The Stanley Cup is considered the hardest trophy to win in professional sports and even harder to win in back-to-back seasons. Since the salary cap was instituted ahead of the 2005-06 season, only one team has repeated as champions: the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Only three teams have pulled off the feat in the past 30 years although the L.A. Kings and Chicago Blackhawks each won two titles within three seasons.
Many factors play into the reason for this; league parity, injuries, and most importantly, the salary cap. Gone are the days when teams could reward their star players with huge contracts — Sergei Fedorov’s contract for the 1997-98 season comes to mind.
The Lightning have been building the core of their team for 10 years with one goal in mind, to win the Cup. In order to become the second team to go back-to-back in the salary cup era, the Lightning should focus on emulating what those Pittsburgh teams did.
Consistency is Key
Most teams use the offseason to find the pieces that will give their roster a chance at a Stanley Cup run. Only one team spends their summer trying to figure out how to replicate the season they just had, and ensuring consistency is the key to making a second run at a championship.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has done a fantastic job of finding where his players fit in his system. They’ve all bought into playing their designated role and he’s structured his lines to get the most out of each player. Making sure most of the team returns for the 2020-21 season would give the roster a cohesiveness that can often take most of the season to form.
A deep bench is worth its weight in gold during a long playoff run after a short summer. The Penguins had three legitimate scoring lines during their back-to-back run as teams had to face Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby separately. Retaining the majority of their roster will give the Lightning a depth to their bench that few teams will be able to compete with.
Defense Is as Important as Offense
One area where the Lightning are stronger than the Pittsburgh teams that went back-to-back is in their defense. The Penguins relied on pinning their opponents deep in their own zone, often being exposed when the play was pushed back at them. Whereas the Lightning’s top four — assuming Eric Cernak is re-signed — are capable of shutting down their opponent’s top line.
Having the defense contribute offensively goes a long way — evident in the Lightning’s decision to re-sign defenseman Mikhail Sergachev — but in order to win a Cup, preventing goals is more important. The Bolts have proven that they can do just that. Victor Hedman has been one of the best defensemen in the NHL for the past five seasons, winning a Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman in 2018 and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2020. That was not just for his point production, but also his ability to keep the other team’s top line from scoring.
Sergachev showed flashes of holding his own against top-six forwards, but was mostly tasked with facing players lower in the lineup. Pairing him with veteran Ryan McDonagh will go a long away to building the younger defenseman’s confidence to play against better competition. At the same time, by pairing Hedman with the young, stay-at-home Cernak, the Lightning have found a way to match youth with experience. With Cernak the only one of the four not under contract for the next three years, the team will need to find a way to create cap space in order to sign him to keep their top-four intact.
Goaltending and Luck
Also like the Penguins’ championship teams, the Lightning have solid goaltending in Andrei Vasilevskiy. Since he took over for Ben Bishop midway through the 2016-17 season, Vasilevskiy has been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy three times — winning the award for 2018-19 — and posted similar numbers to his 2019-20 season after replacing Bishop.
Vasilevskiy will need to stay healthy for the Lightning to make another run at the Cup in 2021. While neither Marc-Andre Fleury nor Matt Murray was a Vezina Trophy finalist when the Penguins won back-to-back titles, they capitalized on their opportunities when they were given the net. The Lightning have journeyman Curtis McElhinney backing up Vasilevskiy.
McElhinney is capable of handling his own in spot starts during the regular season, but he has played for more teams (8) in his career than he has played in playoff games (7). The Lightning may want to sign or pick up another goalie at the trade deadline as insurance on the off chance Vasilevskiy were to get injured.
Speaking of injuries, the Lightning will need some luck on their side to remain healthy for another deep playoff push. The extended offseason due to COVID-19 will give ailing players more time to heal before the 2020-21 season begins, but mid- and late-season injuries can kill a team’s chances before the playoffs even begin. COVID-19 is also an issue, as an ill-timed diagnosis could mean the difference in a series.
With the depth of their forward lines, the core of their defense intact, and a healthy Vasilevskiy — plus a little bit of luck — the Lightning are very close to having all the pieces needed to become the second team to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions in the salary cap era.
Born and raised in Michigan, Kyle Knopp started playing hockey when he was 3 years old. Knopp has played, coached, or worked at every level of ice hockey — including three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League and two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings where he was part of the Stanley Cup Championship team in 2008. He covers the Detroit Red Wings, hosts The Grind Line and THW Podcasts, and is the editor of THW’s Morning Skate newsletter. You can follow him on Twitter @THW_Knopp.