The Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the most successful expansion franchises in all of sports. Despite some periods of turmoil, the Lightning have had their fair share of success since joining the NHL in 1992. Originally bought by Phil Esposito in 1990, the organization was a part of a late 1980s push to expand the league by the NHL. This push began with the addition of the San Jose Sharks in 1991, followed by the birth of the Lightning and Ottawa Senators in 1992, and finally the Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 1993. The move to add all these franchises, aside from Ottawa, into warmer, non-traditional hockey markets, came as a result of the infamous trade that sent Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. Gretzky’s stardom brought light to the game of hockey in markets that the league had previously left untouched.
Of those franchises above, the Ducks and Lightning are the only two to hoist the Stanley Cup, with the Lightning being the only team to do so more than once. Needless to say that after three Stanley Cup Championships in nearly 30 years of existence, tied for the second most of any franchise in that timeframe, the Lightning have earned the right to be deemed a successful expansion franchise.
The success of the franchise brings about the need to discuss the many great teams the Lightning have had throughout their relatively short tenure in the NHL. Lets take a look at the top five teams in franchise history.
5. 2014-15 Tampa Bay Lightning
The 2014-15 Lightning put the modern day core on the map for the rest of the NHL. The infamous core of today’s team was just in their early 20s, with Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat all below the age of 25. While this team was just a first glimpse at what the prime of their core would look like, they were a dominant force that belongs on this list.
This Lightning team was led offensively by Tyler Johnson and Stamkos, who tied for the team lead in points with 72. In just his first full season in the NHL, a 21-year-old Kucherov had a break-out year with 29 goals. In his rookie season, a 23-year-old Palat went for 63 points in just 75 games, a career high. It was even superstar goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s rookie year, although he was the backup for Ben Bishop.
Despite the heavy presence of youngsters on the roster, the 2014-15 team had the veteran leadership that made this team special. Veterans like Ryan Callahan, Valteri Filpulla, and Anton Stralman were not only older leaders, but were humongous contributors on the ice. At 28, Stralman had his best offensive numbers in his career that season. The same was true for Callahan, who tied what would be his career high in points with 54 after being acquired in a trade that sent Lightning legend Martin St. Louis to the New York Rangers the season prior. General manager Steve Yzerman, who won the Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year Award in 2014-15, was even able to add veteran talent such as Brayden Coburn at the trade deadline, contributing to their success down the stretch.
As for team success, the team finished with 108 points that season, good for the fifth most points in the entire league. Finishing second in the Atlantic Division, just a game behind the Montreal Canadiens, the Lightning struggled in the first round of the playoffs with a veteran Detroit Red Wings team. Despite going 3-1 against the Red Wings in the regular season, the series went to a Game 7, where the Lightning survived with a 2-0 victory. With a flare for the dramatic, the Lightning upset the Montreal Canadiens in the second round, again in seven games. In the Eastern Conference Final, they defeated the Rangers in, yet again, seven games.
Despite losing the Stanley Cup Final that year to the Chicago Blackhawks, this Lightning team deserves to be on this list for several reasons. First, it set a precedent for the current Lightning core for later playoff performances. Kucherov, Johnson, Stamkos, Palat and Hedman proved themselves as a threat to the league moving forward. The 2014-15 season was also one of the more complete rosters that the Lightning has ever had.
With the mix of young players having break-out years, Yzerman had also assembled veteran players throughout the lineup to make this team a threat come playoff time. Above all else, this Lightning team won playing in one of the most challenging divisions in the NHL, with six teams finishing with over 90 points that season. They also had to get through not only their division’s leader, but also the Presidents’ Trophy winners in the Rangers, on their way to the Stanley Cup Final.
4. 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning
Had it not been for the disappointing ending, this team would more than likely be first on the list. Not only was it arguably the best team the Lightning have ever had, but it may be one of the better teams in the history of the NHL. However, playoff performance plays a large role in determining the greatness of a team historically.
Wining the Presidents’ Trophy, the Lightning’s 128 points were 19 more than the league’s next best team. Only losing back-to-back games once, the team had a number of jaw-dropping statistics throughout the season. Whether it be the four separate winning streaks of seven or more games, scoring over 70 more goals than the league average for the season, finishing fourth all-time in total points, or tying the 1995-96 Red Wings for the most wins in a regular season in NHL history, the 2018-19 Lightning will go down as one of the best regular-season teams of all time.
With all the team success, there was no lack of individual success. Nikita Kucherov had a historic season, scoring 128 points, 12 better than any other player that year. That stat line was good enough for him to take home the Art Ross, Ted Lindsay, and Hart Trophies. Aside from the league’s most valuable player for the year, the Lightning also had the league’s best goaltender, as Vasilevskiy took home the Vezina Trophy in 2018-19.
This was one of the most complete rosters in NHL history. With superstars like Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman, and Brayden Point, one would expect success. Throw in other stars like J.T. Miller, Ryan McDonagh, Yanni Gourde, and Ondrej Palat, and you get the monster that was the 2018-19 Lightning.
This team would be much higher on this list had it not been for their early exit in the playoffs. In what was one of the biggest upsets in the modern NHL, they were swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets were the lowest seed in the Eastern Conference, yet provided the hockey world with one of the greatest playoff feats. In terms of the 2018-19 Lightning team, not being able to get it done in the playoffs plays a major role in their place in history. While many will remember the historic regular season they had, it will always be overshadowed by their first-round exit. For that reason, they’re fourth all-time in Lightning history.
