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Lessons the New Jersey Devils Can Learn from the 2020 Stanley Cup Winners, Tampa Bay Lightning

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Blake Coleman and the Tampa Bay Lightning are the 2020 Stanley Cup winners. As they won, there are plenty of lessons and ideas the New Jersey Devils - who did not even make the playoffs - can learn from the Lightning.

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six
Blake Coleman and the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup on Monday. What can the Devils learn from them?
Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Blake Coleman, formerly of the New Jersey Devils, scored on a one-timer on Monday night against the Dallas Stars. This goal put the score at 2-0 for the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was scored in Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. It would turn out to be the last goal of the playoffs as the shutout victory was secured and the Lightning won their fourth game of the series. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup. Blake Coleman, the 2011 over-age third round draft pick who suffered a significant injury in his first pro season and did not break through into the NHL until he was 26 and played well enough to garner a first round pick and Nolan Foote in a trade, became a champion.

The New Jersey Devils, who traded Coleman back in February, are currently far away from being a championship contender. They are currently far away from making the playoffs, which generally requires being one of the eight best teams in a sixteen-team conference. While the NHL Returned to Play, the Devils took the interim tag off of Tom Fitzgerald as general manager, hired Lindy Ruff as a head coach, and seeks to do some kind of rebuild. Whether it is a continuation of what Fitzgerald’s old boss, Ray Shero, was doing or if it it will be another tear-down project remains to be seen. Regardless, the Devils do have a lot of cap space and draft capital to use within the next week when the 2020 NHL Draft takes place on October 6 and 7 and free agency begins on October 9. A lot can happen within the next week and a half as the Devils try to build a stronger team. Busy as it will be, I think the Devils can also take a little time to learn some lessons from this year’s champions as part of their self-improvement effort.

Being Patient with a Successful Process

The 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning stormed through the regular season only to be upset by Columbus in the first round. It is not like they returned the same roster. GM Julien BrieseBois signed the bought-out Kevin Shattenkirk and Patrick Maroon as free agents. He secured the futures of Brayden Point and Andrei Vasilevskiy. This was a roster that, on paper, could still dominant. They did not, at least, at the start of the the 2019-20 season. They went 13-9-3 in the first two months of the season. Between the playoff exit and the less-than-expected record, murmurs were increasing. Maybe something had to a change in Tampa Bay. A change such as firing head coach Jon Cooper, who was the team’s head coach since 2013, could have been justified. Trading someone who was struggling to contribute and produce such as Tyler Johnson or Yanni Gourde was on the table.

However, GM Julien BriseBois saw things differently and opted to hold steady. While the results were not coming, he saw that the team’s roster was still balanced and how they were playing on the ice was good. In time, things would turn around. They did. The Lightning turned it around in December with a 9-4-1 record, ending the 2019 year on a four-game winning streak. This streak continued for another six games into 2020, which helped put the Lightning back on top of the Atlantic. That ten-game winning streak was later bested by an eleven-game run of wins from January 29 to February 17. While the Lightning did not end the pandemic-shortened season in first in the Atlantic, they secured a top seed and underwent a lot of long, closely-fought playoff games all the way to the greatest trophy in sports on Monday.

This probably does not happen had BriesBois fired Cooper for a slow-ish start or made a trade to “shake things up.” Just as we, as fans, want a GM to make moves to improve a team; a smart GM will know when doing nothing is the better option. That is a harder thing to accomplish given the pressures involved in professional sports - especially for teams expected to succeed. We want bad runs to be corrected as soon as possible, but sometimes the best correction is to let things play out from a GM’s perspective. The 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning indicated that.

To attain this kind of patience, it requires an honest assessment of the team’s roster and what they are doing on the ice beyond the scores. It also requires support from ownership as well as the analysts providing the information. I can guarantee that the Devils will have some rough times in future seasons. A losing streak here, a run of dropped points there. The key is for Fitzgerald and his staff to identify when a poor run of games is just that and when it is a sign of an issue that needs to be fixed. And if it just a poor run and there are real signs that the team’s process is better than their results, then having the guts to let the process happen and see if they turn the results around.

