TAMPA, Fla. — They will go down as the 111 days that changed the fate of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The most remarkable thing about the least likely first line in hockey is the fact that Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov all joined the organization within months of each other back in 2011.
It’s the roster-building equivalent of making three holes-in-one in the same golf season.
None of those players was ever viewed as a sure thing. Johnson didn’t get drafted, Palat was the fourth-last pick the third year he was available and Kucherov saw 46 players called to the stage ahead of him who have yet to play an equivalent number of NHL games.
Yet here they are together providing the foundation for a team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations.
The NHL may be a copycat league, but it’s tough to imagine anyone duplicating this feat. What makes it most significant is the fact that all three players combined essentially carried the same price tag as Steven Stamkos ($7.5-million) this season.
In a salary-cap system, it is essential to have key contributors outperform their contracts. That allows you to pay bigger money to veterans like Stamkos and Ryan Callahan ($5.8-million AAV) and Jason Garrison ($4.6-million) and Anton Stralman ($4.5-million) without getting bogged down by the weight of those deals.
There isn’t another line in the league that provided more value than the Palat-Johnson-Kucherov trio. They amassed 199 points in the regular season and are proving to be quite a handful for the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the playoffs.
What’s more, they kept the Lightning afloat when Stamkos went through a rare nine-game goal drought before scoring on Sunday night.
The fact that none of them were around when Tampa made an unexpected run to the 2011 Eastern Conference final is a testament to how quickly a roster can be turned over. Johnson signed as a free agent in March of that year, near the end of his overage season with the Spokane Chiefs, while Kucherov (58th overall) and Palat (208th overall) were added at the draft.
It was masterful work by general manager Steve Yzerman and the organization’s scouting staff, and is the biggest reason why the team is currently two wins from reaching the third round once again.
Stamkos and Victor Hedman bring star power, but a line known as the “The Triplets” — they’re all six feet and under — make this group dynamic. The skilled, speedy forwards were first put together in late October and have remained a unit ever since.
“I’ve been with (Johnson) and Palat for four-plus years now, and I’ve watched their magic work from the American League to up here,” Tampa coach Jon Cooper said earlier this season. “The one thing is that (Kucherov) has kind of been that perfect fit for them. They play the game at an unbelievable pace, they have extremely high hockey I.Q., and they’ve been sort of dubbed ‘The Triplets’ because they kind of think alike everywhere on the ice.”
They’ve also authored similar tales of defiance. Even Kucherov, the most touted prospect of the three as a second-round draft pick, had to overcome being scratched during last year’s playoffs.
That’s difficult to imagine after seeing him score the double-overtime winner against Montreal in Game 1 and add two more goals in Game 2. Johnson, his centreman, leads the entire playoffs with seven goals, while Palat plays an impressive 200-foot game.
Defensively they force opponents to make a difficult choice because they allow Stamkos to be deployed on the second line. In fact, the Canadiens have openly acknowledged that No. 91 isn’t their biggest concern in this series.
“You’ve got to be aware of him, but it’s not like we focus on him,” said centre Tomas Plekanec. “Johnson’s there, Palat’s there, Kucherov’s there. These guys have scored a lot of goals. They’re so dangerous offensively.”
What they’ve ultimately done is given Tampa the depth needed to dream big.
There is no foolproof blueprint to building a champion, but when you turn three players into first-liners within four years of adding them, you’re bound to put yourself in the middle of the conversation.