The Big “What If”: Lecavalier to Montreal, Part II

2
72
(Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

This is Part II of my “Lecavalier to Montreal” series, where I examine what would have happened had the Canadiens pulled the trigger on a trade for Vincent Lecavalier in 2009. For Part I of this series, click here.


FROM TAMPA BAY’S PERSPECTIVE

2009: With the Lecavalier deal, the Lightning have truly moved on from their past, and given up on the 2008-09 campaign. Already having struggled out of the gate, and having fired Barry Melrose only 16 games into the year, Tampa Bay has little chance of getting back on track, and will have to focus on building the team around their new future talisman, Steven Stamkos. Stamkos, like Lecavalier, is a #1 Pick, having been drafted by the Lightning in 2008. He is a centre, as well as a potential goal-scoring threat, having picked up 58 goals in 61 games in his final junior year. And like Lecavalier before him, Stamkos started off cold, having yet to score his fifth goal in his rookie season.

The Lecavalier trade now lead to Tomas Plekanec being the team’s #1 centre, even if he is only keeping the spot warm for Stamkos in future years. Plekanec had underperformed this year with Montreal, and would continue to do so with the Lightning, finishing the year with 39 points in 80 games. Chris Higgins would also struggle, finishing with 23 points in 57 games. One bright spot of the latter part of the season would be Stamkos breaking out late in the year, eventually finishing with 23 goals and 46 points in his rookie season.

Tampa Bay would finish second-last in the entire NHL, with their 68 points actually a slight drop from the previous year. With the 2nd Pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, the Lightning would get Victor Hedman, a gargantuan blue-liner from MODO of the Swedish Elitserien.

2009-10: The 09-10 season would be a fresh start for the Lightning, who had hoped to get out of the gate strong last year, only to stumble. Much like last season however, this year would see a significant change, this time off the ice. In February, owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie would sell the team to hedge fund manager Jeffrey Vinik; this was a welcome change for a team that had seen a plethora of turmoil in the past few years, including reports of a feud between Koules and Barrie that needed commissioner Gary Bettman step in to try and resolve it.

On the ice, no matter who the owner was, the team itself had clearly improved. After a somewhat slow first year, Steven Stamkos would break out big time, scoring 51 goals and 95 points to lead the team in his sophomore year. Next to him on a regular basis was Martin St. Louis, who added 94 points of his own. Tomas Plekanec would also rebound, picking up 70 points from the second line, third on the team. Victor Hedman would play 74 games in his rookie year, managing 20 points, 79 PIMs, and a -3 rating. The lone weak spot on the team seemed to be the goaltending, with Antero Niittymaki and Mike Smith combining to put the team below the league average in terms of save percentage.

Tampa would be out of the playoff once again, but their total of 86 points was a significant improvement, enough for 2nd place in the dismal Southeast Division. The Lightning would have the 10th Overall Pick in 2010, using it on another Scandinavian player; this time, the Bolts would select Finnish centre Mikael Granlund of HIFK in the Sm-liiga.

2010-11: After the improvement of the last year on and off the ice, expectations were beginning to rise for the Lightning. Once seen as a league doormat, a few prognosticators now had Tampa Bay competing for a playoff spot, so long as new head coach Guy Boucher could adapt to the National Hockey League. Boucher’s coaching would become a focal point of the campaign, as the team drastically reduced their shots against – a welcome change for the goaltenders, most notably Dwayne Roloson, who was acquired from the New York Islanders early on in the season. Roloson, 41, would have less work to do with the Lightning, allowing him to post a .912 SV% in 39 games with his new team.

Tampa’s new defensive focus had made them an instant contender. They would finish 1st in the Eastern Conference with 112 points, with the likes of St. Louis (99 points), Stamkos (91 points), and rookie blue-liner P.K. Subban (38 points in 77 games) making huge contributions. Their first playoff test would come against the Carolina Hurricanes, who had just snuck in with 91 points. The two sides had faced off six times in the regular season, with Tampa Bay winning four of those games, and the post-season series was similar, with Martin St. Louis’ OT winner in Game Five sealing the tie for Tampa Bay.

