TAMPA — When it comes to the trade deadline, everyone wants the big names. They dream of blockbusters.
Lightning fans would love Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson or Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Maybe even Rangers wing Rick Nash.
But if you look at the history of recent Stanley Cup champions, their pivotal moves were subtle, not splashy.
"Usually you're adding a piece, not a cornerstone," said Lightning veteran wing Chris Kunitz.
Kunitz, 38, should know. He has won the Cup four times, and each of those teams made under-the-radar trades that helped propel it to a parade. Kunitz was part of one in 2009. He was one of several pieces added by the then-10th-place Penguins to boost their secondary scoring; others included were Bill Guerin and Craig Adams. Pittsburgh also changed coaches, and quickly changed its fortunes, beating the Red Wings for the Cup.
"At the time, (the trade) was a shock," said Kunitz, who got dealt from Anaheim with prospect Eric Tangradi for defenseman Ryan Whitney. "We got myself, Craig, Bill, a couple guys from the minors. All that kind of spurred the team to play the best hockey going into the playoffs. If that happens, you have a legit chance to make a run."
The big fish at last season's trade deadline was defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, and the Capitals paid a hefty price for him: a first-round draft pick, a conditional second and a prospect. Washington was eliminated in the second round by Pittsburgh.
The Penguins, on the other hand, picked up veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey, who had played nearly 900 games without a taste of the postseason. They gave up a second-round pick and a minor-league forward for Hainsey, similar to what they gave up for defenseman Justin Schultz at the deadline the season before (a third-rounder). Both were key presences as Pittsburgh won back-to-back Cups.
"It always pays big dividends when you can add a veteran presence," Kunitz said. "Hainsey was a guy who could block shots and be able to shut down the other team. He wasn't flashy, but he found his way to score some big goals, even before the playoffs."
Brian Boyle wasn't one of the Lightning's biggest stars. Yet there seemed to be a special love affair between him and Tampa Bay. Here's why. #TBLightning @TBLightning @NJDevils #Devils #MapleLeafs #NYRangers @BriBrows22 @TBTimes_JSmith @TB_Times https://t.co/YT6XV2JBVq— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) February 16, 2018
Remember that Blackhawks team that beat the Lightning in the 2015 Stanley Cup final? Their biggest move was acquiring veteran center Antoine Vermette, who coincidentally could be a great fit for Tampa Bay at this season's deadline. Vermette scored three game-winning goals, two in overtime, that playoff run.
A veteran bottom-six center like Vermette or Oilers' Mark Letestu or the Wild's Matt Cullen makes sense for Tampa Bay. Someone who could win faceoffs, prove clutch in the playoffs. Just like Michal Handzus did for the Blackhawks in the 2013 Cup run. Acquired from the Sharks for a fourth-rounder, Handzus racked up 11 points while winning faceoffs and killing penalties.
There were bigger deadline deals for Cup winners, like the Kings nabbing Marian Gaborik in 2014, and even the Lightning trading for defenseman Darryl Sydor in 2004. But for every home run, there's a whiff or two.
"You can go down the list and see some hits that helped teams and some that didn't help," Lightning wing Ryan Callahan said. "It's kind of a crap shoot what you're going to get. For us guys in here, we just prepare as normal and if you get a guy that comes in, you want to make him feel welcome."
There are a few challenges with making significant deadline moves. This season a lot of teams are still in the playoff race, so they'd be reluctant to part with a key piece. And the sellers can take advantage of supply and demand by driving up the price. Sure, the Lightning has a deep prospect pool and draft picks to play with. But just because you have money doesn't mean you have to spend it.
"We're at a time where every deal that's made is considered an overpayment," GM Steve Yzerman said. "To overpay on an overpay just because we've got a lot of assets to use, that doesn't guarantee anything."
There's also the issue of chemistry. Former Lightning GM Jay Feaster said that as much as his Sydor addition in 2004 galvanized the dressing room, his trade of popular teammate Freddy Modin in 2006 was a "big subtraction." Feaster recalled one year he declined to make a deadline deal partly due to a Tampa Bay Times story in which players said they didn't want to break up team chemistry. "It's really a balancing act," he said.
Yzerman's deadline moves haven't grabbed the headlines, other than the forced Marty St. Louis for Callahan swap with the Rangers in 2014. Veteran defensemen Eric Brewer (2011) and Braydon Coburn (2014) provided a boost. This doesn't mean the Lightning can't make a splash.
Just don't be surprised if they don't. And that could be a good thing.
Slap shots: Though U.S. Olympic team forward Brian Gionta is drawing interest from NHL contenders for a playoff push, the Lightning hasn't been one of them. … Jon Cooper coached his 400th NHL game Tuesday against the Sabres.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.