After years of contention that saw them set the standard for skill and speed in the East, the Tampa Bay Lightning found the recipe for a Stanley Cup victory last year in the NHL's playoff bubble.
Less than a year after they hoisted the Stanley Cup, they've got all the same key ingredients still in place and are now four wins away from a repeat.
Here's a look at how this team came together over the years, and how general manager Julien BriseBois fine-tuned things in an effort to run it back.
While the Lighting core of last year is back for another run this season, there was some roster turnover around the edges. Veteran defencemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Zach Bogosian both revived their careers with 2019-20's successful Cup run, and proved once again that every Cup-winning team requires defensive depth. Both were UFAs after last season, with Shattenkirk signing a three-year deal with Anaheim in free agency while Bogosian joined the Maple Leafs on a one-year pact.
Forward Cedric Paquette and Braydon Coburn were traded to Ottawa along with a 2022 second-round pick in order to clear up some much-needed cap space.
Another tough cap casualty: Carter Verhaeghe. After helping develop the speedy forward into a promising offensive talent, Tampa Bay simply couldn't afford to keep him around to see him really blossom. Instead, they set him free on the UFA market by not issuing him a qualifying offer.
2020 NEW FACES
BriseBois wasn't quite as active on the UFA and trade front this year, considering the perilous cap situation that comes with going all-in for the Stanley Cup, but the Lightning have seen significant contributions from two newcomers, in two very different ways.
Rookie forward Ross Colton quickly earned himself a reputation as a clutch goal-scorer over the regular season -- four of his nine goals in 2020-21 were game-winners. He's been a good depth piece in the post-season, too, putting up three goals and five points through 18 games in his first playoff stint. Another smart mid-round draft find for the Lightning. What else is new?
David Savard was the NHL's most-wanted defenceman at the deadline, and the Lightning managed to land him in a three-team trade with plenty of crafty navigating of the salary cap. Savard has lived up to the billing of bringing his physical game to Tampa, at just a quarter of the cost -- just one quarter of his $4.25-million cap hit is on Tampa's books. It did come with a hefty long-term price tag, though, as Tampa paid first- and fourth-round 2021 picks and a 2022 third-rounder in return.
Unlike their opponents in Montreal, the Tampa Bay Lightning's biggest offensive weapons have come up through the draft. In fact, their top six forwards, playoff point leaders, and the biggest stars throughout the lineup were brought in via the draft and developed in-house. While former GM Steve Yzerman's name is attached to most of these picks, BriseBois didn't simply inherit them -- as assistant GM, he worked with Yzerman on recruitment and development and had a big role in these players becoming the stars they are today.
Three players predate the Yzerman and BriseBois eras: Victor Hedman was drafted by Brian Lawton during his short front-office stint, while captain Steven Stamkos and longest-tenured Lightning Alex Killorn were drafted by Jay Feaster.
What's most impressive about this group is the fact that only one of the top-six forwards was drafted in the first round.
2016: Ross Colton, C/LW | fourth round, 118th overall
2015: Mathieu Joseph, C/W | fourth round, 120th overall
2015: Anthony Cirelli, C | third round, 72nd overall
2014: Brayden Point, C | third round, 79th overall
2012: Andrei Vasilevskiy, G | first round, 19th overall
2011: Nikita Kucherov, RW | second round, 58th overall
2011: Ondrej Palat, LW | seventh round, 208th overall
2009: Victor Hedman, D | first round, 2nd overall
2008: Steven Stamkos, C | first round, first overall
2007: Alex Killorn, LW | third round, 77th overall
RENEWING ONE-YEAR DEALS IN FREE AGENCY
Yzerman had an eye for undrafted free-agent forwards like Tyler Johnson (2011) and Yanni Gourde (2014). BriseBois' free-agent dealings have seen him artfully complement his powerful core group with veterans on short-terms deals. Success stories last year included Bogosian, Shattenkirk, Pat Maroon, Curtis McElhinney, and Luke Schenn. The latter three are now back for another run.
Pat Maroon, LW
Two years, $1.8 million
The big power forward brought physicality and an old-school element to the Lightning last year on a one-year deal worth $900,000. He might just be a lucky charm considering one year prior he was part of the St. Louis Blues' Stanley Cup victory. Brisebois rewarded him with a two-year deal with the same $900,000 cap hit he signed for 2019-20.
Curtis McElhinney, G
Two years, $2.6 million (signed 2019)
McElhinney played just 12 games this season, but has been a solid veteran insurance policy at an affordable price behind Vasilevkiy.
Luke Schenn, D
One year, $800,000
Another example of a player signing a low-risk, minimum deal and finding success. After playing on a $700,000 deal last year, he re-signed for another year at $800,000.
Last year’s biggest trade deadline targets are this year's experienced contributors. Both the transactions of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, having one more year of term on their deals at the time of last season's trades, looked smart at the time -- and they look just as good now. This year, BriseBois focused his efforts on rentals to bulk up his blue line in a big way.
2021 | David Savard, D
via Blue Jackets, in exchange for 2021 first-round pick + 2022 third-round pick; Tampa also sent a 2021 fourth-round pick to Detroit in the salary retaining move
As mentioned above, the Lightning had to get creative to land the deadline's most sought-after defender.
2020 | Blake Coleman, C/RW
via Devils, in exchange for Nolan Foote + 2020 first-round pick
Coleman was a revelation in Tampa Bay last year, scoring five goals and 13 points in 25 games while bringing an extra edge the Lighting had previously lacked. He's been strong this year, too, making Tampa tougher to play against, but hasn't lit the lamp quite as much.
2020 | Barclay Goodrow, LW
via Sharks, in exchange for Anthony Greco + 2020 first-round pick
The Lightning paid a bit of a hefty price for Goodrow at last year's deadline, but he was ultimately worth it considering he helped them win the Cup.
2019 | Jan Rutta, D
via Chicago, in exchange Slater Koekkoek
After appearing in just five playoff games during last year's run, Rutta has been getting top-four minutes this spring.
2018 | Ryan McDonagh, D
via Rangers, in exchange for Vladislav Namestnikov, Libor Hajek, Brett Howden, a 2018 first-round pick + conditional 2019 first-round pick; Tampa Bay also received J.T. Miller.
A rental at the 2018 deadline, the Lightning invested long-term in the d-man shortly after. He's also helped young defender Mikhail Sergachev take his game to the next level.
2017 | Mikhail Sergachev, D
via Canadiens, in exchange for Jonathan Drouin + conditional 2018 pick; Tampa Bay also received a 2018 conditional second-round pick
Since landing in Tampa Bay, Sergachev has become a promising defender who can play big post-season minutes.
2017 | Erik Cernak, D
via Kings, in exchange for Ben Bishop + 2017 fifth-round pick; Tampa also received Peter Budaj and two late 2017 picks
Cernak has grown into a strong top-four rearguard who's played a strong role alongside stars Hedman and McDonagh.