On their recent road trip to the east coast, the Canucks saw first hand just how dominant the Tampa Bay Lightning can be. The NHL’s top team toyed with the Canucks in their two games earlier this month, dominating from puck drop before easing off the gas, then turning it back on at a moment’s notice. They look well on their way to winning the Presidents’ Trophy.
The crazy thing is, the Lightning missed the playoffs last season. While they did make the playoffs the previous three seasons, including a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, they missed the playoffs the two seasons before that as well. They’ve made the playoffs in just half of their last six seasons. But now they’re the best team in the NHL.
Getting a healthy Steven Stamkos back this season has certainly helped, but that can't explain everything. Steve Yzerman has been the General Manager since 2010, so he’s been in the driver’s seat for the entire roller coaster ride, if you’ll pardon the mildly mixed metaphor. So what can we learn from the Lightning and their dominance this season?
1. Size matters not (at forward)
The Tampa Bay Lightning are a fast, skilled team, but they are lacking one thing: size.
Their tallest forwards are 6’1” and only Adam Erne, who has played just five games with the Lightning this season, cracks 200 pounds. Meanwhile, they have three forwards on the roster that are listed at 5’8” and another at 5’9”. The majority of their forwards are under six feet.
Nikita Kucherov, who leads not just the Lightning, but the entire NHL in scoring, is 5’11” and 178 lbs. Brayden Point is listed at 5’10” and 166 lbs and is third on the Lightning in scoring. Tell me more about how Elias Pettersson can’t play in the NHL at 170 lbs.
Small, skilled players like Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Matthew Peca, and Cory Conacher provide scoring punch throughout the Lightning lineup.
2. Get big on defence (but don’t sacrifice skill)
The Lightning may be small at forward, but they’re big on the backend. Sir Mix-a-Lot would love the 2017-18 Tampa Bay Lightning.
Victor Hedman, Braydon Coburn, and Andrej Sustr are all 6’5” and above, with Sustr the largest at a monstrous 6’7”, 220 lbs. They also boast the 6’3” Jake Dotchin and Mikhail Sergachev. Their smallest defenceman is Anton Stralman, who still weighs in at 190 lbs.
They also have the 6’8” Oleg Sosunov, drafted in 2016, in the system.
What this gives the Lightning is a lot of coverage in the defensive zone. Just with their reach alone, they take away large chunks of space for opposition forwards and they’re brutal to deal with along the boards.
What is the most important aspect of the Lightning’s sizeable blue line? They can all play. All of their defencemen, even the largest of them, can skate and move the puck. In acquiring big defencemen, they haven’t looked for a mean streak or devastating hits, but skating and skill.
You might suggest that the Lightning lucked into Hedman, but they worked for the rest of their defence corps. Coburn and Sergachev were acquired in big trades, Stralman and Dan Girardi were signed as unrestricted free agents, Sustr was signed out of the NCAA, and Dotchin was a sixth round pick.
Only Slater Koekkoek was a first round pick like Hedman at 10th overall, and there are rumours he might get traded, because the Lightning might not even need him.
3. Take advantage of market inefficiencies
This, rather than embracing analytics, was the real message of Moneyball: find what the market doesn’t value highly enough and exploit that inefficiency.
This plays into their pursuit of small, but skilled forwards. The NHL doesn’t value players under 5’10” and looks at anyone under 6’0” with a certain amount of suspicion. The Lightning have taken advantage of this to build a power house offence.
For instance, Brayden Point had 91 points in the WHL in his draft year, 20 more than Jake Virtanen. But Virtanen went 6th overall to the Canucks and Point went 79th overall in the third round, mainly because of the size difference. Virtanen, at 6’1” and 200+ lbs was seen as the next great power forward, while the smaller and slighter Point was seen as a longshot to make the NHL.
Four years later, Point has 20 goals and 49 points in 58 games in his second NHL season.
They’ve also gone after smaller free agents outside of the NHL ranks. The 5’8” Tyler Johnson was signed as a free agent out of the WHL after a 53 goal, 115 point season. 5’9” Yanni Gourde was signed out of the AHL and given a chance to play; now he’s a 26-year-old rookie pursuing Brock Boeser for the rookie goal-scoring lead.
Then there’s the 5’8” Cory Conacher, who was signed out of the AHL back in 2012 and went on a scoring streak that culminated in the Lightning trading him to the Ottawa Senators for Ben Bishop. A few years later, Conacher washed out of the NHL, but the Lightning gave him another shot, signing him out of the Swiss league in 2016.
