Lessons Lightning Can Learn from Cup Finalists
The NHL is constantly evolving. In what seems like a different century, the Los Angeles Kings played the New Jersey Devils in a championship slog in 2012. The last two Cup Finals have underscored the importance of speed. Each year, the triumphant franchises that reach the Final offer lessons as to what propels success. Sometimes these formulas contradict each other, but the wise observer can pick out important shards of information to apply to teams going forward.
Lesson 1: Sign the core and recalibrate
The Washington Capitals have demonstrated that repeated failures to win the Cup do not call for tearing the foundation down. It is funny how this seems incredibly obvious now, but seemed far from it 12 to 24 months ago. The Capitals have run it back with Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and John Carlson, and relied on the development of Evgeny Kuznetsov to round out their nucleus while tinkering with the supporting cast. Washington understood that team identity can be refashioned and players can be developed and acquired, but elite talent is irreplaceable.
For the Lightning, the bedrock of their franchise’s future are Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman. Unfortunately, only two of these four are strapped in for the next decade, which means Tampa Bay’s management has work to do. GM Steve Yzerman did not make life easy for himself in terms of wiggling out of salary cap hell as Ryan Callahan, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Alex Killorn all have a No-Movement Clause and Full No-Trade Clause attached to them. Unfortunately, the players the Lightning most need to exile (because of their contracts) have leverage in terms of which teams they play for next season. The Callahan contract is the most egregious, but if the Lightning can convince him to waive his No-Movement Clause maybe they can package Callahan and a first-round pick to a team like Arizona to help make the trade palatable.
Complicating things is that Callahan’s contract ends in 2021. Which is relatively soon when compared to the other unsavory contracts. The Lightning are on the hook for Palat, Johnson, and Killorn for four or more seasons. All three of those players are exiting their scoring primes, and they do not possess the transcendent, disruptive talent that Kucherov or Hedman possess (although if I could keep any of the trio it would be Johnson).
Tampa Bay would be wise to explore moving these players if they give consent. This could cause short-term pain, but the Lightning’s best opportunity for opening an extended Cup window like the Capitals did is by carving out cap room for their young core. How they reshuffle their roster is step two.
Lesson 2: Untapped potential from the discounted
Viewers who have watched Vegas play and have the volume on their televisions above a whisper have heard the same tired platitudes spouted out over and over. It is a team constructed of misfits. They were discounted. Though theirs is a Cinderella story, the Knights didn’t view themselves that way.
Lessons can be learned here from how we value players. One player who fits the Vegas model of having a modest pedigree, but whose play exceeds expectations is Yanni Gourde. Though undrafted and undersized, Gourde was one of the Lightning’s best players this season. If the Lightning have a fire sale to clean up their books, Gourde is a player they would be wise to retain assuming it is on a modest contract, especially for a player who had a cap hit of $1M this season. Maybe offer Gourde term for less money, or front-load it with money and make it short. Just don’t do both. And absolutely do not let his agent attach any movement stipulations to his contract.
Gourde is a feisty player around the net and has good touch. He is a speedy puck-handler with a quick release on his shot, and the lack of NHL attrition may extend his career life span. One could say he is a young 26.
Lesson 3: Speed comes in different shapes and sizes
If there is one prevailing theme from the Capitals’ run it is how quickly they zip the puck around and propel it forward. The Capitals have an army of puck-handlers who skate around and open up shooting angles, and they have a team full of players who can drive the puck on net with a quick release before the shooting lane closes. That is invaluable in today’s NHL. Tampa Bay and Vegas both struggled to adjust, and their inability to drive the puck on net as quickly torpedoed Tampa Bay and will soon sink the Golden Knights. The puck bounces from stick to stick, and when a shot is released, there is a din of bodies crashing the net, scratching and clawing for the rebound.
The power play intensifies the Capitals’ embrace of driving the puck fast on net. Oshie sets up in the middle of the slot on the power play, a fount of the quick release. Ovechkin is behind him along the left circle, master of uncorking the one-timer.
Coach Trotz’s biggest feat may be his enabling his team to adopt a chameleon-like quality to his playmakers. Anyone from Jay Beagle to Devante Smith-Pelly can pose as a Nicklas Backstrom/Evgeny Kuznetsov simulacrum, leading an odd-man rush and attacking on entries, firing a shot before the opponent lays out for a block. The NHL of the future is all about getting the puck to the net lightning quick. The Bolts have the summer to adapt.