With the Tampa Bay Lightning clinching their second straight Stanley Cup, we look at how the Toronto Maple Leafs can learn from a team that was in a similar position not too long ago.
The Lightning built a core similar to the Toronto Maple Leafs and had some speed bumps along the way to championship glory. Prior to last season’s Stanley Cup and this year’s impressive title defence, Tampa had their share of playoff disappointment.
In Jon Cooper’s first full season behind the bench as head coach, the 2013-14 Lightning were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens. Core elements of the championship team were there for the experience though, including Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat.
By the following season, Tampa Bay was in the Stanley Cup Finals and a 20-year-old goaltender named Andrei Vasilevskiy was pushing for time in the crease. In 2015-16, the team got close again, losing in seven games to the Penguins in the Conference Finals.
The wheels came off in 2016-17 as the Lightning missed the playoffs in a season that Stamkos only played 17 games. Questions grew about the depth of the team and whether they had enough grit to ever win it all. Sound familiar?
With Vasilevskiy firmly entrenched as the starting goaltender, the team was back into the Conference Finals in 2017-18, only to lose in seven games to the Washington Capitals. The team seemed poised to break through and win it all soon, and then…
An epic letdown the following season that saw Tampa get swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets despite posting 128 points in the regular season and having Brayden Point make his mark among the elite talent at forward.
Had this been Toronto, fans and media would have clamoured for a complete teardown. Fire the coach! Trade the stars! Change the mascot! But the Lightning remained patient and stuck to their long-term vision. They made significant moves to acquire Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow the next season for first-round picks in an effort to reshape their bottom-six forwards into a nightmare to play against.
The long-term vision, patience and shrewd moves around the key players paid off with a Stanley Cup in the 2019-20 season. You could have chalked it up to luck during the bubble playoffs and sure, luck always comes into it. But a team built this well gives itself the best chance at winning the one trophy there is each year. Oh, and they have backed it up in 2020-21 just in case anyone was still doubting them.
This brings us to the Toronto Maple Leafs who are in a very similar position to Tampa Bay in their growth curve, although admittedly, with even less playoff success than those nascent Lightning squads. How can the Leafs break through and find the kind of success Tampa has enjoyed?