The Lightning had some serious confidence, as their young team had taken down a division rival, and looked ready for an even bigger test in the form of the Washington Capitals. The Caps were rounding into their prime, with Alexander Ovechkin standing as one of the league’s premier stars at 25 years of age. As talented and as deep as the Caps were, though, they were just no match for Tampa’s 1-3-1, as the Lightning suffocated the Capitals en route to a sweep. Tampa Bay would advance to the Conference Final, and a date with the Boston Bruins, who looked virtually unbeatable thanks to their goalie, Tim Thomas. Thomas’ shot-stopping, combined with Tampa’s shot suppression, made the series incredibly close, as a Game Seven was needed; only one goal would be scored in that game, with Nathan Horton grabbing the only tally to send the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final.

After a few years in the NHL cellar, Tampa Bay now looked to have a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup in the next few years. Steven Stamkos’ first taste of playoff hockey would see him play 16 games, and pick up 13 points. P.K. Subban had established himself as a dangerous blue-line playmaker, with 12 points in 16 games to lead all Lightning defensemen. The one major question remaining for the Lightning was whether Dwayne Roloson would hold up to another season in the NHL. Though he was still somewhat effective, age was taking its’ toll on him, as he would be pulled in the Boston series in favour of Mike Smith.

Tampa would pick 28th in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, selecting Zack Phillips from the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs.

2011-2012: Tampa Bay had risen from the depths to finish tops in the Conference, nearly winning the President’s Trophy in the process. Guy Boucher had transformed the Lightning into a stifling defensive team, while not compromising on goal-scoring. While his strategy was effective, it did have some detractors, most notably the Philadelphia Flyers, who would mock the 1-3-1 forecheck in a game in November 2011. Tampa Bay hardly seemed concerned, though, as they were still in the mix for 1st place in the division. Though teams gradually began to figure out Boucher’s tactics, they had no answer for Steve Stamkos, who would lead the league with 60 goals.

Once again, Tampa Bay had claimed their division, although the Southeast was considerably weaker. For teams such as Washington, there was little excuse, while a team like the Winnipeg Jets (who were once the Atlanta Thrashers, hence their location in the Southeast Division) could point to their travel distance, and resulting fatigue, as a factor in their poor performance. The Lightning’s 96 points would give them the 3rd seed in the East, and a match-up against the New Jersey Devils. Though the Devils weren’t quite the same team that dominated the league in the late 90s and early 2000s, they were still dangerous, as the Lightning would find out. Tampa would take Game One, then lose the next three to fall into a 3-1 hole. Though they would win Game Five, they would lose the next one, thus dropping the series 4-2.

The Lightning would receive the 17th Overall Pick in the 2012 Draft. They would use their selection on Czech forward Tomas Hertl, who was playing with Slavia Prague in the Czech Extraliga. They also had the 19th Overall Pick thanks to a trade with Detroit, which they would use on Russian goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

2012-13: After a couple of playoff years, the Lightning were starting to fade again. Through the course of the lockout-shortened season, it was becoming clear that teams had figured out Guy Boucher’s system, and as the games came, the results began to turn against Tampa Bay. Owner Jeff Vinik had seen enough by March, and Boucher would be fired, as would GM Brian Lawton. Julien BriseBois would take over as General Manager, while former Norfolk head coach Jon Cooper would take over behind the bench. Cooper had led the Admirals to the 2012 Calder Cup in the AHL, in a season which included a spectacular 28-game regular season winning streak.

By the time Cooper and BriseBois had taken over, the Lightning were well and truly out of it. The team would take steps to ensure that the team would remain competitive in future years, with the major move being the acquisition of goalie Ben Bishop from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for rookie Cory Conacher and a 2013 4th-Round Pick (eventually used on Tobias Lindberg). The trade was seen as somewhat of a shock, as Conacher had performed well on Tampa that year, with 24 goals in 35 games. Despite concerns from the Tampa Bay faithful, Bishop would come in and give the team some security in goal, putting up a .917 SV% in 9 starts near the end of the shortened season.

Though things would clearly improve under Jon Cooper, the Lightning were still out of the playoffs, finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference with 50 points. Tampa would get the 11th Overall Pick in 2013, using their selection on Rimouski Oceanic defender Samuel Morin.

2013-14: The Lightning were starting anew. They had a new coach, and many exciting young players, most of whom had played with that head coach in the AHL. They had a new starting goalie in Ben Bishop, who had already shown potential to be a true #1 goalkeeper in the NHL. The one strike against the Lightning seemed to be their lack of a major move during free agency, despite rumours that the team was in on former Red Wing Valtteri Filppula. As a result of their inactivity during July, Tampa Bay were projected to finish out of the playoff spots in their new division, which included Florida, Detroit, Montreal, Boston, Toronto, Buffalo, and Ottawa.

