 season where integral players like Alex Killorn (February 10, 2013), Palat (March 4, 2013), and Johnson (March 14, 2013) would make their first appearances in a Lightning uniform.

During the 2013 offseason, the Lightning would make a trade that secured their net for the immediate future and beyond as Ben Bishop was acquired from the Ottawa Senators for Cory Conacher and a 2013 fourth-round pick on April 3, 2013.

The 2013 draft saw the team draft Jonathan Drouin to be the staple winger of the future for Stamkos.

Drouin would play an important part in building the 2020 championship roster, but we’ll get to that later.

Having secured a new head coach Yzerman focused on tweaking the lineup. On June 27, 2013, Lightning icon and captain Vincent Lecavalier was bought out by the team. With the captaincy vacated after his compliance buyout, Tampa Bay chose longtime Lightning favorite Martin St. Louis to take his place. Following the release of Lecavalier, Yzerman signed former Detroit Red Wing Valtteri Filppula to a five-year, 25-million dollar contract on July 5, 2013.

The following season (2013-2014) saw Tampa Bay surprise the league with a 46-27-9 record  finishing second in the Atlantic division; thanks in large part to Ben Bishop’s stellar play. During this campaign, the NHL debuts of integral players Nikita Kucherov (November 25, 2014) and Cedric Paquette (April 11, 2014) occurred.

This was also the year when this happened...

It was also the season where the Lightning faithful saw the recently installed captain force his way out of town. On March 5, 2014, Martin St. Louis was traded to the New York Rangers for Ryan Callahan, a 2015 first-round pick, and a conditional second-round pick in 2014 (eventually upgrading to a 2014 first-round pick after the Rangers made the Eastern Conference Final).

Stamkos was named captain of the Lightning following St. Louis’ departure and helped lead Tampa Bay back into the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Unfortunately, they were unceremoniously swept by the Montreal Canadiens, thanks in large part to an injury Bishop sustained just prior to the playoffs and the inconsistent play of Anders Lindback and Kristers Gudlevskis.

A return to the postseason, albeit cut abruptly short, provided a huge sense of optimism for the Lightning heading forward. Primarily, because unlike their last postseason run in 2011, the core of the team was much younger. However, there were still holes on the roster that needed to be filled and the ensuing offseason would see Yzerman address those holes and accelerate Tampa Bay’s ascension into the upper echelon of the hockey world.

After the 2013-2014 season, Tampa Bay was clearly on an upward trajectory and leaving the opening stage of their retooling with Stamkos and Hedman being the foundational pieces. Additions like Johnson, Palat, Killorn, and Kucherov were only the first wave of integral players for the 2020 Stanley Cup Champions.

Part Two is tomorrow...