Lightning face obstacles trying to win third straight Stanley Cup title

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TAMPA — Jon Cooper put a voice to the topic that is on a lot of minds.

“I guess we’ll see if we can three-peat,” the Tampa Bay Lightning coach said. 

The Lightning have the opportunity after winning the Stanley Cup for the second straight season Wednesday, clinching it in a 1-0 win against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 of the Final at Amalie Arena.

Video: MTL@TBL, Gm5: Lightning presented with Stanley Cup

But next season will come at them quickly and the Lightning know changes are ahead in the next few weeks because of the NHL salary cap. 

“We know going forward with the salary cap world that this might be the last game that this particular group plays together,” captain Steven Stamkos said after Game 5. “I can’t say how much that motivated us. We talked about it midway through the playoffs. We talked about it going into Game 5 of the Islanders series. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity. It’s not very often you get this chance to play with a talented team like we did. And we just believed.” 

In a perfect world the Lightning would keep their roster intact and go after a third straight championship together, but that’s not going to be possible.

If the Lightning are to become the first team to win the Stanley Cup three straight seasons since the New York Islanders won four championships in a row from 1980-83, they will have to do so with a different lineup.

Forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, two-thirds of the Lightning’s best energy line, can become unrestricted free agents July 28. Each forward was acquired prior to the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline.

Defensemen Luke Schenn and David Savard are also pending UFAs.

The Lightning will lose a player to the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft on July 21.

They will not have the same type of salary cap relief they had this season by putting forward Nikita Kucherov on long-term injured reserve along with forward Marian Gaborik and goalie Anders Nilsson, injured players they acquired in a trade with the Ottawa Senators prior to the season simply to get some extra LTIR relief.

The Lightning had more than $17 million in LTIR cap relief that they used this season, allowing them to exceed the salary cap by that much. It’s how they were able to keep almost everybody from last season and acquire Savard on April 10.

But Kucherov is back, having led the playoffs with 32 points (eight goals, 24 assists) in 23 games after not playing in the regular season while recovering from hip surgery he had Dec. 29. Gaborik’s and Nilsson’s contracts are expiring. 

The cap issues are going to be real and will impact the championship depth the Lightning have built through trades the past two years.

“This was the end of a special group for two years,” Cooper said. “Who knows what’s going to happen here, but I think that was a huge motivator for our group.”

But the Lightning should return much of the core they’ve built over the past decade-plus. 

Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as most valuable player in this postseason, is 26 years old, a four-time finalist and 2019 winner of the Vezina Trophy voted as the top goalie in the NHL, and signed for seven more seasons.

Video: MTL@TBL, Gm5: Vasilevskiy helps Lightning win the Cup

Kucherov is signed for the next six.  

Stamkos is signed for three more; and center Brayden Point, who led the playoffs with 14 goals in each of the past two seasons, is one year away from restricted free agency, an issue the Lightning will have to eventually deal with. 

Defensemen Victor Hedman (four years remaining on his contract), Ryan McDonagh (five years), Mikhail Sergachev (two years) and Erik Cernak (two years) should still be in Tampa Bay, too. Jan Rutta has one year remaining on his contract.

Forwards Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn are all signed for multiple seasons. Ondrej Palat and Pat Maroon have one year remaining on their contracts.

The Lightning can’t protect them all from the expansion draft and likely won’t be able to keep them all after the draft too because of the salary cap, but a lot of the core of this two-time championship team should return next season.

“No matter what happens from here on out, this group is going to be etched in history forever and that’s pretty [freaking] special,” Stamkos said. “I’m so proud of the guys. We won the Stanley Cup. We still have the Stanley Cup. That’s just amazing.”

With the players who will be back and the championship experience they have, it’s not a stretch to think the Lightning can do it again next year. 

“We went from the new kids on the block in 2015 that, ‘Oh my gosh these guys are so much fun to watch, they’re going to be back again’ to all of a sudden it gets tilted and now we’re the team that can’t get it done to now you’re throwing the word dynasty around,” Cooper said. “That’s a huge wave of emotions in a six-year span to go through, but this core went through it together and it is coming back. Just a special, special, special group and who knows.”

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