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BriseBois' patience paid off in Lightning's Stanley Cup-winning campaign

Instead of blowing up the core after a disappointing finish to 2019, Julien BriseBois made key offseason and trade deadline moves to craft the Bolts into champions

by Bryan Burns @BBurnsNHL / TampaBayLightning.com

After last season's shocking first round sweep and playoff exit, Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois knew some changes had to made in order to have a better result the next time his team qualified for the postseason.

BriseBois didn't want to blow up the core of the team that had been in place for a number of seasons. And changes to the coaching staff didn't make sense either.

Instead, BriseBois identified three areas his team would have to get better in order to achieve their ultimate goal of lifting the Stanley Cup.

The Lightning needed to reduce the number of quality chances against. That meant, protecting the slot more robustly and reducing the number of minor penalties the team took.

They needed to battle harder and be more physical, whether by having more of a net-front presence or winning more puck battles.

And, finally, they needed to manage the game better.

"And we did that," BriseBois said. "And because we did, we were a better team."

Video: Top moments from the Lightning's Cup celebration

The Lightning made additions during the offseason to achieve their goals. They brought in Curtis McElhinney to be the backup goaltender even though they had a backup goalie on the roster in Louis Domingue because McElhinney gave them cost certainty at the position for two seasons with a salary cap crunch looming. They added Luke Schenn and Kevin Shattenkirk to their blueline. Schenn provided a veteran, physical presence that proved particularly effective in playoff series against Boston and the New York Islanders. Shattenkirk fell into the Lightning's lap after his contract was bought out by the New York Rangers. He partnered well with Mikhail Sergachev and aided in the youngster's development as a standout on the blueline. He also gave the Lightning some scoring punch and was invaluable in the locker room.

And at forward, the Lightning brought in Pat Maroon, who won a Stanley Cup the previous season with his hometown St. Louis Blues and knew what it took to manage the ups and downs of an extended playoff run.

"Both Kevin and Pat Maroon we signed with them bringing some leadership to our group in mind," BriseBois said. "They still both managed to exceed my expectations in terms of how much they brought to our locker room, how much they brought to our team both on and off the ice. Not that my expectations were low, they still found a way to manage to exceed my expectations. They were key contributors to our team, and they may have been exactly what we needed. It's nice when things work out."

The 2019-20 regular season certainly didn't go off without a hitch. The Lightning slogged their way through the first two months of the season. By mid-December, they were well out of a playoff spot and sixth in the Atlantic Division behind teams like Florida, Montreal and Buffalo.

But from December 23 through February 17, when the team capped a franchise record 11-game win streak with a 4-3 overtime victory in Colorado, the Lightning went 23-2-1, moved to within a point of the Boston Bruins for first place overall in the NHL and firmly established themselves as a playoff team and a top contender for the Stanley Cup.

More than that, however, the aspects of their game BriseBois laid out at the beginning of the season the Lightning would need to be successful come playoff time came to fruition. Over a stretch from the beginning of the 2020 calendar year to that win in Denver, the Lightning didn't allow more than three goals in a single contest and became one of the League's best teams defensively and in managing the puck, their 1.77 goals against average over that stretch tops in the League.

Video: LIghtning players introduced at Championship Parade

"All in all, we had a good team, and the numbers kind of support that," BriseBois said.

At the trade deadline, BriseBois had an opportunity to upgrade his already dangerous team. He identified a need for a couple of forwards that could fit into their top nine. And he needed another right-shot defenseman, especially with long-term injuries to Jan Rutta and Ryan McDonagh.

"I thought we could really benefit from adding two forwards that were going to be hard to play against, bring some size, bring some snarl, some sandpaper," BriseBois said. "And we were really good defensively. We're trying to improve our team defensively at that point and be harder to play against."

The Lightning traded for Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow to augment the forward group. The price to acquire them was steep - collectively, the Lightning gave up two first round draft picks in 2020 and prized prospect Nolan Foote - but BriseBois said he couldn't pass up the opportunity to add two players who could step into the lineup immediately and make an impact at the expense of future assets that might or might not pan out on the NHL level.

"My mindset at that point was to be very aggressive in the pursuit of the pieces that I believed could give us a strong push forward," BriseBois said. "It wasn't just about adding depth to our team, it was about making our team better, all the while keeping an eye on next season and trying to make sure that we remain a competitive team year in and year out. We were also looking at players that we could potentially add to our group that had good contracts going forward and that made adding Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow all the more attractive to us."

And with Bogosian, the Lightning were looking to bring in a right-shot defenseman anyway, and when the veteran defenseman in his 12th season in the league became available after having his contract terminated by Buffalo, he became the best option.

