“Our team scored 8 goals for the best team in the regular season, today we went to a reception at the White House with President Biden,yesterday” this is how a Tampa’s hockey player could describe the freshest 48 hours of his life. In epicness, this short story would not be inferior to the legendary “I played video games, and then I won the World Cup” from Andrea Pirlo.
As befits the status of these events, Biden was cracking pre-prepared jokes: “This is a great time to be a fan in Tampa. I have no idea what the hell you have in the water.” The President of the United States had in mind not only the Lightning double – a year ago, the Buccaneers, the team of the greatest Tom Brady, won the Super Bowl in the NFL.
This spring, Tampa Bay may not only bring Florida city their fourth title in three years, but also enter the newest history of the NHL: the Lightning three-peat will be the first in the league since the moment of the legendary Islanders Al Arbor. No matter 56 wins in the 1985-1986 season, that team lost in the second round to Calgary, the players had enough problems with the law, plus there were rumors that five Oilers players were on cocaine. “Edmonton” Gretzky, despite 4 titles in five years, did not take three in a row.
And in the NHL, it has become even more difficult to keep the level after the championships because of the ceiling. For example, after two titles in three seasons, Los Angeles flew past the playoffs in the spring of 2015, the Chicago dynasty fell apart a couple of years after winning 2015. Championships give not only rings and pleasant emotions – it also gives banal physical fatigue, five dozen extra matches in two successful seasons, less time to recover and a successful pre-season.
Tampa did not lose any of the leaders, despite problems with the ceiling, but lost the entire third rank. The combination of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourd and Barkley Goodrow was the tightrope between relegation of varying levels of infamy in the playoffs and two consecutive cups. Guys added to a team that constantly lost because of some nuances in defense or character, toughness, intransigence and the ability to win a faceoff at the right time. Even because of the salary cap, one of Kucherov’s first partners on the rank, Tyler Johnson, had to be thrown off to Chicago. They couldn’t keep them in the club – the ceiling is crushing.
However, “Tampa” knows how to survive these losses. Lightning, unlike Toronto, were not built around drafted super forwards and building blocks around them – high picks were invested in Hedman and Vasilevsky, then a scouting system was formed that made it possible to discern diamonds like Point or Chamber in the low rounds.
In addition, the “lightning” works great with the development of young players in the farm club – for example, the previously unknown Gurd and Carter Verage became graduates. Finally, the absence of a state tax in Florida, which was not a key factor in climbing under the ceiling, but in several cases clearly allowed the stars to sacrifice a million, or even two.
The signature style of the club remained the same, which retained all the superstars: the incredible ease of positional attacks, honed at the same time by hours of training. The loss of ⅓ of the main forwards should not have greatly interfered with Tampa. «The Lightning» is a collective Nikita Kucherov, who is doing the throwing in a special area in the garage. Tampa’s prowess is built through mechanizm, and new parts are quickly built into that structure, especially after run-in the farm club.
So the club could make the playoffs without even adding more or less big names in place of the leaving players – and Vasilevskiy alone in good shape could ensure a Cup spring. And Tampa did have a lot of young guys in the bottom-6 regular season – but before the playoffs, general manager Julien Brisbois decided it was time to create the club’s second-ever third super link.
The price for Brandan Hagel and Nick Paul were rather big – three young players (all were involved in the base, and Mathieu Joseph even occasionally came out in the first links), two first-round picks.
It’s even better than the seemingly overpriced Goodrow and Coleman swaps – but many experts believe it was worth it. One of the Tampa team players said: “Julien showed the balls, as he did with the Coleman swap.”
It’s interesting that both reinforcements of “Tampa” played in the Canadian team, which sensationally knocked out Russia and won gold a year ago. And we asked: “Who are all these people?”, and today most of them go to significant roles in the top clubs in the NHL.
TV analyst Eddie Olczyk says of Hagel, “He’s a younger version of Coleman. Can play in any combination of forwards, in any role and in the minority too. His style is made for the playoffs, John Cooper will surely appreciate it. In addition, already in the second full season in the league, Hagel swung at 20 goals – this is really an extremely versatile forward.
Paul scored a perfect goal in the Riga final, and in Ottawa he was traditionally one of the favorites of the fans and the team’s main striker in the minority. Paul has also been described as a locker-room jovial who isn’t shy about playing rough-and-tumble American-style pranks, but that sort of thing helps to lighten the mood, in addition to the advantage of being both hard-working and skilled at the same time.
Paul started his career in Tampa better than Hagel and has already managed to play on the same line with Kucherov. Two newcomers went out on the same line with young Ross Colton, but the trio in this form has not yet become successful: surprisingly, with high expectations for statistics (the percentage of xG during their game is 63%) on the ice so far, this trio has scored twice as often as they have created.
But if anything, the Lightning also had a powerful fourth trio this year. Corey Perry, Patrick Maroon and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare were the trio John Cooper used most often: while their partners were constantly changing places, this trio was playing in one well-established form. And why change a link that works perfectly?
Perry, of course, is the big cheerleader. After two losses to Tampa in the final, he chose the unorthodox road a la Marian Gossa and Kevin Durant, signing with Tampa at almost the veteran minimum. And Corey, who should be playing 13 minutes instead of 19-20 minutes, is concentrating his skillful provocateur skills to the maximum during that time. In the recent game against Winnipeg, for instance, he simply took the stick from Josh Morrissey and Kucherov, sitting on the bench, got an expression of admiration mixed with embarrassment that was rare for our forward.
The other three, however, are not inferior: Maroon, who has won three consecutive championships, was a friend of Perry’s from Anaheim, where they spent several years together. Bellemare is one of the NHL’s best forecheckers, despite his age. The trio have a combined age of 105, yet their nickname is “school bus”: no, not because of age jokes, but because all the players in this trio support each other.
If you think back to the ancient saying about third links and the Cup, then this team even has two third links: Perry’s trio is easy to imagine in almost any other club. At the same time, all the leaders were in place and did not stop playing. The team still has almost the main bonus, at the same time – Andrei Vasilevsky, who is able to pull out even hopeless matches.
This Tampa certainly didn’t break records in the regular season – but the 2022 version is assembled precisely for the playoffs. That’s incredibly intriguing.