As the season began, it looked like Tampa was not going to simply live up to the expectations, but instead surpass them by miles. The Lightning would fly out of the gate, thanks to their collection of established stars and strong young players. Their great season wouldn’t last, however; thanks to a serious injury to Steven Stamkos in November, the team would begin to struggle, eventually being reduced to competing for second in the Atlantic Division. The Lightning would remain competitive down the stretch, but can’t quite supplant either Montreal or Boston, finishing 3rd in the Atlantic with 108 points.

The new playoff format would pit the Lightning against the 2nd-place team in the Atlantic, the Montreal Canadiens. Though so many of Tampa Bay’s players were playoff-tested at the AHL level, they were now given their first test at the highest level in the game. It would be a first NHL post-season experience for the likes of Tyler Johnson, Tomas Hertl, and Mikael Granlund, all of whom had begun to make impacts with Tampa Bay this year. Though many of them showed they were ready for the challenge, the team had no way of solving the best goalie in the game, Carey Price. The Habs would win the series in a sweep, with Jon Cooper admitting after Game Four that he had been outcoached by Michel Therrien, and vowed to improve in the off-season.

The Lightning would get the 21st pick in the 2014 Entry Draft. Already stacked down the middle, Tampa Bay would get yet another centreman, selecting Robby Fabbri from the OHL’s Guelph Storm.

2014-15: After making the playoffs with such a young team, expectations were much higher for the Lightning, who now had a few media members predicting them to make a potential Cup run if all of their players were healthy. This time, however, Julien BriseBois wasn’t willing to rest on what he had at the moment. He would acquire Jason Garrison from the Vancouver Canucks, while signing all of Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle, and Evgeni Nabokov in free agency. As the season got closer, those whispers about a potential Cup run began to turn into shouts heard across the hockey world, as people took notice of what Tampa was doing.

Sometimes, predictions of success for a promising player or team can go utterly wrong; this was not one of those times. Tampa Bay proved everyone right, and then some. Though Steven Stamkos hadn’t quite been a superstar (only 72 points in 82 games), he was surrounded left and right with impressive talent, young and old. He would once again have Martin St. Louis on his wing, who would rack up 52 points in what would be his last year in the NHL. Behind the Stamkos line were the “Triplets” of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov, all of whom scored more than 60 points. Even third-line centreman Tomas Plekanec would crack the 60-point barrier, likely due to playing on the top power-play unit alongside Stamkos and St. Louis. Behind them were the devastating defensive dup of Victor Hedman and P.K. Subban, as well as a true-blue starting goalie in Ben Bishop. Even though the Nabokov signing went wrong (.882 SV% in 11 games of work), Andrei Vasilevskiy would be called up to good effect in his place.

Tampa Bay wasn’t just good, they were dominant. They would win the President’s Trophy by a wide margin with 125 points, securing home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Their first-round match-up would be with the Ottawa Senators, who were riding the hot hand of Andrew Hammond, who had been called up mid-season, only to single-handedly drag his team to the post-season. Hammond’s luck would run out, as he was benched in favour of Craig Anderson after a couple of road losses. Anderson made the series competitive, but Tampa Bay would take Games Five and Six to win the series. Next up for the Lightning were the Detroit Red Wings; once again, the series was closer than expected, but the Lightning would sneak away with the series in seven games.

Tampa Bay was a serious threat for the Stanley Cup, and would now go up against the New York Rangers, who had made the Stanley Cup Final a year earlier. The veteran side which included the likes of Rick Nash, Dan Boyle, and Henrik Lundqvist was unwilling to give up their spot as Eastern Conference Champions without a fight, but Tampa would give them one thanks to their incredible depth. The Rangers did manage to win Game Two to force a road split, but the Lightning would take the next three to put New York on the brink. The Rangers would win Game Five on the road, but drop Game Six at home; Tampa was on to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2004.

It was the unstoppable force of the surging Lightning against the immovable object, the Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago was a playoff fixture, and had won two of the last five Stanley Cups, as well as finishing within a goal of making the Cup Final the previous year. They had several stars in their prime, among them Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Corey Crawford, as well as a handful of playoff-tested veterans, including the likes of Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, and former Lightning centreman Brad Richards. All of that talent, however, didn’t seem to compare to what the Lightning had; Tampa Bay would win the first two at home before winning Game Three in Chicago. Game Four would go to over-time, and with 9:12 gone in the first extra period, Tyler Johnson would one-time Ondrej Palat’s pass into the net behind Corey Crawford, sealing the Stanley Cup for Tampa Bay.