Plus, as a free agent, he didn't require the forfeiture of any assets to get him, and the Lightning had enough room under the cap to sign him.

"Picking up Zach Bogosian certainly ended up being a key decision I think in our success because he was an important player for us on the ice," BriseBois said.

Video: Shattenkirk on Stanley Cup celebrations in Tampa

Once the new additions joined the team, the Lightning's play dipped a bit as they worked to integrate the pieces into their puzzle. But that's where the four-month pause might have benefited the Lightning more than any other team because they were able to assimilate the new players into the group during the down time and then they were basically able to have a training camp with the team during the two-week camp before the team left for the bubble in Toronto.

"I have to give credit to our players, their commitment to winning this season, it never waned," BriseBois said. "I was continually in touch with them (during the pause). They were continuously in touch with our director of sport performance Mark Lambert, and they stayed on top of their conditioning. They also did a great job staying at home and eliminating their risk of getting the COVID virus."

Once in the playoffs, the Lightning quickly established themselves as the tournament's most dominant team. The five overtime win in Game 1 of the First Round versus Columbus was a breakthrough for the team, giving them confidence after what happened against the same team the year prior. And then the Bolts got better and better as the playoffs moved along, overcoming injuries and bad bounces to lift the Cup at the end following a six-game series against the Dallas Stars in the Cup Final, the culmination of over two months inside the bubble in what could arguably be considered the most difficult Stanley Cup Playoffs ever contested.

"I am in awe of what our guys accomplished. I am in awe of how deep they had to dig physically and mentally in order for us to fly back to Tampa with the Cup," BriseBois said. "It was, being able to witness it up close, it was awesome, it was awe-inspiring, it was just so incredible what they did. I'm going to get my name engraved on the Stanley Cup and I was honored to be nominated for GM of the year, but that has a lot more to do with the work of our players, the work and the sacrifices of our players and our staff and our coaches then it does with me. I am truly appreciative and grateful for everything that they've done. It is not lost on me that I am the beneficiary of all their hard work and sacrifices. And now as (Lightning head coach Jon Cooper) says, we get to walk together forever as the 2020 Stanley Cup champions."

Now that the season is over, the reality is the team the Lightning put on the ice in Game 6 against Dallas will be different from the one that begins the 2020-21 regular season, whenever that is. A flat salary cap and a number of players either beginning new contracts next season or coming off entry-level contracts and due a raise means that some key members of the team's core will probably have to move on this offseason.

"Even though I would like to bring this whole group back together so we could try to defend our championship and that would be my preference if I got to choose what I would want to do is bring everyone back as is and we try to defend our title, the reality is I can't do that," BriseBois said. "The cap just doesn't allow that to happen. It never does for any team. There's always some turnover, and this year the turnover is going to require that some of our players that have been here for a while and just helped us win a championship aren't going to be returning."

Video: Point on bringing the Cup back home to Tampa Bay

BriseBois said signing Mikhail Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli and Erik Cernak to new contracts is a priority. All three of those players are coming off their entry-level deals.

"(They) haven't really entered their prime yet, and they're going to allow us to continue to be a good team going forward for many years," BriseBois said.

BriseBois said he doesn't expect to have to buy out anyone's contract. And he has an ongoing dialogue with players to keep them in the loop about what or when decisions will be made.

"I think it's important for everyone to get a chance to properly celebrate this championship as a team with their teammates," BriseBois said. "I wish I didn't have to have the types of conversations I'm going to have to have as soon as I will. But it's just the reality of our business. Ultimately, it's in their best interest too. The sooner they know, the better for them as well."

As for Steven Stamkos, the Lightning captain played just one game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, that coming in Game 3 of the Cup Final when he scored a goal on his third shift of the game and first shot but wasn't able to continue after 2:47 of ice time, forever immortalizing himself in Cup lore for his effort in an abbreviated appearance.

BriseBois said Stamkos had sports hernia surgery on March 2 and was progressing well through Phase 2 of the team's return to play but suffered a new injury where his body was overcompensating for the sports hernia, which is why he wasn't able to play until so late in the playoffs and then for only such a short amount of time.

But BriseBois reiterated Stamkos is not expected to miss the start of next season's training camp and should be fully recovered once that starts.

"The whole pandemic certainly didn't help his cause because it was hard to, you couldn't send him anywhere to go see specialists," BriseBois said. "If he goes out of the bubble, now he's got to quarantine again. What's the trade off? He wants to be around the team. We want him around the team. It certainly complicated matters, and I will know more next week (when Stamkos sees a specialist)…But we're talking about weeks of rehab and not months of rehab, and we fully expect him to be ready for the start of training camp whenever that will be."

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