First Round Picks Can Also Be Valuable Trade Pieces

It is undoubtedly true that the Tampa Bay Lightning are led at forward by 2008 first overall pick, Steven Stamkos; on defense by 2009 second overall pick, Victor Hedman; and in net by 2012 nineteenth overall pick, Andrei Vasilevskiy. Because these three met or exceeded draft projections by being among the best in their respective positions, the Lightning have been a contending team more often than not for the last decade. Those picks were important at the time and Tampa Bay succeeded very well in making those picks.

The 2012 pick of Vasilevskiy was also the last successful pick that still plays for the Lightning. Here is who else they selected in first rounds as per HockeyDB since 2012:

  • 2012 - 10th overall, D Slater Koekkoek
  • 2013 - 3rd overall, LW Jonathan Drouin
  • 2014 - 19th overall, D Anthony DeAngelo
  • 2015 - None
  • 2016 - 27th overall, C Brett Howden
  • 2017 - 14th overall, D Cal Foote
  • 2018 - None
  • 2019 - 27th overall, LW Nolan Foote

Out of all six of these first round picks since 2012, only Cal Foote remains in the Tampa Bay system. He completed his second full season with Syracuse in the AHL and has yet to make his NHL debut. The others either broke through for the Lightning for some time and were traded, or were traded before they even had a chance to play for Tampa Bay. Koekkoek played in 85 games over five seasons with the Lightning before moving him and a fifth round in 2019 to Chicago for Jan Rutta and a seventh rounder in 2019. Drouin made the NHL at age 19, played in three seasons for Tampa Bay and then was dealt to Montreal for defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and a swapping of conditional picks. The defender known as Tony D was moved to Arizona for a second rounder in 2016, which became Libor Hajek. Hajek would play a role in a larger deal later on. Howden, Vladislav Namestnikov (Tampa Bay first rounder in 2011), the 2018 first rounder, a conditional second rounder in 2019, and Hajek were all sent to Manhattan for center J.T. Miller and defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Lastly, Nolan Foote and Vancouver’s conditional first rounder (acquired in 2019 as part of the Miller deal to the Canucks) were sent to New Jersey for Blake Coleman.

The point is that former Lightning GM Steve Yzerman and current GM BriesBois could have kept these prospects for themselves and tried to reap their future rewards for themselves. Drouin is certainly not a bad winger, Tony D is a budding offensive defenseman, and Koekkoek and Howden could have been depth. Instead, they were all sent away at fairly young ages in trades thatthe GM at the time thought would make his team better. They did and their impact was seen in their successful Cup run this year. Almost of all of the players returned for these picks won a Stanley Cup on Monday. Sergachev and McDonagh were important parts of Tampa Bay’s blueline throughout the postseason. Coleman was part of an effective line with Barclay Goodrow and Yanni Gourde as well as being part of a strong penalty killing unit. Rutta was an extra defender who did make five apparances in Tampa Bay’s Cup run.

The lesson here is that drafting well is absolutely important, but it does not mean the prospect has to develop and perform for your team. It does not mean you have to keep the player through their ELC years or even get to a point where you sign them to one. If another squad has the player or players you think will improve and they are asking for that first rounder you have hopes for, then it may be worth it to make that trade. Tampa Bay did so and it worked out. Fitzgerald should keep this in mind with the many prospects the Devils have in their system.

Successful Draft Picks are Successful Regardless of Round

The Tampa Bay Lightning are led at three positions by an incredibly successful first round pick at each position. Their captain and leading center, Steven Stamkos, was a first overall pick in 2008. Their best defenseman and Conn Smythe winner, Victor Hedman, was picked second overall in 2009. Their top goaltender, Vasilevskiy, was selected with their second first rounder in 2012. All three met or exceeded lofty expectations from when they were drafted and continue to be a part of the corner A team should aim to make their first round picks count.

However, they can afford to move future first round picks or players picked in the first round when they have successes elsewhere in drafts. Devils fans are all too aware of 2014 third rounder Brayden Point. However, did you know that DeAngelo and Point were their only successful picks in 2014? Or that only Adam Erne played over 100 games in the NHL out of their 2013 draft class? Or that 2015 third rounder Anthony Cirelli and fourth rounder Mathieu Joseph have made it to the NHL at all? Or that they have no NHL appearances by any of their picks from 2016 to 2019 other than Howden and Hajek - who did so for New York? Or that the last second round pick to be a successful player for the Lightning is the amazing winger Nikita Kucherov, who was selected near the end of it at 58th overall in 2011? (Aside: I’m aware 2017 second rounder Alexander Volkov made his debut in Game 6 on Monday, so he may be next.) Other than Stamkos, Hedman, Vasilevskiy, and Kucherov, Tampa Bay’s roster is not filled with a lot first and second round picks that they made. They have not had a draft class since 2011 where they can say they found more than two NHL players. And, yet, it is a very successful roster.