3. 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning
The 2003-04 team will always have a luxurious place in franchise history, providing the franchise with their first Stanley Cup. After a second-round exit in the 2003 NHL Playoffs the Lightning came into the season with the necessary experience to take the next step towards hoisting a Stanley Cup. Captioned by the great Dave Andreychuk, the organization had an established core featuring fellow Hall of Famer St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Brad Richards.
This team exuded discipline and structure. With a hard-nosed coach in John Tortorella and veteran leadership, the Lightning were very tough to play against. While not necessarily a scoring threat to the level of some teams higher on this list, they were among the toughest to play against in their era.
Their road to the Stanley Cup started out with some dominating performances, taking the first round in five games, then sweeping the Canadiens in the second round. Their first true test came in the Eastern Conference Final against a veteran Philadelphia Flyers team. With infamous veterans like Mark Recchi, Jeremy Roenick, and John LeClaire, the Flyers played a physical, in-your-face game. The series went seven games, with no team winning multiple games in a row, only to end in a 2-1 defensive battle where the Lightning survived at home, moving on to their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history.
In the Stanley Cup, they faced another tough test in the Calgary Flames. While the Flames’ run to the Cup was a bit surprising, they gave the favored Lightning everything they had. Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla lead the way offensively for the Flames, as they took a 3-2 series lead to start the Cup Final. However, the Lightning were not fazed, delivering a legendary double overtime victory in Game 6. The win destroyed the moral in the Flames’ locker room going into Game 7 after they thought they had the game-winning goal late in the third period.
The Lightning then delivered a 2-1 victory in Game 7, led by a two goal performance by Ruslan Fedotenko. The win gave the team their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. While it seemed like the core that the Lightning had built would have the opportunity for more Stanley Cups, it would be the only one they’d win together. The franchise would go 16 years before their next Stanley Cup.
While the roster may not have been to the level of the 2018-19 team, they still were able to get it done come playoff time. With two current Hall of Famers and the potential for one more in Lecavalier, this roster was no slouch. They come in at third all-time, the lowest ranking of the three Stanley Cup teams.
2. 2020-21 Tampa Bay Lightning
In a shortened year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this Lightning team overcame the odds to win their second straight Stanley Cup. However, if you watched the regular season you had your doubts going into the playoffs that year. With the reconstructed NHL for the 2020-21 season, each division’s top-four teams qualified for the playoffs. The Lightning finished third in the Central Division after an up-and-down regular season.
The year started with Nikita Kucherov needing hip surgery, keeping him out of the entire regular season. Despite the massive loss to the lineup, it came at somewhat of a benefit. While over the salary cap at the time, general manager Julien Briseboise was able to put Kucherov on the long-term injured reserve list (LTIR), freeing up cap space to build a roster around Kucherov’s return. The Lightning had a good enough roster where, despite many underwhelming seasons from stars like Stamkos, they were able to get to the playoffs without Kucherov. In his absence, Briseboise was able to use the freed up cap space to sign or extend players such as Jan Rutta, Erik Cernak, Anthony Cirelli, and Mathieu Joseph. Needless to say that the roster was ready to win upon Kucherov’s return for the first game of the playoffs.
Since the salary cap does not play a factor in the playoffs, the Lightning were able to put a roster on the ice that was $8 million above the salary cap. After playing a physical six-game series against the Florida Panthers in the first round, they quickly bounced the Caroline Hurricanes in a five-game second round series. Following that, the New York Islanders proved their toughest test, ending in a 1-0 win in Game 7 to move on to the Stanley Cup Final. The final round ended up being one of the least competitive in modern NHL history, as the Lightning steamrolled a Canadiens team who were heavy underdogs in five games.
What makes this team so special was the fact that they had the roster to easily make the playoffs without their best player. Not only that, but they were able to enhance the team around him in his absence. While the team the year before was much more impressive in the regular season, ultimately ranking them above this 2020-21 team, the sheer dominance of this team’s playoff run puts them second on this list.
1. 2019-2020 Tampa Bay Lightning
The 2019-2020 Lightning were more than Stanley Cup Champions for the franchise. They marked the end of years worth of questions surrounding their core’s ability to win in the playoffs. The entire season was a statement following the disappointing first-round exit the year prior.
Finishing with 92 points, good for the second best in the Eastern Conference, and third in the entire league, the Lightning qualified for the “bubble“ in the return to play initiative by the NHL in response to the original outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the first three rounds of the 2020 NHL Playoffs, the Lightning looked dominant, losing just four games in three series. After steam-rolling both the Blue Jackets and Boston Bruins in the first two rounds in five games, the Islanders provided a little more resistance in the Eastern Conference Final. After defeating the Islanders in six games, they took on the Dallas Stars in the Cup Final. Highlighted by the first-period goal in Game 3 by Stamkos in his lone period of the entire playoffs, the Lightning looked every bit the better team in the six-game series. Despite a double-overtime loss in Game 5, the Lightning were able to defeat the Stars in a 2-0 victory in Game 6, winning the Cup for the first time since 2004.
What makes this team the best was the depth of their roster. This team, in my opinion, is the deepest the Lightning have ever had. With players like Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow added mid-season, the Lightning had secured what was the best third line in the league. That, along with getting veteran depth play from guys like Zach Bogosian, Patrick Maroon, and Kevin Shattenkirk, made this team so special — all while having the best goalie in the league in Vasilevskiy. The depth of the roster showed itself in the dominating playoff run. Losing just six games, there was little doubt that they were the best team. That performance, given the fact that it was done in the absence of their captain, makes this the best Lightning team of all-time.
There are a number of great Lightning teams that did not make this list. Notice that this past year’s team had a legitimate case for being on this list. However, their third place finish and lack of fire power down the roster prevented them from securing that fifth spot. Regardless, the Lightning are still set up to have teams that will crack this list in the near future.