After being at the bottom of the standings just a few years ago, Tampa Bay had risen back up to the top. Their collection of young stars had made them a champion, with the “Triplets” leading the way. Tyler Johnson would be awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy, while Martin St. Louis would get to hoist the Stanley Cup on his last night as an NHL player. So many of the Lightning players had made an impact, with Tomas Plekanec proving to be a great two-way presence, and the defensive duo of Hedman and Subban being virtually unbeatable. Ben Bishop had also proven that he was not just a good starter, but a genuine star in the league thanks to his goaltending in the post-season.

Tampa Bay would have had the last pick in the 2015 Entry Draft thanks to their Cup win, but they didn’t have the pick in the first place, thanks to a trade with Philadelphia that saw Radko Gudas, this pick, and a 3rd-Round Pick this year go to the Flyers in exchange for Braydon Coburn. The pick would be traded to Toronto, who would then trade it to Columbus; the Blue Jackets would use the pick on Kelowna Rockets winger Nick Merkley.

2015-16: Tampa Bay was back at the top of the league, but hard decisions had to be made. With the team now pushing up against the salary cap, the Lightning would now have to negotiate carefully in free agency, knowing that there was a good chance that they would lose at least one solid player. Tomas Plekanec would be the odd man out, as his contract demands would be far above what Tampa could afford; with Mikael Granlund, Tyler Johnson, and new captain Steve Stamkos down the middle of the ice, the team was comfortable enough without Plekanec, anyway.

As the season rolled on, there were signs, albeit minor ones, of a Cup hangover beginning to take shape. The most noticeable effect would be the deterioration of the “Triplets” unit, as both Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson struggled thanks to a combination of poor form and injuries. Nikita Kucherov, as a result, found himself playing on Stamkos’ line, more often than not, which would actually lead to the young Russian leading the team in points with 66. One player who seemed to have no “hangover” was goalie Ben Bishop, who would play 61 games and record a fantastic .926 save percentage. Even when he was on the bench, back-up Andrei Vasilevskiy had shown that last year was no fluke, with a .910 SV% in 24 games.

Despite some concerns, the Lightning were just so stacked that winning the Atlantic Division was a given. They would end up with 110 points, good for 2nd in the entire NHL. They would be drawn against the New York Islanders, who had earned the first wild card spot. While New York may not have been as deep as the Lightning were, they still had a star centreman in John Tavares, as well as an assurance that no matter who of Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak was in goal, they would be getting solid goaltending each night. Though Greiss would get the start in each game, even his goaltending would not compare to that of Ben Bishop, who would allow three goals in the entire series en route to a four-game sweep.

For the first time in NHL history, the two Florida-based teams were set to square off, as the Florida Panthers had eliminated Detroit to get to the second round. While Tampa was powered by their young stars, the Panthers were led by two over-30 players, with 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr leading the team with 66 points. Despite the collection of skill on both teams, the fatigue that Florida had picked up thanks to their seven-game series with Detroit would be the deciding factor, as the Lightning cruised to another sweep. The Pittsburgh Penguins were next up in the Conference Final, and while they would not be swept, they could only claim one game off of the Lightning, who looked set to repeat as champions.

The Lightning had reached the Stanley Cup Final once more, but this time, their opponent would be the San Jose Sharks, who were making their first-ever appearance in the Final. Despite being led by several veterans (with all of their top five point-getters being over 30), they had enough younger talent to match the depth of Tampa Bay, as well as a new #1 goalie in Martin Jones, acquired in the off-season to replace Antti Niemi. The Lightning would take the first two at home, but San Jose would take Game Three to avoid being the third team swept by Tampa this year. A win in Game Four, followed by a 3-1 victory in Game Five, would assure the Lightning of a second straight Stanley Cup.

Even without Tomas Plekanec, and even without Martin St. Louis, the Lightning were still strong enough to win their second Cup in a row, doing so in a manner that much resembled Jon Cooper’s 2012 Calder Cup win with the Norfolk Admirals. Even despite some minor struggles in the regular season, the team woke up in time for the playoffs, losing only two games along the entire way. Even more admirable was the fact that they would win the first three series without Steven Stamkos, who had missed time due to blood clots. Thanks to his 12 goals in 18 games, Nikita Kucherov would be named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP.