This ties into the previous lesson. Having a contributing players from the third round or later allows GMs Yzerman and BriesBois to deal those higher picked players away. Sure, the Lightning would be much worse off without Stamkos (who missed nearly the entire Cup Finals against Dallas), Hedman, Vasilevskiy, and Kucherov. But discovering NHL-level talent in Point, Ondrej Palat (a 2011 seventh round pick), Cirelli, and Cedric Paquette (a fourth rounder in 2012) allows the GM more flexibility to make deals for needs in the short-term as well as building up the depth of the roster. And given how good Point and Palat have been, it really does not matter now where they were picked back then - just that they were picked at all.

The lesson here is that it is more important for the scouts to find future players regardless of the round. We should all hope and want the Devils to succeed with any of their picks. But in a few years, when it is time to analyze the team’s draft that will happen next week, the question should be “Did the Devils find any future NHL players in 2020?” and not “Did the Devils succeed with their three first rounders in 2020?” That is the lesson that Fitzgerald should keep in mind as he builds this roster.

Additionally, a draft class yielding only one or two solid players will not necessarily force a team to be bad for a while. Again, Tampa Bay has not had a ton of success for the better part of the last decade and a number of their ultimately-successful picks were traded away. They were still able to build a roster beyond just leaning solely on their hugely successful picks from eight to twelve years ago.

A Lack of Cup Experience Does Not Mean You Cannot Win One

This can be learned from both finalists: Tampa Bay and Dallas. Of all of the Lightning players, only Patrick Maroon has held up Lord Stanley’s Cup before. He did so in 2019 with St. Louis. Only Dallas, only Corey Perry and Tyler Seguin has done so. Yet, those two teams went all the way to play for the championship. Their relative lack of rings between them was not a deterrent. It did not matter in the Conference Final matchups or in earlier rounds. I can agree there is some value to having players who have experienced the postseason to tell younger or inexperienced players what is it really about.

At the end of the day, though, playoff hockey is still hockey. Ideally, you need hockey players to play hockey well to succeed. This seems obvious to some, but for whatever reason, some fans get caught up in a ring bearers possessing some kind of unidentifiable (read: not very valuable) talent. Whether or not someone won a Cup before should not be seen as a sign that a team is gearing up for a run or that the team will be better just by the experience. Free agent signings should continue to be made based on whether the player can contribute in the role you and the coaching staff intend him for. I hope Fitzgerald and company keep that in mind as free agency begins in earnest next Friday. I also hope they fully understand that the Devils should be looking to make the playoffs at all before worrying about a lack of postseason experience on the roster anyway.

Talent Over Size - Always

It is tempting to look at Tampa Bay and start praising their size. Victor Hedman is 6’6” and over 220 pounds! Sergachev is a beefy 6’3” defender! Patrick Maroon is gritty, tough, and also 6’3”! Erik Cernak was bossing guys around and is over 230 pounds! Barclay Goodrow is a strong 6’2”! One could see how chippy the playoff games were and conclude that a good team needs to be big and physical.

I think that does a disservice to the rest of the Stanley Cup Champions. Sure, Hedman is big, but he is way more talented than just having a large frame. He has incredible stamina, he is very smart on the ice, he is quick, and he has an offensive mindset which helped him rack up victories in both ends of the rink on his way to the Conn Smythe. While Hedman played the most minutes on average for the Lightning skaters, the second place man in average ice time was Ryan McDonagh. While he did not produce or shoot very much, he handled a lot of tough situations and all kinds of ornery folks around the Tampa Bay zone. He managed to do this while being a not-so-big 6’1”. He was 215 pounds; I do not know how much that overcomes being five inches shorter than Hedman. I do know he was an effective, if unheralded, part of the Tampa Bay blueline.

