“You know what? We’re gunning for another championship,” general manager Julien BriseBois told NHL.com. “We’ve seen it over the years, it’s very hard to go back to back. You need a special team to do that and we’re hoping to prove that we’re a special team that can do it.”
The Lightning put the finishing touches on their offseason Sunday following their Stanley Cup championship by trading defenseman Braydon Coburn and center Cedric Paquette, along with a second-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, to the Ottawa Senators for forward Marian Gaborik and goalie Anders Nilsson.
They announced Gaborik and Nilsson will go on long-term injured reserve and not play this season, meaning the Lightning will be able to exceed the NHL salary cap by their total cap charges.
BriseBois confirmed that the trade, and that forward Nikita Kucherov ($9.5 million cap charge) has to go on LTIR for the entire regular season because of hip surgery he’ll have Tuesday, is enough to make the Lightning compliant with the $81.5 million salary cap going into training camp, which for them begins Jan. 3.
“On to the next challenge,” BriseBois said.
The next challenge is far more daunting; defending their championship as the team with a target on its back going into a 56-game regular season, which gives the Lightning little room for error and, in BriseBois’ words, “no time to have a Stanley Cup hangover.”
BriseBois discussed the trade with Ottawa, becoming cap compliant, the challenge Tampa Bay faces this season, the growth of center Anthony Cirelli and more with NHL.com.
To get to this point of being cap compliant, you were of course aided by Nikita Kucherov’s injury and the fact that he could go on long-term injured reserve, which is not something you wanted to have to do. Looking back, which was the big challenge this offseason, and is it a relief to be in this position days before camp begins?
“I never had any doubt that we’d be cap compliant. I never really doubted that we’d be able to sign Cirelli, [Mikhail] Sergachev and [Erik] Cernak, and keep most of our good players. It wasn’t really a concern. Losing [Kucherov], that’s a big blow. It was going to be challenging to qualify for the playoffs with Kuch, and now it’s going to be all the more challenging. That’s what’s ahead of us right now, making sure we have a strong training camp. Hopefully we can stay healthy going forward, munch some points early in the season, put them in the bank and hopefully when the regular season is completed we’ve put enough points in the bank to qualify for the playoffs.”
This is a team that won the Stanley Cup without Steven Stamkos on the ice, minus five shifts and a memorable goal. Now you don’t have Kucherov. Does what you did without Stamkos in the Stanley Cup Playoffs give you the comfort that it can be done again without Kucherov in a regular season?
“I think the way to look at it is, and this is how you have to go about things, is you look at your roster. So I look at who is going to be on our roster. Well, [Victor] Hedman, [Ryan] McDonagh, Sergachev, [Brayden] Point, Cirelli, Stamkos, [Ondrej] Palat, [Alex] Killorn, [Tyler] Johnson, Cernak, and I can go on. They’re all going to be in the lineup. They’re really good players and on paper they make for a really good team. In the past, they’ve proven that they are a really good team on the ice as well. That’s why there is reason for optimism, because we have a good group of high-end players that have won before, and now they know what to expect. The other thing that is maybe a little less tangible, in my conversations with some of those players in the past week to 10 days, I was struck by their mindset. They’re really determined and committed to giving it their all to try to go back to back. That’s a challenge that’s exhilarating for them, for the coaching staff, for the management group and we look forward to seeing if we can do it.”
After a team wins the Stanley Cup, that hunger has to return and sometimes it can take a little while in the regular season for it to come back. You don’t have a little while with the season cut down to 56 games. From what you have found out, is the belief in the ability to go back to back strong enough to get that hunger back starting Jan. 13?
“I think the hunger is there. I think it’s there now. But I understand your point; with a shortened season, we can’t get off to a bad start. We can’t afford a Stanley Cup hangover. At the same time, now we only have to go to a new city seven times. Usually, you have to go through the entire League and in every new city you go to the local media are likely to ask you about the championship, defending it and all that. Well, we only have to do that seven times. Maybe that plays to our advantage as well. The reality is we don’t know. I like our team. I like the players on our team. I like our coaching staff. I have faith in them. They’ve done it before. I have every reason to believe we’ll be up to the challenge, but we have to go out and execute and we have to go out and get it done. Time will tell if we’re able to do that.”
Paquette and Coburn were important pieces to your team. Do you have a couple of players in mind who might be ready to jump into the roles they’re vacating?
“For sure, but I would start by saying Braydon Coburn and Cedric Paquette, they epitomize the players that go out there and put the team first every day and sacrifice their individual success for the team success by how they go about business, by the price they pay on the ice in games, playing injured, blocking shots, fighting. They were very important pieces to our success over the last few years, including our Stanley Cup run this past summer. So you don’t want to lose those players. Someone is going to have to step up and there is opportunity for some of our young guys who have been around, have contributed and now they have the opportunity to play a bigger role. Some of them are more established like Sergachev and Cernak and Cirelli; I would expect them to continue to grow as players and play an even bigger role on our team going forward. And some of them are guys like Mathieu Joseph, Mitchell Stephens and [Alexander Volkov]. Cal Foote had a really good showing at our training camp last summer, so he’s knocking at the door and he might be a contributor this season. It’ll be interesting to see who might step up, but we have a number of quality candidates and reason to believe that those players are going to be up to the challenge.”
What was the reaction from Coburn and Paquette when you informed them of the trade?
“Braydon had to approve this trade because he had a full no-trade (clause). I was pretty transparent with him from the get-go after the season that because of cap reasons I couldn’t assure him that he’d get regular playing time on our team going forward and I would try to find him a spot where he could play more. He’s closing in on 1,000 games. He’s in great physical condition. Like, he is a physical specimen, one of those guys that is incredibly committed to his fitness level. I know he wants to sign another contract beyond this one and continue his career. I kept him abreast throughout the offseason as to how things were going in terms of finding him an opportunity to play a bigger role. And Cedric, and I think all our guys understood the situation we were in this offseason and something was going to have to give. I wasn’t going to be able to bring everyone back. He understood. He didn’t seem that surprised.”
Can you describe the growth you have seen from Cirelli in the past few seasons? Does he have ‘future Selke Trophy winner’ written all over him?
“He finished fourth in the voting for the award last year at a very young age (22), really precocious for someone of his age to end up that high in the voting. Whether he wins it or not, all I know is he plays like a Selke Trophy winner already, and that’s what matters to us. Over the years we’ve seen the growth; mostly it’s come from a physical maturity standpoint. His skating has come a long way. He was a player that was a little light physically from a frame standpoint and his skating probably lagged behind the top end prospects of his age group when he was coming up the ranks. Today, he’s a fabulous skater, he’s strong in his puck battles, he’s strong in the face-off circle because he’s put in the time. He’s put in the time in the gym. He’s put in the time working with (skating coaches) Barb Underhill and Tracy Tutton on his skating. His biomechanics, his explosiveness, working with our strength coach Mark Lambert. He’s put in the time. He’s put in significant amounts of time and he’s made a significant commitment to realizing his potential. He’s a great role model for all our young players coming in because he’s an example of if you put in the work, you will get rewarded.”
Finally, is Stamkos 100 percent ready for training camp?
“We are expecting him to be a 100 percent participant for the start of camp. As of late, I don’t believe he has had any limitations.”