Tampa would get the last pick in the 2016 Entry Draft, using their selection on Regina Pats centre Sam Steel.

2016-17: The worries of a cap crunch had become a major issue in the off-season for the Lightning, as they looked for a way to keep the core of their team together. The team’s biggest decision to make would be whether to keep Steve Stamkos, or let him walk in free agency; just a couple of days before July 1st, Stamkos would be re-signed, which would mean that other impending FAs could not come back. Braydon Coburn would hit the open market, while Tomas Hertl would be signed to an offer sheet by the Carolina Hurricanes, which Julien BriseBois would not match. As a result of the offer sheet, Tampa would get Carolina’s 1st and 3rd Round Picks in 2017.

The Stamkos re-signing would backfire only 17 games into the 16-17 season, as the captain would tear his meniscus in a game against Colorado, leaving him out for the entire season. But when he could not step up, others did. Nikita Kucherov would have a fantastic year, leading the team with 40 goals and 85 points. Not far behind Kucherov was blue-liner Victor Hedman, who would manage an incredible 72 points, finishing second in the league among defensemen behind San Jose’s Brent Burns. In Stamkos’ place as the #1 centre was Mikael Granlund, who would put up a career-high 69 points. Finally, in goal, Andrei Vasilevskiy was ready to usurp Ben Bishop as the team’s starting goalie, allowing Tampa to trade Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings late in the season – a move also motivated by the team’s fear of losing Vasilevskiy or Bishop for nothing in the upcoming Expansion Draft for the Vegas Golden Knights.

The injury to Stamkos had clearly hindered the team’s fortunes, but they were still good enough to claim the 1st spot in the Atlantic with 100 points. This would pit the Lightning against the New York Rangers, who had qualified as the top wild card team in the East. After a few games in the post-season last year, Andrei Vasilevskiy was now the undisputed starter for the team going into this years’ playoffs, and it was clear that there was some pressure this time around. It didn’t help that even though the team had Steve Stamkos back, he was not at 100%. The Rangers would take a split in Tampa, then win all of the next three games to clinch an upset of sorts over the two-time Cup champions.

Tampa Bay would have two picks in the 1st Round of the 2017 Entry Draft. Their first pick, acquired from Carolina as compensation for the Tomas Hertl signing, would be chosen 2nd in the Draft Lottery, while their natural pick would end up at #21. The 2nd Overall Pick would be used on Brandon Wheat Kings centreman Nolan Patrick, while the 21st Pick would be used to select Czech forward Filip Chytil of Extraliga side PSG Zlin.

2017-18: While many teams might be worried about slipping from the Stanley Cup Champions to and exit in the first round, there seemed to be no concern in the Tampa Bay camp. They had a plethora of talent, and they had young players on the rise, ready to stake a claim for a roster spot in the next year or two. And even with all that talent, there was the hope that Steven Stamkos would come back and play a full season, giving Tampa yet another prime weapon. The consensus among hockey writers was that the Lightning would at least be a lock for a Conference Final spot, if not a Stanley Cup Final spot.

Stamkos, as it turned out, would play a full season, putting up 86 points in 78 games. When once he was the team’s primary goal scorer, he was now the set-up man to Nikita Kucherov, who would score 39 goals and 100 points, putting him 3rd in the entire league behind Connor McDavid and Claude Giroux. And if it wasn’t enough that the team had Stamkos, Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Mikael Granlund all cracking the 60-point barrier on their own, the Lightning would also benefit from both Brayden Point (66 points) and Yanni Gourde (64 points) having break-out years. P.K. Subban would nearly join them, too, putting up 59 points in a full slate of games.

Tampa was back to being the best team in the league, winning the President’s Trophy with 114 points. Their first-round match-up would be against the New Jersey Devils, who had surged into the post-season on the back of an MVP campaign from Taylor Hall (93 points in 76 games). While Hall would be effective in the playoffs as well with 6 points, he was the only Devil to make any sort of dent in Tampa Bay’s defending, as the Lightning would use their depth (and Nikita Kucherov’s 10 points) to win the series in five games. Next up were the Boston Bruins, who had much more depth than New Jersey; though Boston would give the Lightning a scare thanks to a 6-2 win in Game One, Tampa Bay would take the next four to win another series in five games.

