Water is wet, sky is blue, and the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup again. They have been one of the most dominant teams for the better part of the last decade, and are constantly at the top of the betting odds list for the Cup each year. By contrast, the Calgary Flames have been taking steady steps forwards, but have not been dominant by any stretch of late aside from 2018–19 regular season that was unfortunately coupled with a first-round exit.
While the Flames cannot change the Alberta Provincial tax rate to compete with Florida’s, and regrettably this province does not have the climate of Florida, but there are a number of key lessons the Flames can take away from the Florida juggernaut’s success. Let’s break it all down:
Draft and develop, draft and develop, draft and develop
This cannot be overstated. The Tampa Bay Lightning have been incredible at drafting and developing players, and in particular their best players. And while they did get both a first overall pick in Steven Stamkos and a second overall pick in Victor Hedman, they only had two other first-round picks that they drafted on their roster: Cal Foote and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Of their roster, eleven of their players were drafted by the team, in all the early rounds.
|Nikita Kucherov||Round 2 (58th overall)|
|Steven Stamkos||Round 1 (1st overall)|
|Brayden Point||Round 3 (79th overall)|
|Ondrej Palat||Round 7 (211th overall)|
|Anthony Cirelli||Round 3 (72nd overall)|
|Alex Killorn||Round 3 (77th overall)|
|Mathieu Joseph||Round 4 (120th overall)|
|Ross Colton||Round 4 (118th overall)|
|Victor Hedman||Round 1 (2nd overall)|
|Cal Foote||Round 1 (14th overall)|
|Andrei Vasilevskiy||Round 1 (19th overall)|
On top of that, Tampa was able to find a number of undrafted players, and develop them into elite skaters for the team. This includes Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, and Gemel Smith, two of whom became staples on the roster for the Lightning over the last number of seasons.
Tampa’s ability to find and develop their talent has been a huge part of who they are as a team. 24 of Tampa’s players this season spent some time in the Syracuse Crunch system in the AHL. This also includes nine of the Lightning’s staff, including Head Coach Jon Cooper, who led the Norfolk Admirals, Tampa’s previous affiliate, to the Calder Cup in 2011–12. He also coached them to the top of the AHL standings the following year before being promoted to the main team.
It cannot be overstated just how much of an impact strong development systems have made in building Tampa into the team that they are today. While Tampa has not been afraid to play with their draft picks, the fact that they can continue to develop their young players into elite NHLers is something teams like the Flames can continue to do.
The good news is that while their drafting under former GMs Brian Burke and Jay Feaster leaves a lot to be desired, the Flames have done a great job at identifying and developing young talent. This includes sixth round pick Andrew Mangiapane, fourth round selection Johnny Gaudreau, and undrafted captain Mark Giordano among others. They have also found some great pieces like Glenn Gawdin and Connor Mackey outside the draft, and both seem destined to make the move to the NHL full time next season.
There are some good pieces, but the Flames need to continue to build on this, in particular in their depth. Giving young players drafted in the system a real shot in a depth role goes a long way to building a successful club. Players like Matthew Phillips, Adam Ruzicka, and more should continue to get looks at the NHL level next season and beyond over guys like Brett Ritchie, Dominik Simon, and others.
On top of that, the Flames need to continue to invest in their minor league affiliate, the Stockton Heat. This starts at the top, having just hired Mitch Love, one of the best WHL head coaches over the last two seasons who also has a wealth of experience working with Team Canada’s World Junior teams.
But more than that, this also means bringing in strong AHL veterans who young players can learn from. These players are not cheap, with minor league salaries of over $300,000 per year, compared to the average of just south of $100,000. However, what they can bring in experience can help improve younger players for the rest of their careers. This is an area in which the Flames can absolutely learn from the Bolts.
No grit without skill
One very odd statement: Pat Maroon is a three-time-in-a-row Stanley Cup Champion. The former sixth-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers has had a knack for being on the right team at the right time. Is Maroon the good luck charm that wins teams the Stanley Cup? Is he the missing piece for the Flames? Absolutely not, but he does provide a good case study for the type of player that teams need to bring in to win.
