“They’re a great team,” he told NBC’s Pierre McGuire. “They’re going to be doing for the next six years what we've done for the last six.”
That might have seemed like cold comfort at the time but broken-hearted Lightning fans should take his words to heart the morning after. There are no guarantees of a second chance at the Cup—just ask the 2014 Rangers, the 2013 Bruins or the 2012 Devils—but the Lightning team that fell just short of the championship on Monday night is uniquely situated to contend for years to come.
Even without the Cup, the season that came to a painful end with that 2-0 loss to the Blackhawks was an unvarnished success, one of the greatest in franchise history. There were records set for wins (50) and points (108). Amalie Arena became the toughest building in the league. And several tent-pole players made strides that suggested their best is yet to come.
It all starts between the pipes. Ben Bishop shook off last season’s injuries and concerns about his inexperience to post a solid playoff run. His play was erratic at times—there’s work to be done on his rebound control, and his puck handling can be an adventure—but he won three series and demonstrated true grit (and a high pain threshhold) by playing in the Cup final with a torn groin. There’s no denying now that he ranks among the league’s elite goalies. That said, Bishop may not be part of the mix when the Lightning take their next shot at the Cup. The 20-year-old rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy demonstrated why he’s regarded as one of the best prospects in the game with two ice-in-his-veins appearances in the final. Offering an ideal mix of size (6' 3", 207-pounds), aggressiveness, technique and focus that have earned him comparisons to Carey Price, Vasilevskiy is destined for stardom. The only question is when the Lightning will decide to hand him the reins. That may not be for another couple of years, but the team will be in good hands when the time comes.
On defense, Victor Hedman thrived on the big stage, asserting himself as one of the best defensemen in the game with his masterful shutdown of Patrick Kane for nearly the entire series. His size (6' 6", 230) and speed make him the prototype for every young defender in the future. Amazing that he was just the fourth-highest paid member of Tampa Bay’s blueline in 2014-15, and that his salary actually goes down after next season.
Hedman’s primary partner, Anton Stralman, proved to be one of the best investments of last summer. His ability to extinguish fires in his own end and make strong plays in transition mark him as a reliable top-four defender for years to come. Jason Garrison, Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn are a mixed bag, but their varying skill sets and years of experience nicely fill out the back end. All are signed through at least next season. Andrej Sustr struggled throughout the playoffs, but has the size (6' 7", 220) and upside to get another look in the No. 6 slot. He’s an RFA, but he should be an affordable re-sign. The team could also turn to young Nikita Nesterov, who showed great potential during his limited postseason exposure.
The Lightning have several promising defenders in the system, including offensive-minded first-rounders Slater Koekkoek and Anthony DeAngelo along with the more physically inclined Dominik Masin. None of them are poised to make an impact next season, but each is a legitimate prospect/asset that can be flipped to help Tampa Bay take that final step.
Up front, the Bolts are well positioned to repeat as the NHL’s top-scoring team with an enviable mix of sizzle—Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin—and steak—Alex Killorn, Ryan Callahan, Ondrej Palat and J.T. Brown. It’s a stunningly young group that could feature as many as 10 regulars aged 25 and under, and nearly every regular member of this year’s Stanley Cup Final forward corps is under contract for next season. The only notable exception is veteran Brenden Morrow. While his leadership provides value, there’s not much gas left in his tank. He’s likely to be cast off and replaced via free agency. Vladislav Namestnikov is an RFA but given his limited experience he’ll be an easy re-sign and could see a more regular role in 2015-16.
With so much youth already making a contribution with the big club, the organization is shy on offensive prospects. Left wing Adam Erne and center Brayden Point have potential down the road, but neither is likely to work his way into the mix next season.
Coach Jon Cooper has emerged as one of the bright young minds in the game, making his mark as an excellent leader and skilled communicator. He opened himself up to criticism with his bench management, however, particularly with his conservative use of Stamkos and Hedman in the final. He’ll learn from the experience and should be the better for it next time around.
After all that, the Lightning’s greatest strength might be in the front office. A young but savvy group led by GM Steve Yzerman has shown an uncommon knack for identifying and developing young talent along with a willingness to take risks—the Callahan trade, for example—and spend money to fill holes as needed (Stralman, Brian Boyle). He has his cap situation well in hand and can return virtually the same team next season, a rarity for a club in this position.
By any measure, the Bolts are a franchise to be envied. That’s no guarantee of future success, but you have to like their chances.
The numbers game
• The Blackhawks, who finished seventh in the overall NHL regular season standings are now the fifth team outside of the top six to win the Stanley Cup in the past seven years. The others: Kings (2014, 10th; 2012, 13th), Bruins (2011, 7th) and Penguins (2009, 8th).
• Seven Blackhawks won their third Stanley Cup with Chicago (2010, 2013 and 2015): Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews. The only other active player who has won has three: forward Justin Williams (2006 with Carolina; 2012 and 2014 with Los Angeles).
• The Blackhawks were 33-0-0 this season when leading after two periods, including a 25-0-0 mark during the regular schedule, and 8-0 in the playoffs. They were the only team that did not lose in that scenario.
• From SI's Vault, Sarah Kwak's 2010 story on how the contributions of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to Chicago's first Cup since 1961 presaged a modern dynasty
• Dennis Maruk was a 50-goal scorer but he might be better remembered for having one of the game’s greatest mustaches.
GALLERY: Babies in the Stanley Cup