When the Tampa Bay Lightning won the 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cup, there was much debate about who their best player was. While Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP in their respective years, forwards Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov had solid arguments to win the hardware as they were the offensive heartbeat of the team.
However, while there was a discussion to be had about who the best player was for the Lightning, there was no debate about their most important line. That was, without a doubt, the third line which comprised Barclay Goodrow, Yanni Gourde, and Blake Coleman.
While this line wasn’t the most impressive in terms of star power, it was, easily, the most impactful. Whenever the Lightning needed a boost, they could throw out those players and ride the energy they brought to the ice. If they were in a tight spot, they could take the draw, slow things down, and get Tampa Bay out of their own zone. If there was a penalty, they could even jump on and kill a few minutes each night shorthanded.
Following the 2021 offseason, however, after the Lightning lost their entire third-line, general manager Julien BriseBois went about finding new players who could take over this role. After trying a number of different lineups throughout the regular season, BriseBois decided to reform his team midseason with another big swing at the 2022 Trade Deadline. This time he acquired Brandon Hagel from the Chicago Blackhawks and Nick Paul from the Ottawa Senators.
Of course, while the Lightning gave up significant future assets to acquire these players, there was no guarantee that they would find a place in their deep forward corps. However, Hagel and Paul were given an opportunity alongside Ross Colton on the third line, and they are quickly establishing themselves as the next most important line for Tampa Bay.
Lightning’s Third Line Finding Quick Chemistry
Throughout their roughly 21 games after the trade deadline, Colton, Paul, and Hagel created a number of incredible scoring opportunities but often looked far from an impact line. Head coach Jon Cooper even split them up to test out different line combinations to see if they had chemistry with other players.
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However, once the playoffs started, Cooper put these three back together and gave them the opportunity to sink or swim. In many ways, this new-look line has a familiar energy that Lightning fans will instantly recognize. They are noticeable when they are on the ice as they are pushing play up the ice, creating scoring opportunities, and just making life miserable for their opponents, similar to what we saw from the third line in prior years.
This play has converted to solid scoring numbers for all three players. In five games played, Colton has posted four points, Hagel has three, whereas Paul has two. However, they are creating prime scoring opportunities in every game by utilizing their speed and skating ability. Sure they haven’t often been able to cash in on those chances, but they are moments that can slowly change the momentum of the game.
Outside of this, they are also creating opportunities in other ways. Paul, for example, leads the team in penalties drawn with 6, where Hagel sits second with five. Paul also has the most takeaways for the Lightning with 5 and leads penalty kill time on ice by averaging 4:12 each night.
Paul Will Be Key to Lightning’s Future Third Line
As the Lightning battle the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2022 NHL Playoffs, expect their third-line players to continue being impact players. While it is unfair to compare them to the greatness that was Coleman, Gourde, and Goodrow, they are already showcasing glimpses of game-changing talent and chemistry.
Whenever this playoff run ends, though, this line is in danger of being torn apart. While Hagel and Colton are under contract for the near future as restricted free agents, Paul will be able to test the open market in 2022. Given their situation against the cap, the Lightning may not be able to re-sign him if he gets a big offer from another team.
This means that BriseBois will need to quickly decide if they can find a way to keep Paul around and let him develop on the third line, or let him walk in free agency. Given how quickly he has developed chemistry alongside his new linemates, it would feel like a bit of a waste to only see this new-look line for a single postseason run. So, while it may not be easy, it appears to be in the best interest of the Lightning to keep these young players together.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.