Known as the big-rig, Maroon is a big player who plays a very physical, imposing type of game. He plays hard in the corners, is not afraid to throw big hits, and prides himself on being a character guy in the locker room. But Maroon is not a goon. He brings with his game an immense amount of skill. Per Natural Stat Trick, he had 19 scoring chances, 15 of which were high danger chances at 5v5. Given his limited icetime, averaging just 8.36 minutes per game, Maroon averaged 4.5 high-danger chances per 60 minutes of icetime, good for third on the team in the playoffs.
This is no small feat. While he may have been playing on the team’s bottom line, Maroon made a huge impact on the Lightning lineup. It is hard to measure off-ice impact, simply because “good in the room” is such an intangible, but what he brought on the ice made him more than impactful.
What is the lesson here? You absolutely need big grinding players to win the cup, but they also need to have offensive upside in order for you to be successful. Maroon may have thrown about 11 hits per 60 minutes of icetime, but were it not for his offensive impact, the Lightning would not have been able to exploit other teams’ bottom lines.
For the Flames who have had a penchant for picking players like Zac Rinaldo, Byron Froese, Buddy Robinson, and the aforementioned Ritchie, finding players who can bring skill to the game with a heavy pedigree would be a smarter choice. You cannot have it all, but what Tampa, and to a lesser degree the Montreal Canadiens, has shown is that if a player does not have offensive upside, there is no spot for them in the lineup. With the emergence of players like Cole Caufield, Point, and others, both teams have shown that skill is the key in today’s NHL.
Tinker, don’t blow it up
The Lightning drafted Stamkos in 2008, Hedman in 2009, Vasilevskiy in 2011, and Kucherov in 2012. It took them till 2020 to win the cup with this core—a full 12 years after drafting their cornerstone forward. Since 2013, they missed the playoffs once, lost in round one twice, lost in the conference finals twice, and lost in the Stanley Cup final once. Even after getting swept in the 2018–19 first round to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Lightning still kept their major pieces together.
However, they did do a lot of tinkering and were not afraid to move their draft picks in the process. Since 2014, the Lightning have moved seven first-round selections, five of which being their own. They also moved former first-round selection Nolan Foote as part of their tinkering. In exchange they got Barclay Goodrow, Denis Savard, Blake Coleman, Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, Brayden Coburn, and a number of draft selections. Since 2014, six of the first-round selections have already been made, and combined they have played 423 NHL games. This speaks volumes of how their drafting pedigree fits right into their roster building.
Is there a lesson here for the Flames? Not at this point. While they do have some really good pieces in place, the team is not built strongly enough for the Flames to start pushing all of their cards into the middle of the table as of yet. However, should GM Treliving’s picks work out the way that is expected, and the players he has chosen so far work out in the way we hope, there is a lesson in pushing all the chips into the middle to make a run. However, mortgaging the future without being ready to make a deep run or threaten for the cup is obviously not a great decision.
What the Flames can also learn is the importance of tinkering with your group. Last year was a bad year. Something just did not click in the Flames’ locker room or on the ice, and the team from top to bottom looked like a shell of their former self. However, towards the end of the season, something began to click, in particular with players like Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau, and Elias Lindholm. With the team building behind Jacob Markstrom in net and with a number of strong players in the lineup, now is not the time to blow it up.
Instead the Flames need to be unafraid to move players for a good return. This means looking at moving a guy like Sean Monahan or one of their young defencemen in order to improve their lineup. Tampa was comfortable moving a first, Vladislav Namestnikov, Brett Howden, Libor Hajek, and a second-round pick in exchange for McDonagh and Miller, then moved Miller subsequently in exchange for two draft picks and a Czech netminder. The Flames have been immensely loyal to their key players, but Tampa is a good lesson in not being afraid to move your key pieces.
Use the cap to your advantage
Two things can be true at the same time: The Tampa Bay Lightning were technically over the salary cap in the playoffs, and the Tampa Bay Lightning were salary cap compliant per the rules. The rules of the cap are clear, and within the technical rules, the Lightning were salary cap compliant en route to their win. When you count up all the dollars spent on contracts through the playoffs, they would not have been.
A couple factors led to this: first, through the regular season, the Lightning had Kucherov on LTIR after having undergone hip surgery. They then lost Stamkos to a lower body injury around the trade deadline. This game the team upwards of 18 million dollars in cap space to play with. Then when the playoffs began and the salary cap was no longer in force, the team had their two best players back in the lineup, and the added salaries from those they brought in to fill the holes as well.
