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Lightning's Run a Testament to Team's Tenacity, but Dynasties Don't Last Forever

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured Columnist IIIJune 27, 2022

Mike Carlson/Getty Images

The Colorado Avalanche won the Stanley Cup on Sunday after a 2-1 victory in Game 6.

Officially.

But don't let tortured handshakes and a giddy hoist in front of a respectful Amalie Arena crowd fool you. This series, and Tampa Bay's two-year run as the class of the NHL, actually ended four nights earlier.

Because that's when, even with every must-win cliche cued up, the Lightning couldn't hold off a team that attacked in waves, defended with friction and did just enough of every other little thing to beat an opponent that hadn't lost a playoff series since the spring of 2019.

There was no magic Jon Cooper speech. No timely Pat Maroon goal.

And no felonious Andrei Vasilevskiy save. Or at least not enough of them.

Instead, it was a historically great team losing to one that, this year at least, was superior.

The Avalanche won five more games and racked up nine more points during a regular season in which they also took more shots, scored more goals and were better on the power play.

So it was hardly shocking that they'd be ahead at the end.

But make no mistake: there had been hope on the Gulf Coast.

After all, the first game went to overtime and could just as easily have ended the other way after arriving at the third period tied at 3. And as for the second game, well, it was just one game and could be reasoned away with the "series doesn't begin until the home team loses" mantra.

Eventually, when Tampa Bay shook off an early deficit to run away with Game 3 and nursed a 2-1 lead into the final period of Game 4, its moment arrived.

It was precisely the kind of moment the Lightning had owned for 11 straight series.

They had more shots, more blocks and were 20 minutes away from tying the series and changing its narrative.

But rather than holding serve or scoring an insurance goal to seal the deal, the hosts saw Colorado get a blue-collar deflection from fourth-liner Andrew Cogliano to tie the game and a well-placed wrister from Nazem Kadri about an hour later to win it in overtime.

The Avalanche had the game. And for all intents and purposes—though the stubborn champs managed to win Game 5 on title-defense muscle memory—the series.

And as for that dynasty thing, well…maybe not so much.

As much as the eventual six-game triumph cemented Colorado's elite status after several springtime near-misses, it simultaneously illustrated just how difficult a job Tampa Bay general manager Julien BriseBois had—and Avalanche counterpart Joe Sakic now has—maintaining momentum in a salary-cap reality.

The Lightning's depth was gutted in the wake of each celebratory boat parade down the Hillsborough River—with Carter Verhaeghe, Cedric Paquette, Braydon Coburn and Kevin Shattenkirk exiting after the initial edition in 2020 before Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Tyler Johnson followed them to other addresses after a repeat splash-fest last summer.

And while the bottom-six depth now provided by vets such as Corey Perry and kids such as Ross Colton is as good or better than 30 teams already booking tee times, the nonstop reconfiguration inhibits the cohesion symbolic of old-school teams before salary caps and free agency were a thing.

The New York Islanders won four straight Cups from 1980 to 1983 with very little significant player movement. In fact, 16 players—including Conn Smythe winners Bryan Trottier, Butch Goring, Mike Bossy and Billy Smith—won all four championships on Long Island before giving way to Wayne Gretzky.

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By contrast, only 10 Tampa Bay skaters plus Vasilevskiy were in the lineup both Sunday night in Tampa and for Game 6 of the team's first Cup win against Dallas two years ago.

Another exodus seems certain after this run, too, given the imminent unrestricted free-agent status of first-liner Ondrej Palat and third-liner Nicholas Paul and the dearth of cap room for BriseBois to work with.

It's a big reason only one team—the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017—had won repeat Cups in the cap era and no team had reached three straight finals since Edmonton from 1983 to 1985.

And don't forget Colorado, with the league's best overall record from 2019 to 2022, was good, too.

That was the bad news.

But that doesn't mean there's no more good news in West Central Florida, thanks largely to BriseBois's signature philosophy of locking down the core and filling in the periphery.

Captain Steven Stamkos is signed for two more seasons at $8.5 million apiece, and minutes-gobbling D-man Victor Hedman is locked up through 2025 at $7.88 million annually. Playmaking winger Nikita Kucherov is in the fold for five more seasons at $9.5 million each, while Vasilevskiy and center Brayden Point will also earn $9.5 million per year through 2028 and 2030, respectively.

Those five players will account for more than 54 percent of the team's 2022-23 payroll—not exactly a widely endorsed managerial M.O. in a spreadsheet-centric analytics era.

Still, if you think that means the Lightning are predestined for the draft lottery, think again.

The dynasty may be over.

But the title contention rolls on because BriseBois isn't quite ready to settle for less.

"The wheel kind of spins itself," he said. "You've got good players, you're a good team, good players want to sign with you, and it's just kind of trying to keep the wheel going."

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