As family members took pictures with the Stanley Cup before the parade through the streets of Tampa, then-Lightning general manager Jay Feaster told veteran defenceman Darryl Sydor he was the 2004 champions’ missing ingredient.
Sydor, a mid-season trade pick-up, appreciated the kind words but pointed at 24-year-olds Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier and told Feaster: "It’s those guys that win a Stanley Cup for you."
Eleven years later, Feaster sees a Lightning team with a more intellectual coach and younger leadership group but one that has many of the same qualities of the group that won the first Cup in franchise history. Now it’s 24-year-olds Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson and Victor Hedman, 25-year-old Alex Killorn, 23-year-old Ondrej Palat and 21-year-old Nikita Kucherov leading the Lightning into the Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"Your best players are your young players," Feaster said in a phone interview Sunday.
Goaltender Ben Bishop’s numbers aren’t as impressive as Nikolai Khabibulin’s in 2004, but he boasts two Game 7 shutouts. Johnson could follow Richards as a Conn Smythe Trophy winner if he keeps up his torrid scoring pace, and his "Triplets" line has led Tampa Bay.
"The stuff that Johnson and Palat and Kucherov have done not only in the regular season but in the playoffs is I think very similar to what Brad Richards and Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis and even Ruslan Fedotenko did, scoring key goals," said Chris Dingman, a member of that 2004 Cup team. "I just look at it as some young players that are kind of coming into their own that are good players turning into great players."
Youth has served the Lightning extremely well these playoffs, as the top five scorers are all 25 or younger. They have only one player who’s older than 31, winger Brenden Morrow, and don’t look the least intimidated by big-game situations.
In 2004, Tampa Bay leaned on Sydor, 40-year-old captain Dave Andreychuk and 34-year-old Tim Taylor for vital lessons. Taylor stood up after a crushing Game 6 loss in the Eastern Conference final and said "We’ve got to look the devil in the eye and go for it."
"They knew when to talk, they knew when to calm things down, they knew when to help set a tone and keep things in perspective," said Feaster, now the Lightning’s executive director of community hockey development. "But it was the younger guys who were the ones who were contributing and scoring the goals and leading us in terms of the production."
Stamkos has done both. In his first full season as captain, the Markham, Ont., native made his statement the morning of Game 7 against the New York Rangers when he said none of their dominance in those situations mattered because it didn’t happen against the Lightning.
"It doesn’t matter if you’re 40 or 25," said Dingman, now a Lightning analyst. "If you’re a leader, you can be a leader."
Feaster, who served as GM until he was fired in 2008 and later held that job with the Calgary Flames, is not involved in hockey operations and insists his judgments of this Lightning team come "from the outside looking in." One player remains who he drafted: Killorn, who has 16 post-season points as a second-line winger.
The organization has almost completely turned over since then, from ownership through the front office and down to the coaching staff and roster.
One of the biggest differences appears to be coaching, where no one would confuse the soft-spoken Jon Cooper for the abrasive John Tortorella. But Feaster doesn’t think they’re polar opposites.
"Torts was much more acidic and difficult with the media and snarly, but all of that was still part of his swagger, and he wanted his team to have swagger, too," Feaster said. "(Cooper) talks in that quiet, professorial, erudite way. … And yet I do believe that he has that same kind of swagger about him."
There’s no shortage of swagger in these Lightning, who follow the 2004 team’s mantra of "Safe is death." They’re able to create and attack with speed and skill and also shut down opponents to play textbook road hockey.
In the two-time-champion Blackhawks, the opponent may be even more daunting than the Flames were 11 years ago. But Feaster believes this team is Cup-worthy.
"I think this group, I like the mix. I think there are the same kind of key pieces there," he said. "I think that when they commit that they’re going to play the system and they stick to it, this team is more than capable of winning a championship."