When the Tampa Bay Lightning lifted the Stanley Cup last fall in the strange, sterile, mid-pandemic bubble, the gleaming trophy was practically fogged up by all the sighs of relief and exhaustion around it.
The NHL’s bubble experiment had gone mostly smoothly, with no recorded COVID-19 outbreaks during the many weeks of competition, but mercifully, it was finally over. Tampa Bay’s 2020 title came on the heels of 65 days of quarantine, as well as years of not-quite and almost-there and oh-shit showings in the playoffs. But it had also been aesthetically and maybe a little existentially hollow, achieved inside an empty, echoing arena in Edmonton, far away from the players’ families and the electric atmosphere of the Lightning’s home building. A whole lotta the good guys, like superstar sniper Steven Stamkos and defensive king Victor Hedman and former laxer lawyer head coach Jon Cooper, earned the right to put their names on the Cup that night—and yet none of them, it would later turn out, got to experience the glorious tradition of each spending a day with the Stanley Cup in the offseason.
On Wednesday night, with almost the same roster and in yet another season affected by the pandemic, the Lightning won another title, lifting the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons. Stamkos looked like a kid out there, scrunching his nose in happiness. Pat Maroon earned his third ring in a row, a feat he called “fucking amazing.” Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat knew just how to act when handed the big trophy because they’d been there just a few months before. And the entire coaching staff, wet with sweat and champagne, squeezed together for a communal Zoom the same way they had last September. But for all the similarities to last season’s outcome, this win felt different.
This time, the Cup was won in a packed Amalie Arena in downtown Tampa. This time, it was the environment outside the building that was foggy, thanks to the atmospheric backwash of a passing tropical storm and the sweaty, happy mass of humans celebrating their team’s 1-0 Game 5 victory over the Montreal Canadiens. This time, the things that have long made the Tampa Bay Lightning special—their stacked lineups; their elite scorers and overachieving randos; their deft playing of cat’s cradle with the salary cap—garnered a little less reverence and a little more resentment around the hockey world.
This time, defenseman Ryan McDonagh said in his postgame press conference, he and his teammates won’t just deserve their one customary day with the Stanley Cup—they better get two. “Wake up, NHL,” McDonagh said, joking but not joking, displaying the preeminent mood of this season’s champions: No apologies, just achievement. No sighs this time, only smirks.
A few minutes after McDonagh spoke, Nikita Kucherov, the 28-year-old Russian winger who led the league in scoring in 2018-19, stole the postgame show. Sitting shirtless in a Zoom room, clapping and flashing peace signs and drinking a Bud Light, Kucherov—whom I once described, apparently quite erroneously, as “pretty quiet”—went off. He opined on the reporters’ digital equipment (“buy a new microphone,” he chirped to one reporter he couldn’t hear clearly); his team’s goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy (“they give it to whatever the guy in Vegas, the Vezina” over him, he complained); and, most harrowingly, Montreal Canadiens fans. (“The fans in Montreal acted like they won the Stanley Cup last game,” he said. “Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? Their final was last round.”)
Kucherov’s remarks would have been noteworthy on their own, but combined with his controversial role in Tampa Bay’s structural success this season, they represented an out-and-out heel turn not only for him, but also for the organization. There was a time when the Lightning were equal parts feared and pitied. The franchise, helmed for years by Steve Yzerman, was seen as having been built the right way: through careful, and at times lucky, drafting; opportunistic trades; and calm decision-making. They were high-flying and fun to watch; they were also an eensy bit tragic.
They dropped multiple Game 7s when they were supposed to win championships; they lost the 2015 Stanley Cup final to the Chicago Blackhawks; and they were, most embarrassingly, swept in the first round after a Presidents’ Trophy–winning season in 2019. Even when Tampa Bay finally did win the Cup last fall, it seemed as though the team’s unusual magic would probably end there, given the constraints of the salary cap. As champions go, they were highly relatable.
Then, at the start of this year’s shortened 56-game season, the Lightning announced that Kucherov would be getting surgery on his hip and would be placed on long-term injured reserve for several months. When he then conveniently returned juuust in time for the postseason, Tampa Bay was able to take advantage of a loophole in the CBA to ice a playoff roster that drifted upward of $18 million over the stated salary cap. (NBC’s Eddie Olczyk described it Wednesday as the team’s “stickhandling and maneuvering of the salary cap system; well within the rules.”)
