Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman is only 28, but time passes differently when you’re a former whiz kid who made his NHL debut at 19. So, wanna feel old? “You know,” Hedman remarks in early March after one of the Lightning’s historic 62 regular-season wins, “especially for me and Stammer, it’s been almost a decade now. We’ve been through it all, pretty much.”
This time 10 years ago, Stammer—or Steven Stamkos, the first overall pick in the 2008 NHL draft, and captain of the Lightning since 2014—was finishing up a weird rookie year playing for an adrift Tampa Bay franchise. (How weird? That season began with Barry Melrose as the head coach, before the team started out 5-7-4 and he got canned.) The team was just a few months away from adding Hedman, a clean-cut 6-foot-6 Swedish lad, with the second pick in the 2009 draft. Current Lightning head coach Jon Cooper had recently left a career as a lawyer and was up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, overseeing a bunch of teens playing development league hockey for a team called the Gamblers. Andrei Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov, now Tampa Bay’s starting goalie and record-setting, breathtaking playmaker, respectively, were 14 and 15 years old and still sharpening their skates and skills in their native Russia.
None of them could have foreseen it, but they would all eventually join a Tampa Bay team that’s gone on to have an exhilarating and exhausting romp through the 2010s. The Lightning not only made a wrenching trip to the Stanley Cup final, in 2015, they also lost three different times in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. In each case, the team that beat them went on to hoist and smooch and mildly defile the Cup the way every little hockey player dreams of doing. “We know how it feels to lose,” Hedman, his once-baby face now anchored by stubble, says as he reflects on the hard-won experiences and even harder losses that have defined his and Stamkos’s tenure. “And we know what it feels like to, to”—he pauses, seeming to search for phrasing that won’t sound cocky or jinxy—“to make the playoffs, let’s just say.”
The Lightning have done a whole lot more than just make the playoffs this season: They have owned the league. Their list of accolades and accomplishments is impressive and frankly shocking to behold. Last week, Tampa Bay became the third team in NHL history to reach 60 wins; the only others to have done so were the 1995-96 Red Wings and the 1976-77 Canadiens, both iconic representatives of stacked eras. The Lightning scored 106 more goals than it allowed this season, a preposterous total made even more eye-popping by the fact that the second-best goal differential in the league was plus-62. Three Bolts players (Stamkos, Kucherov, and Brayden Point) have scored 40-plus goals this season, the first time a team has employed such a prolific trio since the Pittsburgh Penguins iced Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, and Petr Nedved in 1995-96.
On March 18—the same night the Lightning clinched the Presidents’ Trophy, awarded annually to the team with the NHL’s best regular-season record—Stamkos scored his 384th career goal, surpassing Lightning legend Vincent Lecavalier for a new team high. That was the second time in less than two weeks that the retired Lecavalier, who was on the 2004 team that won the franchise’s only Stanley Cup, was leapfrogged: On March 9, Kucherov scored twice in a 3-2 win over the Red Wings and became the Lightning’s new single-season scoring leader—with 13 games still to play in the regular season. Hedman knew the milestone was coming—“I think everyone knew,” he says—and he skated over to retrieve the puck so Kucherov could keep it.
Still, these days, regular-season records don’t mean much in Tampa Bay. The Bolts know by now that even the happiest Januaries don’t always mean much in June, that racking up various individual accolades at the annual NHL Awards isn’t quite as fun when you’ve watched another team take home the Cup a week earlier. Recent success has come to the Lightning in waves, lapping at glory before retreating, with season after promising season ending the same way: with another team taking home the Cup. Which is why this year’s squad, so spirited and lively on the ice, become more sober-minded and businesslike when they don’t have sticks in their hands. “This group is not chasing regular-season titles,” Stamkos tells reporters, sitting at his locker in early March, his baseball cap pulled low across his brow. “We want a Stanley Cup championship.” Hedman, a few days later, is even more direct. “You’re never going to get over a Stanley Cup loss,” he says, “until you win one.”