However, given the league did not close this loophole after the Lightning made a motion following the Chicago Blackhawks making the same move with Patrick Kane en route to their cup in 2015, this is a completely legal move with no prospects of change anytime soon. Like it or not this is how the rules work.
If this is the rule, the Flames should use it effectively. Weaponizing LTIR space for injured players through the regular season in order to accrue space that they can then manipulate in the playoffs is key. However, this requires ideal timing and some very good luck. For the Flames, they lost both Monahan and Noah Hanifin after the deadline, leaving them unable to fill that gap effectively were they in the playoff chase.
However, acquiring players simply for the LTIR space they allow for is something the Flames could do as well. The Lightning had Anders Nilsson‘s $2.6 million dollar contract on LTIR for the entire season, which gave them added flexibility to play with as well. This is a tough pill for GMs to take to owners, however, as they are paying money for a player to not play then paying for the salary of whoever is brought in. However, in a tight salary cap era where teams want to win, and want to win badly, toeing the blurred lines of the NHL rulebook is an effective way to do so. If the Flames want to be in the conversation for the cup, making the most of the rules is a key part of this.
Optimize the power play with triangles
Finally, on the ice, the Flames could learn a thing or two from the organization and structure of the Lightning’s power play. It is a behemoth that scored 40 times in the regular season. They also finished the playoffs third among all teams, scoring 32% of the time they had the man advantage.
The Lightning optimized their power play to have five skaters playing on their correct hand. Kucherov, the left shot, is on the left, while Stamkos, the right shot is on the right. Two more left shots in Hedman and Killorn play at the point and right in front respectively, while Point, a right shot plays right down the middle. This allows for optimal execution of passes from forehand to forehand without having to switch body position or move the puck from backhand to forehand. Optimal power plays use speed to their advantage, forcing defenders and goalies to keep moving to where the puck is. Having the right people and the right handedness on the power play makes a world of difference.
However, more than personnel, the one thing the Lightning power play does is it forces you to defend both the pass or the shot from everyone on it. Each of the five players on the top unit can beat a goalie clean with a shot or can send a quick pass across the ice. The Lightning also employ triangles on their power play, boxing a defender between two passing options, while also having the puck carrier open to take the shot. Having this many options available makes it hard to defend against, and allows the Lightning to be incredibly successful on the man advantage. We broke this phenomenon down in longer form here.
While the Flames power play is not bad, scoring 32 times this season, it is a little bit transparent. Most of the shots have come from Tkachuk and Lindholm, while Gaudreau has been the key distributor. While the diminutive winger did take 37 shots on the man advantage, he only managed four high-danger events. This makes him easier to predict for defenders, who know that it is significantly more likely that he will opt to pass, which a guy like Tkachuk will opt to shoot than the other way around. This makes the Flames substantially harder to defend against.
With the Flames averaging just over three power play opportunities per game, they need to keep working to improve their play with the man advantage. Bringing in a right handed skater who can play on the power play will go a long way to helping this, but also the Flames need to work on their organization, and employ tactics that allow them to thrive in these opportunities.
What it all comes down to for the Flames
The Flames have some really good pieces in place. They are built behind an all-star netminder in Markstrom and a number of solid pieces at forward and on defence. However, they still need to fill out their roster to enter the realm of Stanley Cup contenders. That being said, there are a number of key takeaways from the Lightning that the Flames can learn from in order to get there. Some are building pieces while others are tactical lessons.
The one key thing not to takeaway for GM Treliving is to simply sign grinders for the sake of grinders. It is easy to look at the Lightning’s size and weight metrics and draw conclusions, but that team has substantially more skill than they do pure size. Building a championship team takes a lot of work, but more than work, it needs exceptionally skilled athletes playing under a system that maximizes the best of what they have to offer. The team needs to all be pulling in the same direction.
Can the Flames achieve this under bench boss Darryl Sutter? Absolutely they can, but will need to have their players buy into the new system in order to achieve that goal. It will also take bringing in the right players to fill in both the right parts of the lineup, but also with the right underlying attributes to complement the main core of the team. One this is for sure, if the Flames can do that, there is no reason to suggest that they cannot be contenders in a couple of seasons.