Young, Talented and in the Stanley Cup Hunt, the Lightning Are Poised for Long-Term Success
The classic-rock group Bachman-Turner Overdrive hails from Winnipeg, Manitoba, where its eponymous front men headlined an outdoor concert in Oct. 2011 welcoming the relocated—and renamed—Atlanta Thrashers to town. Now that the supersonic Jets are making their first appearance in the Western Conference Final, one can safely assume where the rooting interests of Randy Bachman and Fred Turner rest. But if BTO ever wants to adopt a backup NHL team for the rest of these Stanley Cup Playoffs, there is a natural choice. After all, thousands of miles away, its catchy lyrics and guitar licks of its most popular hit supply the soundtrack to every Tampa Bay Lightning playoff win:
And I’ll be takin’ care of business (every day)
Takin’ care of business (every way)
The intended message is hardly subtle—and if players ever need a reminder, the hit song’s title is also emblazoned onto their locker name plates—but then again neither are the Lightning. They smothered New Jersey with speed during the first round and then unleashed waves of forechecking hell upon Boston, turning takeaways into counterattacks and takin’ care of each series in five games. The Eastern Conference Final began with consecutive record-scratch duds at home against Washington, but a 4-2 win Tuesday night returned Tampa to its roots. “In your face, not a lot of room, just keep coming and coming,” says defenseman Dan Girardi. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”
I’ve been takin’ care of business (it’s all mine)
Takin’ care of business and workin’ overtime (work out)
This swarming style is the brainchild of head coach Jon Cooper, a self-professed BTO fan (“Good Canadian band!”) who can personally testify to the power of persistence. Two decades ago he was a recent law school graduate paying bills as a public defender in central Michigan; his first big case involved a fan arrested for rioting and looting when the MSU Spartans fell to Duke in the 1999 Final Four. That same year, a local judge and fellow rec league skater (team name: The Legal Eagles) asked if Cooper wanted to coach varsity boys hockey at Lansing Catholic High, where the judge’s son played.
The pay was nominal, but Cooper had a blast. Upon realizing that ice rink benches brought him far more enjoyment than the courtroom variety, he was soon carving an improbable coaching path through Detroit, Texarkana, St. Louis and Green Bay . . . until Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman tabbed him in 2010 to run its AHL affiliate, where he won a Calder Cup in ‘11-12. Now only Chicago’s Joel Quenneville holds longer NHL tenure than Cooper’s five-plus years with the Lightning. “He’s got an arrogance, like a swagger,” says Capitals winger Brett Connolly, a first-round pick of Tampa in ’10. “Who gives up being a lawyer to coach hockey? Pretty crazy.”
A similar swagger pervades Cooper’s current lineup, evident in leading scorer Nikita Kucherov’s ankle-breaking dekes, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy’s snazzy glove saves and the one-timers that captain Steven Stamkos hammered past Boston (Game 4) and Washington (Games 1-3). Following the lead of ace shot-blockers like Girardi, though, the sixth-year coach is prone to deflect. “They’re the ones doing all the battling,” Cooper says. “I just stand there and chew gum.” But the Lightning have hardly been some bubble squad since he took over in 2013; this season they set a franchise wins record with 54, most in the league, en route to their first divisional title since Vinny Lecavalier and Co. captured the ’04 Stanley Cup.
While nowhere close to matching such cap-era mini-dynasties as Chicago, Pittsburgh or Los Angeles, these Lightning have quietly assembled an electric résumé: three conference finals and one Stanley Cup Final appearances over the past four years. Only the repeat champion Penguins boast more playoff victories (38) since 2015 than Tampa Bay (34), despite the Lightning’s absence from the dance altogether last spring. And now that Pittsburgh has formally abdicated its throne (thanks, Ovi!), no potential successor seems better situated to join that mini-dynasty conversation than the burgeoning beachside juggernaut with deep budgetary pockets, deeper depth charts and a legend leading the way from the front office.
As Connolly says, “They’re going to be relevant for a long time.”
BTO is back.
It’s moments after the series clincher against the Bruins, a 3–1 victory in which Tampa Bay held the NHL’s sixth-best scoring offense without an even-strength goal for a third straight game. The chorus is coming around again when Cooper enters the dressing room. The coach offers a few words of praise, singling out his team’s resurgent penalty kill (“I know it’s been much maligned all year…”) and Vasilevsky’s 27 stops (“The kid made some huge saves”). Then he yields the floor to owner Jeff Vinik.
“You know, I’m going to repeat something I said after the last series,” Vinik tells the players. “It was a thing of beauty watching you guys play out there. Such responsible hockey, defensive hockey, it was fantastic. I’m from Boston, so it’s about 1% more special. It’s quite a ride.”
Indeed, the franchise has come a long way since that December 2008 morning when Vinik searched “How to buy a sports team” and ordered a stack of sports management textbooks on the internet. Fourteen months later, the billionaire hedge fund manager purchased the Lightning for $170 million. “The brand was really hurting. The team had several years in a row of not making the playoffs. The building really wasn’t kept up well enough. So on the one hand, things were in tough shape. On the other hand, plenty of opportunity.”
Much of that optimism was thanks to the arrivals of Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman, drafted at No. 1 in 2008 and No. 2 in ’09, respectively. But cornerstones need support. For that challenge, Vinik tabbed the bespectacled all-timer behind the curtain whom Lightning CEO Steve Griggs calls, “The Wizard.”
