Lightning replaced their stellar third line and now look poised to three-peat

Lightning GM Julien BriseBois has achieved the tricky goal of replacing an entire line without sacrificing major stars. (Getty)
Lightning GM Julien BriseBois has achieved the tricky goal of replacing an entire line without sacrificing major stars. (Getty)

In broad terms, the challenges of repeating as champions become exponentially more difficult as time wears on. It’s become one of the most easily understood tropes in sports — the pursuit of consecutive championships brings challenges that may not always extend solely to the field of play. Players invariably want more money, or term, or playing time, perhaps some more recognition, or maybe even a change of scenery, while opposing teams are supremely motivated to knock off the titleholders on any given night.

Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois knew his workload was going to increase, boasting a roster that is full of top-of-the-NHL level talents, all the while knowing that he was going to lose his entire third line this summer — the best checking unit in the league consisting of Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Yanni Gourde — due to the constraints of free agency and the expansion draft. This is perhaps why BriseBois and head coach Jon Cooper preemptively warned against the idea of seriously contending for a third-consecutive Stanley Cup, even if the aw-shucks routine fooled no one.

BriseBois accomplished his primary goal, a task that would’ve perhaps been insurmountable for most general managers — he replaced an entire checking unit without sacrificing any major stars, kept the team under the cap and understood above all that not all first-round picks are created equal. He can now put his feet up and light a cigar, if he so chooses to indulge.

In trading two first-round picks (both top-10 protected) along with Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Brandon Hagel, in addition to 2022 and 2024 fourth-round picks, BriseBois has ensured that the Lightning will field the most competitive roster possible. This has been a tried and tested formula for the Lightning during both of their Cup runs, as they acquired Coleman and Goodrow for first-round picks during the 2020 deadline.

Who cares about tomorrow when you’re still in the now, and why would the Lightning’s winning formula change?

BriseBois and Cooper’s contingency plan has worked wonders.

Most fans groaned when Corey Perry signed on a two-year deal worth $2 million, and he’s exceeded even the most optimistic projections, posting his best statistical campaign since the end of his peak with the Anaheim Ducks. Perry recorded 16 goals and 33 points through 60 games, ranking 79th in the league in individual expected goals at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick. He's drawn 21 penalties (tied for 18th in the NHL, ahead of Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Timo Meier and Jonathan Huberdeau, for comparison) and is more than capable of playing in a top-six role when called upon, for a team that is perhaps defined by its roster flexibility.

No one is going to confuse Pierre-Edouard Bellemare for a volume scorer, but he’s on pace for the best point totals of his career and has added genuine grit to the bottom-six. Mathieu Joseph’s outstanding speed has made him an excellent counter-attacking threat, as he boasts nearly a 2:1 takeaways-to-turnovers ratio, has also proven adept at drawing penalties in a similar vein to Perry.

Bellemare and Joseph anchor Tampa Bay’s 13th-ranked penalty-kill unit and have provided more value than your typical bottom-six forwards, while the Lightning boast a 54 percent share of the expected goals when last year’s Game 5 hero Ross Colton is on the ice at 5-on-5.

Hagel, in some regards, almost renders this version of the Lightning unfair. He isn’t a household name, but he was having an excellent season on a Blackhawks team that has completely fallen from grace, on and off the ice. Hagel posted 21 goals and 37 points in 55 games for the Blackhawks and while some have rightly pointed out that his 22.3 shooting percentage is clearly unsustainable, betting on a 23-year-old forward with top-six upside to produce with superior linemates isn’t a terrible gamble.

If the Lightning are indeed operating in a different echelon from other NHL teams, there is perhaps an apt cross-sport parallel to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.

Golden State, led by perennial MVP candidate Stephen Curry, defensive mastermind Draymond Green and sharpshooter Klay Thompson, was often asked this season about how to manage and balance dual timelines: one where its core of veterans who are chomping at the bit in pursuit of a fourth NBA title are given every advantage to win now, and another where its young talents are afforded room to develop. It’s been a difficult balance, as 2021 lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody were dangled as trade bait in the months leading up to the deadline, while Warriors general manager Bob Myers was forced to consider various roster combinations, before opting to keep the team’s promising rookies, while remaining in title pursuit.

There are a few holes in this comparison, of course: Tampa Bay has more elite players relatively speaking than Golden State, while an MVP-caliber player like Curry can affect the game more than anyone on Tampa’s roster — with the possible exception of all-world goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy — and top NBA picks are more likely to make an immediate impact on their team’s fortunes than their NHL peers.

But the calculus more or less remains the same. Tampa Bay realized it could replace its bottom-six with a mix of veterans and prospects ready for graduation, push its core of Vasilevskiy, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point, Alex Killorn, Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev towards going all-in for an unprecedented third-consecutive win in the salary-cap era, while developing its young players simultaneously.

And by placing protections on the picks, it’s not like the Blackhawks are going to start anew by winning the Connor Bedard/Matvei Michkov sweepstakes in 2023.

Stated, perhaps with more toxicity than intended, BriseBois and Cooper’s staff have more intelligence and bravado than anyone else in the NHL. They’ve accomplished all of their short-term goals with a mountainous target on their backs.

A third-consecutive title isn’t fait accompli, but BriseBois, Cooper and the rest of the Lightning have done everything in their power to pull off the statistically improbable three-peat.

*All stats current as of March 18, 2022

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