What Maple Leafs, Oilers can learn from Cup champion Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning are the 2020 Stanley Cup champions, and as soon as the clock ticked down to zero in Game 6, social media was aflame with hot takes about what this would mean for hockey’s future.

For those who value analytics, the Lightning winning is yet another check in the column of teams who follow the data being rewarded.

For those who don’t, the Lightning are a big team that has made some of the most impressive scouting choices in the NHL in recent years.

Any time a team wins the Stanley Cup the NHL as a whole tends to copy what they can from the last successful formula. However, I’m not sure how helpful trying to copy a team with two top-two draft picks that turned into superstars, or trying to copy snagging Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point in the second and third rounds, respectively, would be.

The fact is, the Lightning have an embarrassment of riches that has taken them over a decade to put together. Tampa has been a Cup contender since at least the 2013-14 season, when they were unceremoniously swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, similar to what happened against the Columbus Blue Jackets last season.

It’s taken the team seven kicks at the can to get to this point, and while the way the Lightning play is enviable and entertaining, I don’t think playing style is the lesson to take from their victory in 2020.

The first thing I think of when I look back over the history of moves by the Lightning is that they had many opportunities to mess this up, and they continually avoided doing so, instead building on what they already had.

Not every move the Lightning made has been great, but they kept the core together when many other teams would have panicked. Looking back to the sweep the Lightning suffered at the hands of the Blue Jackets last season, when I was tasked with finding out how that happened, I found that many of the assumptions about how that series went were incorrect.

So, what lesson can other teams take from this season’s Stanley Cup champions?

If you have a young team that’s full of talent, played well in the regular season, and by the numbers played well in the playoffs: Do. Not. Panic.

It’s very easy to look at ages and contracts and find reasons why you can’t keep a group together, but the smartest people in the room find a way to keep the group together and add.

Based on these playoffs, which teams have that young talent to build around and, by the numbers, should have had better fates?

Surprisingly, two Canadian teams stand out above the crowd among teams that deserved better during these playoffs, though they do things very differently: Toronto and Edmonton.

Both teams are built around a bevy of players taken in the lottery section of the draft, but while the Leafs are high volume, the Oilers play everything tight to the chest.

Disappointment was palpable for both teams when they failed to get out of the qualification around against teams they absolutely should have beaten, which was an extra bitter pill since they were the chosen host cities for the Western and Eastern bubbles for this post-season, but the path forward for each is unlikely to be as far off as many believe.

Context matters, and because the Blackhawks were an absolutely terrible even strength team this season, I think the Oilers have a much further track to run to get into competitor territory than the Leafs do, but the West is also significantly weaker than the East overall these days, which should help them out.

The Oilers have lots of work to do to fill out the depth of their roster, and their salary cap situation is tough, but acquiring undervalued and cheap wingers is exactly where a strong analytics department should be able to help you out. Learning from the Lightning in finding players like Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde, or even Jonathan Marchessault (who they lost) is something the Oilers should be able to figure out.

The areas where they desperately need improvement are in controlling passing, which is tough to do when you don’t have depth.

The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have been branded chokers once again, but we need to look at the last four seasons of first round (or qualifying round) exits through the lens of expectations for a moment. Toronto wasn’t the favourite against the Washington Capitals in 2016-17, they weren’t the favourites against the Boston Bruins in 2017-18, or 2018-19. Just because they got close to winning, doesn’t mean those results are underwhelming. They may be disappointing for fans, but this series against Columbus was the first time this team truly failed to meet expectations in the post-season.

That isn’t making excuses for them, it’s just a fact, and it’s all the more difficult to label the Leafs as deeply flawed when you examine how the games flowed at even strength. Almost across the board, the Leafs carried the play, with the one issue against Columbus being that the Leafs got brutalized by the Blue Jackets’ forecheck.

Like the Oilers, the Maple Leafs are up against the cap, making maneuvering a little bit difficult, but their roster is much closer to being in a competitive mode than the Oilers are. They absolutely need to get better at defending opposing forechecks -- it was an issue all season long -- but how much less of an issue would that have been if Jake Muzzin weren’t injured in Game 2?

The way the Leafs are talked about, it almost sounds like people think their window of competitiveness is about to close, but they have the time to make additions and try slightly different configurations. Overreacting to a disappointing result when it looks like a pattern, despite the fact that it’s the first time the team has actually disappointed, would be the mark of foolish management.

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