The Lightning were back in the Conference Final, and now they would have a somewhat unfamiliar opponent: the Washington Capitals. Having been a frequent opponent of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the post-season, the Capitals could never seem to find a way to get past Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and their supporting cast, but 2018 was different. The Caps had finally eliminated the Pens, and now had a significant momentum boost as a result. That momentum boost made them even more dangerous, and any hopes from Tampa fans that their depth could see them through would be tested by a team that boasted two star centremen in Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom. Kuznetsov would be the danger man for the Caps, grabbing 10 points in 7 games as the two teams would go the distance in the series. Washington would win Game Seven by a score of 4-0, advancing to their first Stanley Cup Final since the late 90s.

Tampa Bay was out, but they had put together a respectable run once more. They were now even more stacked than they were in their Stanley Cup years, and the hockey world had them virtually pencilled in for a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2019. Though they would be drawn into the 28th spot in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, they would move up to the 25th spot thanks to a Draft Day trade with Toronto. The Lightning would use the 25th Pick on Dominik Bokk, a German forward playing with the Vaxjo Lakers in the Swedish Hockey League.

THE LIGHTNING TODAY: Sometimes, you have to get worse to get better. Many of the teams that have become powerhouses in the modern day have made conscious decisions to sink to the bottom of the league so as to grab a potential superstar high in the draft. Pittsburgh built around Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, while Chicago built around Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. While Tampa Bay had former 1st Overall Pick Vincent Lecavalier, who could arguably be considered to still be in his prime in early 2009, he would be traded away so that the team could build around Steven Stamkos. It would seem counterproductive for the Lightning to do this, considering Stamkos wasn’t quite ready to be the team’s star player, but they would do it anyway.

And wouldn’t you know it, it worked. Tomas Plekanec would be a solid contributor for the next few years, while Josh Gorges would be a steady presence on the blue line until being traded in 2014. But the one player who was not an NHLer at that point would turn out to be the most important part of the trade: P.K. Subban. Subban would become a dynamic offensive defenseman, eventually getting nominated for three Norris Trophies (and winning the award in 2015). And if it wasn’t enough to have P.K., they would draft his eventual defensive partner in 2009, grabbing Victor Hedman with the 2nd Overall Pick. Hedman would take some time to develop into a first-pairing defender, but eventually, he would become a two-time Norris nominee himself, winning the award in 2018.

Of course, grabbing high picks isn’t the only part of building a top team in the National Hockey League; you have to score hits all over the draft board, too. Tampa would do just that, grabbing Nikita Kucherov (2nd Round) and Ondrej Palat (7th Round) in 2011, both of whom would become NHL regulars only a couple of years later. In 2014, they would draft Brayden Point in the 4th Round, and he now finds himself a mainstay in Tampa’s top six. Even their 1st-Rounders have been hits, as the team would score big with Mikael Granlund (2010) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (2012) have become Lightning regulars, and Tomas Hertl (also 2012) would prove useful enough for the Lightning to receive a 1st and 3rd-Rounder in 2017, the former of which would be used on Nolan Patrick at #2 Overall. Not only did Tampa Bay build their team well during the late 2000s and early 2010s, but in doing so, they have laid the foundation for the next group of stars to blossom at Amalie Arena.

The result of their efforts is a pair of Stanley Cups, winning back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016. The Lightning would first dethrone one of the league’s powerhouse teams in Chicago, before defending their crown against a surging San Jose team that seemed to have everything they needed to take the Lightning down. Many of the players that led Tampa Bay to those titles are still around, and very few of them are above 30. Thanks to the creative accounting of Julien BriseBois, the team has navigated their way out of salary cap hell, and can now comfortably negotiate contract extensions for both Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, who will both see their deals expire in 2019.

As of opening night against Florida, the Lightning’s line-up looks like this:

F1. Brayden Point – Steven Stamkos – Nikita Kucherov

F2. Ondrej Palat – Mikael Granlund – Yanni Gourde

F3. Filip Chytil – Tyler Johnson – Alex Killorn

F4. Adam Erne – Robby Fabbri – Mathieu Joseph

D1. Victor Hedman – P.K. Subban

D2. Anton Stralman – Dan Girardi

D3. Erik Cernak – Samuel Morin

G1. Andrei Vasilevskiy

G2. Louis Domingue

Tampa Bay is absolutely spoiled for riches in their top two forward lines. Stamkos is a known quantity; when he is healthy, he is a star. His linemates, however, have only blossomed in recent years, and teams are still trying to figure them out. Kucherov, in particular, has become an arguable top-10 player overall in the NHL, and may be the best winger there is at the moment. The second line has three players with 60-point potential in Palat (one season with that many points), Granlund (two seasons), and Gourde (one season, his only full year in the league), while a former 70-point man, Tyler Johnson, centres the third line. Robby Fabbri is stuck centring the fourth line; thanks to a few devastating injuries over the course of his career, Fabbri has never really lived up to his potential.

