Professional sports have a peculiar way of glorifying underdogs who win championships while being blasé about teams with all-star rosters that win.
The 1980 Team USA hockey “Miracle on Ice” is folklore. Cinderella teams are more compelling than No. 1 seeds in March Madness. Unless it’s part of a dynasty, hearing an absurdly talented team talk about how hard it is to win a championship is like hearing a billionaire complain about a dearth of island vacation options.
“When the season starts, the odds are that you’re not winning the Stanley Cup,” he said. “Even when the playoffs start and you’re down to 16 teams, even if you’re the top seed, the odds are that you’re not winning the Stanley Cup.”
Since 2013-14, the Lightning have been the NHL’s most successful franchise in the regular season, winning more games (343) and amassing more points (733) than any other team. Each season begins with the Lightning among the odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup — including before the 2019-20 season, when they were the betting chalk to hoist the Cup.
“So your job is to defy those odds. You have to believe that you’re the one team that will defy those odds. Because someone will,” BriseBois said.
The Lightning were that team this season, winning the Cup for the second time in franchise history and capping an inevitable climb to the summit that had its share of precarious slips along the ascent. It was the culmination of 10 years of partnership between owner Jeff Vinik, who purchased the team in 2010; BriseBois, who was hired that year by then-GM Steve Yzerman as assistant general manager; and coach Jon Cooper, whom BriseBois hired to be his American Hockey League coach in 2010.
The past decade saw the Lightning amass an all-star team, thanks to great drafting, shrewd management … and an assist from Florida’s tax laws.
Center Steven Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman were the foundations, and they signed deals that were slightly under market value to stay. Coming through the Lightning system were forwards Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli, as well as goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev arrived via trade.
Without a salary cap, this roster would be impressive. Under salary-cap constraints, building a team such as this is remarkable.
“Over an 82-game season, a little edge in talent adds up. But when you’re only looking at one game or one series, it comes down to who does enough to meet the challenge for that game or that series. And it can be either team. It’s that close,” BriseBois said. “So I’m in awe of what our team accomplished. I’m in awe of how deep they had to dig, physically and mentally, for us to fly back to Tampa with the Cup.”
Cooper was in awe of what his general manager did to make that Stanley Cup win happen.
“He’s not afraid to put his you-know-what’s on the line to do something,” Cooper said to ESPN. “There’s a lot of belief and trust [between us]. He went out and gave up some things and took a lot of criticism from people who thought he gave up too much. You’re going to be second-guessed. But he did what he thought was right, and it worked out.”
Few general managers have been as bold as Julien BriseBois. He’s going to have to be even bolder to win the Stanley Cup again.
BriseBois was poached from the Montreal Canadiens in July 2010, having served as their vice president of hockey operations. He was a hockey management prodigy: When he took over Montreal’s minor league affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs, in 2007, BriseBois was the youngest GM in the AHL, at 30 years old.
With BriseBois a native of Greenland Park, Quebec, many thought he was a natural GM successor in Montreal. For the next decade, teams continued to try to hire him away from the Lightning — to no avail.
Vinik has called BriseBois “progressive” in his managerial style. The Lightning were at the forefront of the analytics movement, even though they aren’t often grouped with teams that trumpet their analytics use more loudly. Tampa Bay’s scouting and player development were gold-standard stuff in the NHL under Yzerman and BriseBois. From a salary-cap management perspective, the Lightning were exemplary.
But the duo was abruptly broken up in September 2018, when Yzerman stepped aside to become “Senior Advisor to the General Manager,” and BriseBois was given the reins of the franchise.
“In the first year that he’s GM, he’s thrown into it in September,” Cooper said. “That’s a tough position. You couldn’t really do anything with this team other than watch and see where we were at.”
Of course, there wasn’t much to change during the 2018-19 season. The Lightning went 62-16-4 for 128 points, tying the NHL record for wins in a season.