There’s also another market inefficiency: the Russian factor, which they’ve wholeheartedly embraced.
There’s Kucherov, of course, selected 58th overall in 2011 and making an argument for being the best player in that draft, but the Lightning took three Russians in 2011, including Vladislav Namestnikov at the end of the first round.
Then there’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who they selected in the first round in 2012 and has rewarded them with a Vezina-caliber season this year. They took another Russian in the seventh round that year.
They took a break from drafting Russians for a few years, but in the last two drafts they added three more, including the aforementioned Sosunov.
By not shying away from Russian players, not only have they found high-skill players later in the draft than you might expect, they have also created an environment where Russian players can thrive and feel comfortable, such as Mikhail Sergachev, acquired via trade. He had OHL experience, but coming into a team with three other Russians in the lineup couldn’t have hurt.
4. Build through the draft — the entire draft
The Lightning have been fortunate to select first overall in 2008 and second overall in 2009, giving them two franchise cornerstones in Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. But their focus on skill over size has allowed them to find gems throughout the draft.
7 of their top-10 scorers this season were drafted by the Lightning. Two more were signed as free agents out of the AHL and WHL. You have to go to their 10th-leading scorer to find a player who wasn’t developed in the Lightning system: Mikhail Sergachev, who was acquired at the age of 19 for first-round pick Jonathan Drouin, so pretty much is also coming up in the Lightning system.
Just three of the players on the Lightning roster were signed in what we would typically think of as free agency: Chris Kunitz, Anton Stralman, and Dan Girardi. The majority were drafted by the Lightning.
Their leading scorer was a second-round pick. At third in scoring sits a third-round pick. Alex Killorn was also a third-round pick. Cedric Paquette was picked in the fourth round, Jake Dotchin in the sixth, and Ondrej Palat and Matthew Peca were both seventh-round picks.
The foundation of the team comes from their first round picks — Stamkos, Hedman, and Vasilevskiy — but they’ve assembled the rest of the team in later rounds.
5. Don’t overspend in free agency
As mentioned above, the Lightning this season haven’t depended on free agent signings at all. The most expensive free agent signing on the Lightning roster is Anton Stralman, a legitimate top-pairing defender they signed for five years at $4.5 million per year back in 2014. That’s a bargain for the minutes he eats, averaging over 21 minutes per game and leading the team in short-handed ice time.
Don’t get me wrong: the Lightning have some bad contracts. Ryan Callahan is a solid checking-line forward, but he’s getting paid $5.8 million per year to skate on the fourth line. But the Lightning overpaid players who were already a proven part of their group rather than in free agency.
6. Don’t be afraid to trade
Steve Yzerman hasn’t shied away from trading away talent.
Look at the Ben Bishop trade for an example. Bishop carried the Lightning to a Stanley Cup Final in 2015, then posted a .939 save percentage in the 2016 playoffs, where the Lightning got knocked out by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Conference Final.
But the Lightning needed cap space, so, instead of losing Bishop for nothing in the summer, he dealt him to the Los Angeles Kings for Peter Budaj and Erik Cernak, a (surprise, surprise) big, skilled defenceman who was one of the Kings’ top prospects.
The Bishop trade came as a bit of a surprise, but it showed the confidence they had in Andrei Vasilevskiy, as well as the complete lack of confidence in their ability to fit Bishop under the cap in the summer. Losing Bishop’s salary — the Dallas Stars ended up signing him for just short of $5 million — gave the Lightning a lot more room to pay their young stars.
Speaking of young stars, Yzerman moved one of those when his potential cap hit was deemed too burdensome. He traded Jonathan Drouin for Mikhail Sergachev, taking advantage of Montreal’s desire both for high-end forward talent and Quebecois players to add a blue-chip defensive prospect.
The Lightning could afford to make that move because of their depth of offensive talent that they acquired by foregoing grit and size for speed and skill.
They also haven’t been afraid to get creative, getting rid of the Valtteri Filppula contract by moving him at last year’s trade deadline, along with two draft picks, to the Philadelphia Flyers for Mark Streit. They then flipped Streit to the Pittsburgh Penguins to recoup one of those lost draft picks.
It’s impossible to just straight-up copy the Tampa Bay Lightning. Not every team gets a Steven Stamkos or Victor Hedman, but there are plenty of things that teams like the Canucks can learn from them, like how they embrace smaller forwards.
More than just embracing the same market inefficiencies the Lightning have found, however, teams need to find the next market inefficiency and exploit it while they can.