The top defensive pairing has already been talked about ad nauseam, but if I haven’t stressed it enough, both Victor Hedman and P.K. Subban have Norris Trophies to their name. The second pairing has a good combination of offensive flair and defensive responsibility, with Stralman serving as the playmaker, and Girardi as the stay-at-home guy. The third pairing is young, and arguably the weak point of what is otherwise a virtually invulnerable Tampa Bay team. Finally, Andrei Vasilevskiy is back as starter, after being given the job full-time in early 2017 following the departure of Ben Bishop. Vasilevskiy led the league in wins the previous year, getting nominated for the Vezina Trophy for the first time in his NHL career.

Among bolded players, all of them, save for one, came from the draft: Granlund, as mentioned, was a 2010 pick, with he, Morin (2013), Fabbri (2014), and Chytil (2017) all being taken in the first round. Also in the Tampa Bay system is Nolan Patrick, the 2nd Overall selection in ’17, but with the Lightning so deep down the middle of the ice, there is no room for him on the NHL roster at the moment. The last bolded player is, of course, P.K. Subban, the only one that can be traced directly to the Lecavalier trade. He is entering his 10th year with the club, well ahead of Tomas Plekanec (6.5 years), Josh Gorges (5.5 years), and Chris Higgins (1.5 years).


WHO WINS THIS TRADE?

In getting a #1 centre, one has to be willing to give up some major assets, including potential stars. Sometimes, it can work out, as San Jose would find out when they acquired Joe Thornton from Boston, eventually watching him lead the team to a Stanley Cup Final. Other times, it can backfire, as was the case when the New York Islanders paid big to get Alexei Yashin from Ottawa, only to see him regress over the next few years of his career. When the chance comes to acquire a potential cornerstone player, a centreman to build the team around, many teams will do anything they can to get them, whatever the cost.

MONTREAL: In acquiring such a player in Vincent Lecavalier, Montreal would pay heavily, giving up a top-six centre, an NHL regular forward, an unspectacular but reliable defenseman, and a potential blue-chip blue-liner. Lecavalier would play just about seven seasons in the bleu, blanc, et rouge, but though early returns were somewhat adequate, a collection of injuries would slow him down. By the mid-point of the 2015-16 season, he would be traded to Los Angeles for a mere 3rd-Round Pick, a far cry from the absolute premium that Montreal had paid to get him in the first place. Lecavalier would finish his Montreal career with 426 games, and 300 points.

As far as being a leader goes, Lecavalier wouldn’t be the saviour of the club that so many Habs fans were hoping he would be, and the first few years turn out to be a sort of “dark age” for Montreal. In the seven years that Lecavalier finishes with the Canadiens, they make the playoffs only three times, having to wait until the lockout-shortened season to get that far. The one real silver lining to all of this is the fact that in those three post-season appearances, they at least make the Conference Final twice in a row, though never quite getting over that hurdle.

As far as their draft record is concerned in this new timeline, there are some noticeable changes. The first one happens in 2009, as the team takes Zack Kassian instead of Louis Leblanc. Kassian doesn’t play with Montreal much his first time around, instead being traded for Cody Hodgson, who has some decent years with the Habs before his form completely deserts him in 2014-15. One major win comes the next year, when Montreal gets Ryan Johansen 4th Overall instead of their OTL choice Jarred Tinordi. Johansen becomes a solid playmaker for the Habs before being traded for Seth Jones, who now has a comfortable place on Montreal’s blue line. The only major loss in the draft comes in 2011, as the team gets Ryan Murphy instead of Nathan Beaulieu.

TAMPA BAY: The dealing away of Lecavalier was effectively a passing of the torch to Steven Stamkos as the team’s #1 centre. The team had full faith in Stamkos to be just as good as his predecessor, and he would reward them with several seasons of stellar hockey, and serves as the captain to this day. But as he left Tampa Bay, Lecavalier left a few parting gifts for his old club, in the form of the assets that were acquired for him: Tomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins, Josh Gorges, and P.K. Subban.