The Lightning are a dream of a team, boasting a speedy, skilled game that is extremely befitting of the franchise name (and is a far cry from how they played early in Stamkos’s and Hedman’s careers). They also have one hell of a fan mantra: Posters around town implore supporters to “Be the Thunder!” and this season it hasn’t been hard to inspire that sort of roar. The team has the best power play in hockey, the third-best penalty kill, an entire constellation of star power, and a mensch of a coach.
Defensively, the team is led by Hedman, an award-winning attack-minded blueliner who runs point on the power play, serves on the penalty kill, and averages more minutes per game than anyone else on the Lightning. “Vic being on the power play is such a threat for us,” says forward J.T. Miller. “Obviously, he won the Norris last year. He’s such a good player for all 200 feet.”
Not satisfied by merely employing one of the league’s best defensemen, Tampa Bay went out last season and traded for another: Ryan McDonagh, the steady former Rangers captain (and one of five former Rangers on the Lightning roster) who arrived with Miller at the 2018 trade deadline and whom both Cooper and Hedman describe, in wonderment, as “a horse.” Because he doesn’t play on the extra-man unit, the 29-year-old McDonagh “doesn’t accumulate the points that other guys would,” Cooper said in an early March postgame press conference. “But if you’re looking for the best defenders in the league to play against the best players in the league, I don’t know how you couldn’t put McDonagh at the top of that list.”
While the blue line is certainly stacked, the wildest aspect of this team has been the volume and creativity of its scoring. When things are clicking offensively for the Lightning—and this season, that’s been the case more often than not—watching the team operate feels decadent and almost absurd, like seeing old footage of Red Army teams noodling around hapless opponents, always making the extra pass. Stamkos is Stamkos: Everyone in the league knows exactly where he likes to set up shop for a one-timer, and yet almost no one can stop it from happening. Point might technically be the most valuable player in the league this season: He has scored 41 goals and added 51 assists, and is getting paid less than a million bucks, as obvious an example as any of the advantage of having great players on entry-level contracts. When he becomes a restricted free agent this summer, he will likely get about 10 times that amount per season.
Then there’s Kucherov, who is a straight-up marvel: a 5-foot-11 player who has both an imposing presence and a deft touch. Somehow, in between scoring 41 goals this season, he has found time to add 87—eighty-seven!!!!—assists. (It helps that he’s on Tampa Bay’s power-play unit, but that’s a chicken/egg thing.) Hedman describes Kucherov as “unpredictable, in a good way,” and in the locker room after a chipper practice, Louis Domingue, the team’s silly sunglasses-wearing, motorbike-riding backup goalie, compares Kucherov’s game to Patrick Kane, Connor McDavid, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and highlights his teammate’s “deception with the puck.” (As Domingue talks, he mimes the way Kucherov looks coming down the ice with an imaginary stick and puck.) Kucherov is a pretty quiet guy, and when Cooper is asked for good stories about him he struggles to find one, mentioning only that the player has a nose for finding good Russian restaurants anywhere the team goes. Asked what has surprised him most about coaching the 25-year-old, Cooper responds that “he can almost surprise you on a daily basis with some of the plays he makes.” The same can be said for the Lightning en masse.
On March 20, the Lightning won a gorgeously ugly 5-4 overtime road contest against the Capitals that had all the sharp edges, jarring oscillations, and hot goalie heroics of a real playoff game. Kucherov scored two power-play goals and Stamkos added another. The Lightning gave up a horrifying 58 shots, but Vasilevskiy made 54 saves. After Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov tied the game with less than a minute to play, charming the home crowd with his flappy-bird celebration, Hedman notched the overtime game-winner with a patient, sleek breakaway.
And notably, the Lightning appeared to relish the penalty-ridden physicality of it all, beating the Capitals at their own game. The knock on Tampa Bay last postseason was that, while the team’s elite skills might be extremely difficult to subdue on a night-by-night basis, the Bolts could be knocked around enough during a seven-game playoff series that they’d eventually lose that advantage. (And even when Tampa Bay did try to fight back, it backfired: The team’s penalty kill was one of the league’s worst last season.) But the Lightning front office has long been willing to shake things up, understanding that sometimes the key to NHL consistency is organizational flexibility.