After 22 seasons in Detroit—a record 19 of them as captain—and a three-and-a-half-year stint apprenticing under longtime GM Ken Holland at the altar of the winged wheel, Yzerman brought a similar development-based ethos to Tampa Bay. Dealing with the steely Yzerman can be an intimidating experience. “You see his name pop up on your phone, you’re like, ‘Oh boy, this isn’t going to be great,’” Connolly says. “He definitely has a presence to him.” But that cold, calculating approach has produced undeniable results. “It was about filling the cupboard with talent that we never had,” says Dave Andreychuk, who wore the ‘C’ for the ‘04 Cup team and now works as vice president of corporate and community affairs. “We’re seeing the fruits of it now.”
Homegrown gems litter the roster, from 20-year-old rookie center Anthony Cirelli to Brayden Point, the 79th pick in 2014 whose two-way dominance against Boston (three goals, four assists, 19:54 average TOI) inspired comparisons to Bruins center Patrice Bergeron from Cooper. While not quite the band of expansion-draft misfits wreaking havoc in Vegas, Tampa Baby has similarly thrived by finding overlooked and underappreciated talents like undrafted free agents Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde. “Obviously our general manager and our scouting staff see things in people,” Cooper says. “It’s our philosophy to give guys a chance.”
Far from the standard team-building itinerary of 18 holes and a few clubhouse cold ones, the players stepped off their team bus and started strapping into safety harnesses. Held near the end of training camp in late September, this excursion to nearby Oldsmar, Fla., was designed to stretch their mental and physical limits. “A ropes course sounds fun,” Cooper says, “but you have to overcome fears in some uncomfortable situations.”
Divided into four squads, the Lightning raced through a series of timed challenges: shimmying upside down along a 500-foot-long inclining cable nicknamed “The Beast,” leaping from a 35-foot-high telephone pole to smack a dangling tennis ball, rappelling from a 40-foot-tall platform into a 100-yard sprint, crossing a rickety log bridge suspended over a glistening lake. “Like a mini ninja warrior thing,” Stamkos says.
The event was organized by Capt. Tom Chaby, an active duty Navy SEAL now based near Tampa. After commanding special forces in Fallujah during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Chaby returned stateside and began sharing his lessons with sports teams. Past clients include the Cowboys, Yankees and Auburn and Florida State football teams, but until Cooper enlisted him as something of a leadership consultant for the Lightning this season, he confesses to having “no appreciation for hockey.” Now Chaby offers the highest compliments: “There’s no organization finer than this one … They have a few guys who could be SEALs.”
Like Tampa Bay’s own captain, perhaps. Entering his 10th year of active NHL duty, the 28-year-old Stamkos stood out at the ropes course both for his fitness—he’s an early disciple of former NHLer/renowned trainer Gary Roberts—and his intensity, bugging timekeepers between every challenge for updates on the overall standings. (His platoon wound up winning by a decimal point, surprising exactly no one. “Of course Stammer let us all know,” Chaby says.)
Of course, no one could fault Stamkos for feeling the competitive itch. He missed all but 17 games last season with a torn right meniscus and most of the 2015–16 playoffs with blood clots. “He’s had a rough couple of years,” says Andreychuk. “He’s wanted to prove to the hockey world that he still has it.” A two-time Rocket Richard winner by age 23, Stamkos finished 2017–18 with 27 goals, fewest in a full season since his rookie season. But a career-high 59 assists—including 41 at even strength, tied for second in the league—indicates an evolution to which the Wizard can relate. “I went through all that stuff too,” says Yzerman, eying Stamkos from the bleachers at a recent practice. “His career’s trajectory is similar to mine.”
It took 14 seasons before Yzerman hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time, in 1997, but he followed up with championships in ’98 and 2002. It’s not a stretch to foresee a similar fate for Stamkos and the Lightning. No player has been with the organization longer, from the first SEEN STAMKOS? billboard that went up before he was even drafted to the eight-year, $68 million extension that he signed on June 29, 2016. “One of the best days for our franchise,” Griggs, the team’s CEO, says.
While not quite reaching LeBron-esque heights of palace intrigue, Stamkos’s decision to stay was doubly meaningful for the internal domino effect that it sparked; following their captain’s lead, Hedman and second-line wingers Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson all signed similarly cost-effective deals that July. “Everyone recognizes the special core that this is,” Stamkos says. “Everyone wants to do their part in keeping that together, because we know we can be a team that competes every year.”
Ultimately, that is up to the man behind the curtain. Yzerman has pulled all the right strings so far, right up until the bold deadline deal that brought aboard shutdown defenseman Ryan McDonagh and top line third wheel J.T. Miller, earning his third GM of the Year nomination Wednesday. But stability is always a moving target in the salary cap world; Miller and center Cedric Paquette need new contracts this summer, for instance, and Kucherov’s likely mega-deal looms in 2019. “That’s the system,” Yzerman says. It’s designed so [that], unfortunately, you can’t keep your teams together.”
And so until the Lightning reach their ultimate destination, Yzerman is loathe to stand on some operational pedestal. “I don’t think we’re the model,” he says. “We’re trying.” But no matter how Tampa Bay fares against Washington (and perhaps beyond), the organizational cupboards appear stocked for the long haul.
As a certain group of Manitoban rockers might sing about their adopted team: Baby, you just ain’t seen nothing yet.