It’s funny, if you remove the esteem, the adjectives, the histrionics we attach to those who win championships and those who don’t, and just look at the results on paper, the difference is small. We attach a chasm between the teams that lift the trophies and those that they beat for them, but in reality the difference is a couple of inches or percentage points.
For instance, the Boston Bruins are the width of a post (Chara in 2OT in Game 1 of the 2013 Final) and one more win—which is just one or two more goals—from joining the Penguins and Blackhawks as having three Cups in the past 11 years. The Hawks themselves are a bad call or one bounce away from having four Cups in that time, and possibly three in a row. They’re also a bounce here or there from having two or one. Considering the number of games that those teams have played over seven, eight, or 10 years, winning or losing one more game or two is barely a tenth of a percent in variance in the results to wholly change the narrative around them.
By any sane or reasonable measure, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been the league’s most successful team in the past six seasons. They have the most regulation wins. Thanks to stupid shootout and overtime rules, they have the second-most points by one to the Washington Capitals. They have been to two Finals and two conference finals on top of that. No team has come close to matching that amount of playoff wins in that time, whether in regulation or overtime. They have 13 more playoff wins in that time than anyone. They have six more wins in regulation. They have “been around it” more than anyone for the better part of a decade.
And yet, no hockey observer would label them that because they didn’t get that 16th win until last night.
Again, on paper, they’ve been just a smidge away from having a similar or same run as the Pens or Hawks. They lost three one-goal games to the Hawks in the 2015 Final, which in hockey essentially makes them coin-flips. We attach an unquantifiable “winning mentality or quality” to it, but it could be as simply as a rut in the ice here or there or a stick flailing one fraction of a second to miss a puck in front instead of deflecting it in. They took the eventual champs Penguins and Capitals to Game 7s in the conference finals. They were essentially equals to those two teams, and given the much larger sample of regular season games before, they were actually much better than the Capitals. They just lost the last dice-roll at the end.
The Lightning got here by being, quite simply, the best-run organization in hockey and one of the best in any of the major sports. Of the 20 skaters last night, 13 were either Tampa draft picks or undrafted signees. A further five were acquired by trade, an expert use of the assets or strengths the Lightning have built through their drafting that they could then turn into major pieces of a champion.
Perhaps even more impressive, perhaps even more massively impressive, is that only three of those players are first-round draft picks (Stamkos, Vasilevskiy, Hedman). The Lightning find guys at all levels of the draft and after it. Alex Killorn is a 3rd round pick. Nikita Kucherov, last year’s MVP, was a second-round pick. Ondrej Palat, who does a mighty fine Marian Hossa impression, was a seventh-round pick. Brayden Point, who easily could have taken home the Conn Smythe if Hedman dropped it somewhere, was a third-round pick. Tyler Johnson wasn’t even drafted. Neither was Yanni Gourde.
The Bolts do have an advantage in that there’s no income tax in Florida. They’ve used that to sign Stamkos, Kucherov, Point, Hedman, and Palat to slightly below-market deals, but evens out in the end because those players get to keep just as much if not more money if they’d signed elsewhere. But hey, anything that breaks hearts in Toronto and Montreal, cause them to curse their gods (I assume it’s Gordon Lightfoot or Neil Peart, and if it isn’t it should be) for not providing them what they thought they were entitled is a boon to all of us (even funnier as half the residents in both places end up moving to Florida anyway).
If hockey is the biggest copy-cat sport, then it is wholly healthy for the league that it was the Lightning that won. While the Bolts aren’t a small team, they don’t value it as highly as others. They don’t pack their third and fourth lines with road-graters or droolers who can’t spell “puck” and certainly don’t ever look for it. Anthony Cirelli, Point, Gourde, even Johnson back in the day served apprenticeships on the fourth line, where the Lightning just wanted more speed and skill. They moved their way up the lineup, and then another speedy forward with skills replaced them.
The problem is that the Lightning are hard to copy. Any GM, and you’ll find that most NHL front offices are headed by a guy you wouldn’t give much more of a description to than “any GM,” can find a good goalie and a bunch of plugs to collapse around the crease and block a lot of shots. That’s what the Stars do. That’s basically what the Islanders do. You can get into the playoffs, win a round or two, and keep your job by doing that. Maybe the cards come up your way just once to get you a banner and years of job security.
To do what the Lightning have done, and are doing, is much more difficult. You have to hit on more picks, you have to make the right trades (Sergachev for Drouin looks more and more like it should be tried in the Hague with each passing year) and you have to run counter to popular hockey thinking about what the bottom of your roster should look like. There are pitfalls everywhere.
And because of the violently random nature of hockey, it rarely works. The Predators tried it, and they only got to one Final and are on the backside of their arc. The Leafs have yet to win a playoff series. The Hurricanes have only made one conference final, and haven’t won a game there. The Knights have had similar success as the Lightning the past three seasons, but haven’t won yet. The Avalanche are on the upside of their journey, but still have the biggest steps to go. Except the steps are no bigger than the ones these teams have taken, they’re just described and thought of as gargantuan because that’s where the hardware is.
But the labels themselves have more meaning than what they describe. The more teams that go this route will make for a better product. Now everyone can see the benefits.