The Lightning have long been known as a team dedicated to finding inefficiencies and exploiting nuances in the NHL system; their now-renowned general manager, Julien BriseBois, is a former attorney who rose through the NHL ranks in large part because of his prowess in capology and his interest in analytics. (Years ago, BriseBois was one of the league’s only front office representatives who bothered to attend the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT.) And they are not the first team for whom a similar maneuver made sense: The Chicago Blackhawks did the same thing in 2015 with Patrick Kane en route to defeating the Lightning for a Cup.
But that didn’t mean that the move didn’t rankle: There’s a thin line between the perception of wizardry and shenanigans, and that line tends to shift the more a team wins. It didn’t soothe anyone, least of all [checks notes] … Keith Olbermann …(?) … that Kucherov led all skaters in playoff points, or that BriseBois bluntly explained last month how the gambit had worked. “Luckily for me and our organization, I don’t think [it] could have unfolded any better,” BriseBois said, adding that “sometimes the stars align.”
Of course, it doesn’t really matter whether the stars align if you aren’t ready to gaze at them. Which is the same reason every hockey coach ever will tell you to Keep your stick on the ice, the kind of simple-impossible advice that takes an instant to understand but a lifetime to master.
When your stick is on the ice, good things can happen. When your stick is on the ice, you are a target—for a perfect pass, or for a lucky hop, or at least for the limited attention of a frenzied defenseman. The hard part of keeping your stick on the ice is not only that your opponents have a vested interest in making sure that you don’t—it’s that your own mind and body sometimes work against you. Think too hard and you’ll botch the ricochet. Flinch even a little and you’ll wind up with that old “what if” whiff. Wednesday night, a young and mostly unknown Tampa Bay rookie named Ross Colton skated in and kept his stick on the ice, and Wednesday night, that was the difference.
At the organizational level, the Tampa Bay Lightning won two Stanley Cups by keeping their stick on the ice. They didn’t start taking proverbial, aimless hacks at winning, even through all those tough playoff exits. Instead, they held steady with the same coach, Cooper, and largely the same roster—save for some small, targeted additions. One of those additions, David Savard, was the guy who put the puck right on Colton’s stick on Wednesday, meaning that the only two players on the Lightning who didn’t already have a ring were the same two who combined for the Cup-winning goal. (In the same way Tom Brady helped establish the “Champa Bay” era, the Lightning are kind of like the Patriots of hockey: there’s always some fresh new guy at tight end, ready to catch a big pass as casual fans wonder, who?)
Things are going to be different for Tampa Bay going forward, though—for realsies this time. It’s not just the salary cap that looms, but also the upcoming Seattle Kraken expansion draft. It seems likely that a few of the pieces that have been so integral to the Lightning’s success over the years—like a Tyler Johnson, or a Palat—won’t be returning next season. But far from shying away from that reality, the Lightning acknowledged it: Both Stamkos and Cooper said Wednesday that the team had talked more than once during this championship run about how it could be the end of an era for the Lightning. “We know going forward with the salary cap world,” Stamkos told reporters after the win, “that this might be the last game that this particular group plays together.”
“The team knows we’re probably not going to be together next year” - Jon Cooper.— CHRIS TORELLO (@TorelloSports) July 8, 2021
Coop mentioned expansion draft, cap issues…but said the conversation was not letting the season end until they raised another #StanleyCup.
Mission accomplished. #GoBolts #ChampaBay @BN9 pic.twitter.com/gryZl22BIr
Rather than sigh about what might take place in the future, though, it’s clear that Tampa Bay decided to say “Yeah, so what?” about the right-now. Has this tactical arrogance sullied the team’s image around the league? Sure. But when you’re holding the Cup, the glint off that silver and the heft of that prize has a way of blocking out the things that don’t actually matter. Shamelessness is a superpower, and the Tampa Bay Lightning don’t seem to mind all the shade. They’re too busy spending their day—or, if they get their way, their two days—smiling into the sun.