The first two who should be noted in this deal are Higgins and Gorges, as they are the closest things to “throw-away” pieces in this deal. While they both had some potential, neither one became a key contributor to Tampa’s fortunes over the years. Higgins would only last one and a half years with the Lightning, playing 98 games and only registering 31 points before becoming a free agent in 2010. Gorges, meanwhile, would play a few more years, but never really became a top-pairing guy. He was solid enough, earning 358 games and 72 points with Tampa Bay, as well as a +17 rating. After five and a half years at the building now known as Amalie Arena, he would be traded to Buffalo in exchange for a 2nd-Round Pick in 2016, which Tampa would use on blue-liner Chad Krys; Krys, at this point, is still with Boston University, and has yet to make the jump to pro hockey.

In getting Tomas Plekanec, the Lightning were hoping to give Stamkos some early cover as he developed into the man that would lead the team to the Stanley Cup. The plan worked very well, as Plekanec would stick around for six and a half years with the club, eventually winning that Cup in 2015 before leaving in free agency thanks to the cap crunch. Plekanec may not have been a #1 guy, but he almost played like one at times, filling in admirably for Stamkos when he was injured or in poor form. Tomas would end his Tampa Bay tenure with 483 games and 338 points, both of which put him ahead of Lecavalier in that time frame.

The crown jewel of this trade, in the end, would be P.K. Subban. The flashy defensive playmaker would end up being one of the stars of the team, forming one of the league’s scariest D-pairings with 2009 draftee Victor Hedman. The two of them have five Norris Trophy nominations between them, with Subban being nominated three times, and winning the award in 2015. He is almost the archetype of the modern-day blue-liner: a fast skater and a great passer, with a powerful slap shot and a dash of grit, to boot. He is the only player from the Lecavalier deal still active with their new team, as he is entering his tenth year with the Lightning. As of the end of the 2017-18 season, he has played in 582 games, scoring 377 points in that time.

Tampa Bay’s draft record is affected somewhat in this timeline. The changes start in 2010, as the team drafts Mikael Granlund instead of Brett Connolly, missing out on a reasonable depth player to grab a player who now occupies the team’s second-line centre spot. They also discard Slater Koekkoek (2012) in favour of Tomas Hertl, who plays well for the Lightning before being signed to an offer sheet by Carolina. As a result of that, Carolina gives up what would end up being the 2nd Overall Pick in 2018, which would turn into Nolan Patrick, who himself could end up the heir apparent to Stamkos. Two notable downgrades happen in 2011 (Zack Phillips instead of Vladislav Namestnikov) and 2013 (Samuel Morin instead of Jonathan Drouin).

Of course, no matter how mixed their 1st-Round drafting may be, the Lightning’s late-round picks would be more than enough to propel the team to not one, but two Stanley Cups, winning consecutive championships in 2015 and 2016. In the ten years following the Lecavalier deal, the Lightning would make the playoffs seven times; in addition to the two Cups, Tampa Bay would also make the Eastern Conference Final two more times (2011 and 2018). Not only have they become one of the defining teams of the 2010s in the National Hockey League, they are well set up to be a contender well into the next decade.

VERDICT: If, indeed, the rumoured package for Lecavalier was accurate, then Tampa Bay would unquestionably win the deal. Montreal had certainly paid for a #1 centre, only to see him deteriorate over the course of his career, much like Alexei Yashin had with the Islanders. The Lightning would end up with a superstar, a solid #2 centreman, and a shutdown defenseman for the next few years, with two of those pieces playing key roles in the first of two Cup wins in a row. The trade would be considered amongst the worst in Habs history, and may even get some scattered votes for worst of all time, although it may not win that contest. After all, at least Montreal got something back for Lecavalier, instead of spending even more money to buy out his contract like New York did with Yashin.

The reported Lecavalier deal would be a disaster for Montreal, and a potential reputation saver for Tampa GM Brian Lawton. Habs fans should thank their lucky stars that Lawton just had to leak the names involved in the deal to other teams, thus killing the deal, or else he could have a fleecing on his hands.


Coming next month, I look at what happens when we erase one of the most infamous owners in NHL history from a storied club: What if John Bassett owned the Toronto Maple Leafs instead of Harold Ballard?

2 COMMENTS

LEAVE A REPLY