Then the Columbus series happened. The Blue Jackets swept the Lightning out of the playoffs in the opening round, a No. 8 seed humbling a heavy favorite.
“One of the toughest things about being swept was seeing Steve afterward. I was sick to my stomach that we couldn’t win a Cup for him while he was still with the organization,” Cooper said of Yzerman, who left after that season to become general manager of the Detroit Red Wings. “But it gave Julien a year to watch and see where we’re at.”
Vinik is fond of the phrase “there was no flinch” to describe how BriseBois and the Lightning reacted to that devastating setback. Cooper remained head coach. The core remained intact. The climb continued.
“He could have easily blown everything up. But there was a lot of trust in our relationship. We had been together for 10 years,” Cooper said. “It wasn’t changing our structure or our plan. We have to change our attitude and our personality. We felt we could do it.”
The autopsy on that postseason gave BriseBois and Cooper three points of emphasis to address before the team’s next playoff run.
The first was on defense, as Tampa Bay sought to reduce the number of quality chances it faced. That meant protecting the slot better, cutting down on turnovers and reducing the number of minor penalties taken. The Lightning improved on the first two items, even if penalties were still a problem through the postseason.
The second point was game management. Closing out opponents. Protecting leads. Not making the mistake the Lightning made in Game 1 against the Blue Jackets last postseason, when they attempted to win 7-1 after a three-goal first period and instead lost 4-3 to set the wheels of the upset in motion. The Lightning were 41-1-4 when leading after two periods, including 10-0 in the playoffs.
The third point was becoming a team that battles harder, which is what happens when you get your lunch handed to you by a lunch-pail team such as the Blue Jackets. The Lightning sought the services of Patrick Maroon, the “Big Rig” who helped the St. Louis Blues roll to the Stanley Cup in 2019. They signed Zach Bogosian after he was waived by the Sabres. They added Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow at the trade deadline to make their supporting cast more battle-ready.
In the cases of Coleman and Goodrow, that came with a considerable cost.
Darryl Plandowski was assistant director of amateur scouting under BriseBois before he left for a new job with the Arizona Coyotes in September. For him, draft picks were the coin of the realm. To see his general manager trade two first-rounders for what many considered to be depth players at the deadline was … well, interesting, to say the least.
“When you’re with the scouts and you lose all those draft picks at the deadline, you’re like ‘hoo-boy,'” he said with a sigh. “But it worked out. Nobody even cares now.”
It’s customary for contending teams to add depth forwards at the trade deadline. It’s unusual for teams to trade as much as the Lightning did for theirs. BriseBois traded a first-round pick in a package for San Jose’s third-round pick and Goodrow, a forward who hadn’t scored more than eight goals in a season in his six-season NHL career. For Coleman, BriseBois traded prospect Nolan Foote and the first-rounder the Lightning acquired from Vancouver in last summer’s J.T. Miller trade. This was overpayment from a conventional standpoint; from BriseBois’ perspective, it wasn’t.
“My mindset at that point was to be very aggressive in pursuit of the pieces that I believed could give us a strong push forward. It wasn’t just about adding depth to our team. It was about making our team better. All the while, keep an eye on next season, and make sure that we’re a competitive team year in and year out,” said BriseBois, noting the contract term he took on in acquiring Goodrow and Coleman.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, trade decisions are guided by insuring that we get good value. At this particular juncture, if I had passed up opportunities to give every possible chance to win this season, and we didn’t win the Cup? I felt like I wouldn’t have been able to live down the regret that I would have had.”
BriseBois heard the reaction to the trades at the time. Many applauded the boldness in going for it. Others thought the Lightning overpaid. The general manager saw it as a matter of perceived value vs. actual value.
“If you look at the acquisition cost of Barclay Goodrow, the trade was a late first-round pick for two seasons of Goodrow at a really good cap number and a third-round pick,” he said. “So the difference becomes the probabilities that the player we were going to select with our late first-round pick was going to turn into an NHL player two to four years from now and the probability that the third-round pick ends up being an NHL contributor two to four years down the road. When you frame it that way, I think we ended up getting great value.”