Stamkos and Hedman have been the franchise’s foundational cornerstones for almost a decade now, and last week the Lightning inked a new “multi-year” contract with head coach Cooper. (Of all the outlandish statistics and milestones that Tampa Bay has accumulated this season, the most staggering might be that the 51-year-old Cooper, whose whole thing is his fresh, youthful perspective, is currently the longest-tenured head coach in the NHL—in just his sixth season behind the bench.) But the cast around that group has shifted over the years.
After getting to the 2015 Cup final with goalie Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay traded him a year later. Last season, despite being one of the top teams in the East, the Lightning made an aggressive trade-deadline move to acquire McDonagh and Miller, two guys who are unafraid of bruising play. Former team general manager Steve Yzerman decided in September to step aside from his role to spend more time with his family, elevating longtime assistant GM Julien BriseBois, one of the most respected under-the-radar executives in the league. And this past offseason, the team shook up its coaching staff, parting ways with two assistants and hiring two new ones, Derek Lalonde and former NHL forward Jeff Halpern.
Already, this has reaped dividends. Cooper projects a smooth, chill image; he is a guy so committed to Wedding Crashers rule no. 76 (“No excuses, play like a champion”) that he had it printed on the wall near the team’s locker room in Amalie Arena. (During the 2015 Cup final, Vince Vaughn ran into Cooper at a restaurant and picked up his group’s tab.) But he has also admitted to having been a little too micromanage-y in the past, and has made it a point to cede more control to his coaching staff and his player leadership group lately. One of the areas where this has had the most marked impact was in the penalty kill, an area that the new coaches focused on improving. “As a staff, to see it translate into some successes has been very rewarding,” Lalonde said to reporters after an early March practice. “There’s many reasons why we’re having the year we are, but executing the special teams is a big part of it.”
And it’s not just wily vets leading the way on these fronts: When blueliners Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi—who had logged many of the team’s penalty kill minutes during the season—went down with injuries in March, first-year defenseman Erik Cernak seamlessly transitioned into a much bigger special teams role. And rookie center Anthony Cirelli has played more total minutes on the penalty kill than any forward in the league, rookie or otherwise. Lalonde says that while coaches are constantly giving players “good habit reminders,” Cirelli rarely needs to be told to finish checks or stay above the puck. “So he’s not flashy at times,” Lalonde says. “But it’s done correctly. And I think that’s why he’s playing, that’s why he’s earned the trust of us and Coop.”
Downtown Tampa is a maze of construction, hectic with the sights and sounds of civic optimism and growth: the gawky cranes poking around the city sky, the jackhammers rumbling. Amalie Arena is in the thick of it all, boasting one of the most aggressively pleasant spectator experiences in hockey. Everywhere there is gorgeous maritime-blue lightning bolt merch. Crackling displays of controlled electricity light up on indoor Tesla coils after Tampa Bay goals. There are tons of sunny outdoor spaces where fans can chill on lawn chairs or tailgate aboard docked boats that carry names like Angler Management and Aquaholic. All of it is a setup tailor-made for taking advantage of late sunsets and long Lightning playoff runs.
Playing in the Atlantic, a division that includes far more traditional hockey cities like Toronto and Boston, the Lightning have amassed an intensity of support that might not be expected given their location. A few weeks back, one microfamous Lightning-loving pastor tweeted that he had flashed a picture of Kucherov on a big screen at church, which inspired a nonagenarian congregant to call out “Go Bolts!” midservice. Who says Montreal has a monopoly on hockey religiosity?
In his sermon this morning, our senior pastor asked, “What do you think of when I say ‘greatest of all time’?”— Tyler Moore (@TheRevTy) March 3, 2019
Without telling him, I put a picture of Nikita Kucherov on the screens.
He got flustered and lost his spot. Meanwhile, a 96 year old congregant yelled “GO BOLTS!”
