For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the 2021 Stabley Cup championship will always be mired in controversy when it is discussed across the hockey world. It’s an unfortunate reality that, despite being one of the most successful teams on the ice over the last six seasons, the first comment about their back-to-back championships will be, “But they circumvented the cap.”
In some ways, this is a completely valid comment. Even as a long-time fan of the Lightning who has covered the team for years, I can’t look at their cap page and not feel a tinge of conflict.
On one hand, general manager Julien BriseBois did nothing illegal with how he manipulated the long-term injury reserve (LTIR) rule. GMs have used this loophole to work around the cap for years, after all, and all he did was take it to an extreme after global events caused the landscape of the sport to change overnight.
On the other hand, using more than 17 million dollars worth of LTIR to keep together most of the 2020 Stanley Cup-winning roster also feels a bit silly. And anytime you have to start a sentence with, “well legally they did nothing wrong” you already know that your argument is hanging on a bit of strained logic.
The real shame of this cap circumvention storyline is how it is selling what the Lightning accomplished over the last 11 months short. This team has been building to the historic feat for years, and it took a constant string of heartbreak and growth before they were able to reach their ultimate goal twice.
Lightning Learned From Years of Collapses
After the Lightning made an unexpected run to the 2015 Stanley Cup championship, the franchise became known as chokers. They were up 2-1 in that series before being outmatched by a veteran Chicago Blackhawks team, who won three straight games to cement their dynasty and claim their third Cup.
The following season, Tampa Bay held a 3-2 series lead against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final before letting them slip by in a tough Game 7 loss. After this series victory, the Penguins would go on to win the 2016 Stanley Cup and eventually pull off back-to-back championships in 2017.
After missing the 2017 postseason by one point, the Lightning took the top seed in the Eastern Conference and looked like a team that wouldn’t be stopped in 2018. After taking a 3-2 series lead against the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Final, they were primed to finally get over the hump but instead suffered gutting losses in back-to-back games, where they failed to score a point.
Finally, Tampa Bay experienced one of the worst collapses in NHL history in 2019. This event has been well documented over the years, but it is an important final note in their recent history.
To put it simply, over the last six years, the Stanley Cup has run through Tampa Bay. This franchise has been building a dynasty since 2015, and if their puck luck had gone a different way, the 2021 Stanley Cup could have been their fifth win in seven years, instead of their second.
Lightning Won By Making the Right Choices
Saying that Tampa Bay only won because they were $17 million over the cap is disingenuous. Especially in a sport like hockey, spending a lot of money doesn’t guarantee success on the ice.
No, the Lightning won the 2021 Stanley Cup because they used that $17 million to retain their core players to put themselves in the best position to win. By keeping many of these players together since their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup, the Lightning had one of the most experienced lineups in the NHL that had already fought through heartbreaking collapses to win it all in 2020.
BriseBois knew that he had the pieces in place to win the Stanley Cup again in 2021, and he manipulated the rulebook to legally put his team in the best spot to run it back. You can call these moves smart and shrewd or deceitful and cheap, but they worked nonetheless, and they showcased a creativity and willingness to push the envelope that you rarely see in the NHL.
If you’re a fan of the Lightning, you may feel a little bit conflicted about this championship when compared to 2020. That’s the nature of being one of the truly great teams in the league, however. The more that you win, the more that discussion will pick at all of the flaws and controversy in your victories instead of the impressive stories behind them.
All I can say is that these back-to-back Stanley Cup victories were no fluke. The Lightning earned them in some of the toughest playing scenarios in sports history, and their accomplishments will go down in the history not with an asterisk, but with a footnote about the difficulties of building a dynasty during a Pandemic.
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.