In the past three seasons, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been the hottest team in the NHL.
Since 2019, the Lightning have won the Stanley Cup in 2020 and 2021, and a third straight Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2022, winning 11 straight playoff series.
Their recent success can be traced even farther back. They’ve made four Stanley Cup Finals and six Eastern Conference Finals since 2014.
It’s been a stretch of success that was previously unheard of in the modern NHL. Some teams have consistently contended and even won multiple cups in the 21st century, but Tampa Bay has dominated in a way that hasn’t been replicated since the Edmonton Oilers won five of seven Stanley Cups from 1984-1990.
No team has managed to win as often as those early dynasties, which may be because the salary cap has made it much harder to keep those championship cores intact. The salary cap was first implemented in 2005, and allowed each NHL team only $39 million to pay their entire NHL roster, including any AHL players with a one-way contract that has an AAV of over $1.075 million.
This season, every team has been allowed $82.5 million, a much more generous amount in comparison to 17 years ago. However with each player required to be paid a minimum salary of $750,000, as opposed to $450,000 in 2005, success and championships are still often followed by tough decisions once the confetti stops flying.
In his exit interview for the 2021-22 season, Julien BriseBois, Tampa’s general manager, expressed gratitude for his team’s accomplishments shortly after losing Game 6 of the finals to the Colorado Avalanche, before adding that Tampa isn’t finished contending.
“It’s an impressive run that this organization has been on … and that being said, I don’t think we’re done chasing Stanley Cups here,” BriseBois said. “We’re set up to be a really competitive team for the foreseeable future, and hopefully the stars align again for us at some point and we get to bring back the Stanley Cup to Tampa Bay in the not-too-distant future.”
Tampa’s recent success may indicate to BriseBois that the stars are bound to align sooner rather than later. However, when looking closer into the Lightning’s recent roster decisions, as well as recent NHL history, signs point to a potential end of the dynasty in a few years. So, now that Tampa’s proven its championship window is still open, the question is, how long is it going to stay that way?
The possibility of a salary cap-era dynasty has been a question mark in the sport for years. No team has won more than three Cups since 2005. Of the four franchises, including Tampa Bay, which have won multiple Cups in the salary cap era, only two of them have won three — the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, 2016 and 2017, and the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, 2013 and 2015.
Winning multiple Stanley Cups is impressive, regardless of how long it takes. However, these teams’ runs are still a far cry from when the New York Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83, right after the Montreal Canadiens won four straight from 1976-79.
Before Tampa, the mid-2010s Chicago Blackhawks were the closest to reaching that level of success. However, the salary cap problems that would inevitably derail their championship window were noticeable as early as 2014, when the NHL announced that the salary cap for the upcoming season would be $2 million less than expected — $69 million instead of $71 million.
This presented a major problem for the Blackhawks, who were about to sign Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to identical 8-year, $84 million extensions. At the time, hockey writer Bill Schoewinger predicted Chicago’s future cap problems in an article for The Hockey Writers.
“The Blackhawks better make one big push to win the cup in 2014-15,” Schoewinger wrote, “because once 2015-16 hits, their roster is going to look remarkably different.”
Sure enough, the 2014-15 Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the third time in six seasons. Just three seasons later, Chicago missed the playoffs and were about to begin a rebuild that’s still ongoing.
While a decreased salary cap set the stage for Chicago's downfall, it’s not entirely to blame for their rebuild. In 2017, the Blackhawks were still good enough to claim the No. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference, led by Kane, Toews and Artemi Paranin, who was coming off a Calder Memorial Trophy winning season as the league’s best rookie. But when these new-look Blackhawks were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Nashville Predators, the front office made a wild overcorrection, trading Paranin to the Columbus Blue Jackets. They finished 13th in the Western Conference the next season.
It’s possible that Chicago could’ve kept winning despite its problems with the salary cap, but thanks to a few bad trades, the Blackhawks plummeted from first to 13th in just a season. The deals they made during the Championship window would go on to hinder them during their rebuild — Kane and Toews, two of the only players left from those championship teams, still make up one-fourth of Chicago’s cap space.
With this in mind, Tampa entered the offseason with some important questions. Many integral parts of their core, like winger Nikita Kurcherov, goalie Andrei Valsilesky and center/winger Brayden Point were already under contract until 2027, 2028 and 2030 respectively. However, many of Tampa’s prominent veterans are set to become free agents in the next few years — most notably, Ondrej Palat, who is an unrestricted free agent this year. Those familiar with the team might assume re-signing Palat would’ve been BriseBois’ top priority once free agency started July 13.
Turns out it wasn’t.
Palat left Tampa to sign with the New Jersey Devils, a reality that became clear between the two sides on the afternoon of July 11, BriseBois told The Athletic. With limited cap space and the amount of money Palat could’ve, and eventually did, receive on the free agency market once it began, BriseBois called his player to simply thank him for what he had done for the organization.
“He’s going to go down as an all-time great Lightning player,” BriseBois said to The Athletic.
While Tampa Bay let Palat and another free agent, defenseman Jan Rutta, leave, it made splashes by locking down the next year’s potential free agents, of whom there were 10 still on the roster. BriseBois signed center/winger Anthony Cireli, defenseman Erik Cernak and defensemen Mikhail Sergachev to 8-year contract extensions, putting the Lightning $7.2 million dollars above the cap.
But why did Tampa decide to re-sign younger, less experienced players while Palat and other key contributors to the current championship core are set to become free agents within the next few seasons?
BriseBois’ sights seem to be set on a future that doesn’t include the team’s current biggest stars. As it seems, his strategy is to lock down and develop Tampa’s next young championship core now, so that Tampa is prepared when its older, more seasoned core leaves through retirement, free agency or a trade.
It’s a strategy that previous champions have rarely used. Most of the time, after winning or even just making a Stanley Cup Final, teams want to lock down their current championship core no matter the cost, with hope that they’ll be able to replicate their success. History has proven that this strategy often goes wrong, and teams can be stuck with large, unmovable contracts for players past their prime.
Tampa Bay’s philosophy, while a bit heartless, could help extend their contention window much longer than that of any of the previous salary cap champions.
This strategy does have its risks. Cireli, Cernak and Sergachev are all much younger and less experienced than current players like Palat, center winger Steven Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman. With Palat gone and both Stamkos and Hedman set to become free agents in 2024 and 2025, respectively, this new core could become the de facto faces of the franchise by 2025.
But the Tampa Bay Lightning have beaten the odds before, and with a bold new strategy for future contention, it seems that their dynasty isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Contact Jackson Hephner at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.