Unfortunately, not all prayers get answered. Four years ago, at the brutal conclusion of one of the Lightning’s long playoff runs, Hedman trudged around the Tampa Bay locker room hugging people while a teary Stamkos sat slumped and said things like, “It makes you sick to your stomach,” and, “It seems like all for naught,” to reporters. The Chicago Blackhawks had just won their third Stanley Cup in six seasons, while the Lightning would go down as a historical footnote. Looking back on that run now, though, it’s clear the Lightning were playing with house money that season; few pegged them as a top contender going into the 2015 playoffs, and they made the Cup final anyway. Having gotten so close, the pair of seven-game Eastern Conference finals losses—in 2016 and last season—have been even harder to take. Last year, the Lightning entered the playoffs with the East’s best record and big expectations before being outmatched by the Caps. So it makes sense that the team’s members don’t really seem to be in the mood to pat themselves on the back for this year’s finish; they’re well aware that there’s a whole lot of hockey left to play.
“We kind of went in blind that year,” Stamkos says now, talking about 2015. “I think since then, we’ve gone on some more deep runs, and I think we’ve learned probably some more from those than from that first Cup run that we had.” Among the lessons: “It’s a lot more difficult to play in this league, I think, when you’re the top dog. Everyone’s chasing you, you have the most pressure on you to win, and you have every team’s A-game, usually, because they want to knock you off.”
The Presidents’ Trophy is an honor that hockey players appreciate mostly in hindsight, at best, if they ever really think about it at all. “The reason it’s not hyped up is because I don’t think anybody cares that much,” says Miller, who was on the 2014-15 Rangers team that finished first in the regular season and then lost in seven games to the Lightning in the Eastern Conference final. While being the top hockey team throughout an 82-game grind is objectively a huge accomplishment, it often feels more like an albatross: When the then-Cupless Washington Capitals won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in 2016 and 2017, they lost in the second round of the playoffs each time. And since the start of the NHL’s salary cap era in 2005, more teams that won the best-record hardware have flamed out in the first round than have gone on to the Cup final.
This week, the Lightning will face a surging Columbus Blue Jackets team in a first-round matchup that they ought to be able to win easily. But rarely does an NHL postseason go the simple route; already, the Bolts have a blinking question mark in the form of Hedman’s health. The defenseman, who has a history of concussions, hit his face on Carl Hagelin’s helmet during a March 30 game against Washington and has been sidelined with an “upper-body injury” ever since. And whatever happens during the next two and a half months, the Lightning will also be facing another stubborn foe this summer: the salary cap. Point will no longer be on his sweet, sweet entry-level deal. Kucherov’s cap hit is set to double next season thanks to an eight-year, $76 million extension he signed last summer. Forward Yanni Gourde’s cap hit will go up five-fold, from a million bucks to just over five. And four defensemen will become unrestricted free agents. None of this is insurmountable, of course, and the Lightning have proved their ability to be nimble—but the situation does add another layer of pressure to what is already a heightened state of anticipation.
Tampa Bay has had one of the greatest regular seasons in NHL history, but all of that was just the long walk to the trailhead before starting the actual climb. There have been a lot of great hikes and a lot of sweet vistas for the organization and its fans over the past decade, but also a lot of false peaks, and still no views from the summit. And because hockey’s postseason is so lengthy and runs everyone so ragged, it can become impossible to see any bright sides along the way. More than once, as he has sat in the loser’s locker room after being ousted late in the playoffs, Stamkos has admitted that he didn’t know if he’d be able to remember, or even acknowledge, all the good things that had happened those years.
But while that sounds gloomy, it’s also important lived experience. The Lightning don’t seem particularly haunted by the past, just motivated by it. Hockey players, Stamkos among them, can be superstitious souls who get squirrely when it comes to touching various earned trophies that aren’t Stanley Cups, believing it to be bad luck. But Stamkos chose not to get precious when the team was presented with the Presidents’ Trophy at the end of March. He touched it, picked it up, skated a few feet toward the bench and handed it off to an equipment guy, hopefully to never think of it again.
“Essentially you want to get the Presidents’ Trophy because it means you played the best hockey as a team,” says Miller. “But that’s—that’s not the trophy we’re going for. We are, but we’re not, you know what I mean?”