One of the favorites for the Conn Smythe was the not-large-at-all Brayden Point. The 5’10” sub-170 pound forward was a scoring machine throughout the postseason. He led the Lightning in playoff goals with 14 and finished just behind Kucherov in points with 33. Despite his not-large frame, he was still able to win pucks, get in close amid the Dallas defenders, withstand attempts at abuse (e.g. Perry sticking him in between the legs in Game 4), and put 68 shots on net and average over 20 minutes per game. (And he’s been doing it his whole career.) By the way, do you know how large Kucherov is? He’s officially listed at 5’11 and 178 pounds. Yet, he can be rather nasty on the ice to a fault and a defense’s worst nightmare. He led the entire playoffs in scoring with 34 points too. I do not think the Lightning are celebrating a Cup by boat later if it was not for those two players among others.

Additionally, the Lightning received some massive goals from the likes of Palat (11) and Gourde (7). Palat is many things but big is not one of them as he’s an officially listed at six-foot player and weighs below 190 pounds. He managed to help Tampa Bay get to where they are now in celebration. Gourde is the second smallest player on the team at 5’9” and 172 pounds, and that did not deter coach Cooper from putting him on a quasi-energy line with Coleman and Goodrow nor did opponents stop him from putting up seven goals and seven assists along the way to the Cup.

The lesson here is to not really focus on size that much. If a player can help your team, then you should get that player regardless of how large it is. It is true that some players will get beaten up due to a lack of strength. It is also true that some players get mostly by on being big and then realize they are not getting a lot of games when they get figured out. It is additionally true that some players - regardless of size - are just too aggressive and cost their team in penalties and other such nonsense more than they help by setting screens or winning battles. The Lightning GMs for the past decade did not seek out size for the sake of it; they sought out talent to help their team. Fitzgerald should do the same as he builds up the Devils. No one wins a Cup by having the most players over 6’3” - which is also Mirco Mueller’s official height in case you want another reason why size is not that important.

A Strategically Adjustable Roster is a Goal

One of the tougher things to make a hockey team do is be able to adjust to a lot of different opponents. With season schedules normally crammed with games and players needing rest more than skating days, it is hard to teach tactics and get buy-ins for larger changes during a season. That is how I see it, and to that end, I have a lot of respect for what Jon Cooper has done with the roster from a coaching standpoint. What made the Tampa Bay Lightning so difficult was how they were able to match-up with their opponents.

Against a Dallas team that leaned on the counter attack, Lightning forwards frequently dropped back to at least cut down on the odd man rushes against them. This limited the Stars’ opportunities. When the Lightning were buzzing, to use Steve Cangelosi’s phrase, it made it harder for the Stars to clear the zone and/or generate their own offense in kind. This was apparent in the Cup-clinching Game 6 where it seemed like Dallas did not show up based on the scoresheet. Tampa Bay suffocated them even when their defenders got aggressive. Against the Isles, Bruins, or Blue Jackets, the Lightning did not need to be this disciplined in this regard. It was a significant adjustment that helped make their series against Dallas easier than it needed to be.

Not all teams can do this. Whether it is due to the talent level, the coaching acumen of the people behind the bench, or the overall directive from management, it is tough to have a team willing to adjust. Given the real time constraints involved, teams tend to form an identity around how they play. The Lightning do this to a degree, but from what I noticed is that they are deep and talented enough to handle different teams. The Stars want to pounce on counter-attack rushes? OK, we’ll drop players back. The Isles want to drop players back to make the zone more difficult to manage? OK, we’ll try to hit them back first and patiently wait for space - even going as far as to put a forward in a defenseman position to facilitate play. The Lightning have this.

It should be a goal of the Devils to form a team that can do this. I know the reputation Ruff has and I’m sure he was hired in part to implement his concepts. What I think should be the lesson here is to also have a team prepared to make adjustments to those concepts as needed. What would work against a team like, say, Philadelphia may be different than what would work against the Islanders. Given the constraints and rigors of the NHL schedule - especially if the league does somehow cram an 82-game season for 2020-21 - they cannot be too complex. But having the players aware of how their jobs may shift a bit from game to game based on a match-up or strategy of the opponent can help make a difference in how successful they are on the ice. It may not make them division leaders over night, but the goal is to have a more competitive team on the ice. Making them more like Tampa Bay in how they can adjust to their opponents would help them in doing so.