Same deal with the Coleman trade. “The probabilities that the late first-round pick ends up being a top-nine forward like Blake Coleman is less than 50 percent,” he said. “If you have a guy that’s an established top-nine forward, they usually move for more than a late first-round pick.”
The Devils and Sharks used those draft picks in the same week that Goodrow and Coleman lifted the Stanley Cup during a parade of boats in Tampa Bay, having paired with Gourde to create perhaps the best checking line in the NHL postseason. Things worked out OK for BriseBois.
“It was his first run at it. He had a chance to do it himself and implement his own plan. Looking back on it … my god,” said Plandowski, his words trailing off in astonishment.
Yzerman and BriseBois built the machine. BriseBois finally figured out what gears to swap and what repairs to make in order to make it run more efficiently.
Now comes the hard part: Figuring out how to make that machine hum when it has become too expensive to operate at its current capacity.
“Some hard decisions are going to be made,” BriseBois said. “Some players are going to have to be moved out of the organization to reallocate that cap space.”
Julien BriseBois has a lot of fans among NHL general managers, including Bill Zito, the newly appointed GM of the state rival Florida Panthers.
“He’s a really good person. Very caring and very thoughtful. I’m really proud of him and really happy for him,” Zito told ESPN. “He’s a good dude, man.”
Unfortunately for BriseBois, a high Q rating amongst his peers doesn’t translate into a desire to bail him out of the salary-cap prison in which his team resides this offseason.
BriseBois managed his salary cap through what he knew and what he anticipated. He knew that Vasilevskiy’s new contract ballooned his cap figure to $9.5 million beginning next season. He knew that Cirelli, Sergachev and defenseman Erik Cernak were restricted free agents in need of new contracts. He expected that the salary cap would rise to at least $84 million, but the crisis-averting new collective bargaining agreement will keep it flat at $81.5 million for next season. BriseBois believes that because of the economic impact of COVID-19, the cap could be flat for two seasons after that.
The Lightning currently have just under $2.9 million in cap space, factoring in the expected bargain-basement re-signings of Maroon and Luke Schenn. The list of players who could be moved includes Killorn, Gourde and Johnson, all of whom have trade protection.
To get around that, BriseBois made the bold move of putting Tyler Johnson on waivers, allowing any NHL team to claim his contract, which has four years remaining on it at $5 million against the salary cap. Johnson passed through without a claim.
BriseBois said last week that he doesn’t expect the Lightning to “be buying out anyone.” Nor does he think they have any contracts that “we’re going to have to bury in the minors,” which would be another option with Tyler Johnson. In fact, BriseBois said he believe that “every single one of those guys, there will be a market for them” as the Lightning look to open salary-cap space.
“When we make decisions, it’s about the player, the person and the contract. The irony of my predicament is that we have good players, and they’re on good contracts,” BriseBois said.
The Lightning are bottled up by the current hockey economy, but they aren’t a lightning-in-a-bottle team. This was their fourth trip to the Eastern Conference finals in six seasons and their second trip to the Stanley Cup Final in that span. A break here or there, and we could be talking about a team looking to expand a dynasty, rather than one seeking to become the third franchise since 1998 to win back-to-back championships.
“My duty is to increase the odds of the team being successful. Every decision that I’m making [in the offseason] is going to be based on trying to improve the chances that we’ll continue to be a Stanley Cup contender,” BriseBois said.
As the offseason begins, the Lightning are in familiar territory: 7-to-1 favorites to win the Stanley Cup, according to William Hill.
“To win a Cup, the players had to do a lot of hard work. The coaching staff had to make a lot of hard decisions,” BriseBois said. “And now, if we want to win another Cup, it’s my turn to make some hard decisions.”