Success is a Long Road

Of all the things you can say about the Devils ownership, you cannot say they are quick to act. Ray Shero and John Hynes had four plus seasons in New Jersey. They were given to put together the roster and coach them, respectively, as they saw fit. Even after a significant stumble after making the playoffs in 2018, they were still in control. While the Devils are not where you and I may want them to be right now, it was not like they are here now as a result of some panic driven by ownership for success right away.

This is important because it took quite a while for the Lightning to win this Cup. While Stamkos and Hedman jumped right into the NHL, they only saw the playoffs one time before Jon Cooper’s first full season in 2013-14. And in that first full season under Cooper, the team was swept out of the first round by Montreal. The next two seasons under Cooper went quite well - but it did not end with the Cup. The team went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015, only to lose it in six games to Chicago. Tampa Bay lost in the Eastern Conference Finals in the following year to Pittsburgh in a seven game series ending in a 2-1 defeat. In 2016-17, the team missed out on the playoffs by a point. It could have been a justifiable time to change the coach or think the roster was declining and needed massive changes. But the core was largely kept - Ben Bishop’s spot was taken by Vasilevskiy in 2016-17 - and they rebounded to another Eastern Conference Finals appearance. And another loss in that round. And after crushing the league with a 62-win season 2018-19, Columbus straight up upset them in four games. All that and the architect of much of this roster, Yzerman, resigned in 2019 and was replaced by BriseBois to manage the team.

There must have been countless times over the last six seasons where discussions were held within the Lightning organization about the roster. Whether the core was really good enough. Or whether the team was on the right path. Or whether Cooper was the right coach for the job. Ownership could have stepped in at any time and demanded change in light of coming up short for a championship. I imagine it was a contentious time in 2017 as they were outside of the playoffs for the first time since 2013. It took a lot of faith in what was built and a lot of trust in the personnel to identify who was worth keeping and what needed upgrading and how. When they raised the trophy on Monday night, it was all validated.

This is not to say that the Devils should have kept Shero and/or Hynes and kept on the path. This is to say that it does take time to build a strong roster and sometimes even longer to win a championship. Despite how random and unfair the game of hockey is, winning the Cup is never an unearned achievement - it is simply not a linear one. In the Cooper Era, Tampa Bay suffered two first round exits, two Conference Finals series where I am sure some of the players wished they could do things differently, a season where they were runners-up to the Cup winner, and a season where they finished just behind the final playoff team in the East. In other organizations, Cooper and/or Yzerman probably would not have lasted as long as they did. Some of the players that lifted the trophy earlier this week would have been sent away or never acquired. I am certain there were plenty of discussions to not make what would have been a rash decision behind the scenes. I am equally confident there were requests for patience and assurances that the team was on the right path when success was not apparent. They were all justified as of Monday night.

So it goes for the Devils. While the ultimate goal is to win a Cup, Fitzgerald and his people need to take steps to get them closer and build a successful team by process instead of results. As the Lightning’s history for the last seven seasons show, playoff success is not repeatable or follows regular season success. Building a team that can hang with most of the league is repeatable. Building a team that can succeed in the regular season makes playoff success possible. The Devils have to at least do that first. The Devils owners have been patient so far in terms of putting a team together so I am hopeful Fitzgerald will have the time needed to put together a more competitive team. The lesson here is that it will take time, it will take honest and sincere assessment in the players you do acquire and have, and it will take transactions that are rooted in reason instead of feeling to make the roster better. It will not happen immediately in 2020-21 short of a wonderfully unexpected season.

Post Script

I am sure there will be plenty of implied whining about how the NHL is a copycat league and so teams will want to copy the Lightning. This is a trash take. Organizations should always seek to learn from successful organizations and apply it to what they do. It is how they get better. It is certainly not easy and too many times organizations do not make the correct takeaways. But the solution to that is to be judicious about what to learn from a championship-winning team. Not to come up with some new way to play the game or build a team. No one has ever won a Cup or a hockey game by being totally original. So I implore the Devils to learn what they can from the Lightning. I expect 29 other teams will try to do so anyway.

Your Turn

These are the main lessons I took away from the 2020 Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning. What lessons do you think the Devils should learn from the newly crowned champions? What lessons listed here make sense to you? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the lessons to learn from the Lightning in the comments. Thank you for reading.