Lightning may have to defy history to win it all

Tampa Bay enters today’s trade deadline day without a previous Stanley Cup winner on the roster. No team in the last 25 years has won without one.
Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois must decide if he will trade for a player before today's 3 p.m. NHL trading deadline. Tampa Bay leads the league in points, but that doesn't mean it won't try to add to the roster. [DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois must decide if he will trade for a player before today's 3 p.m. NHL trading deadline. Tampa Bay leads the league in points, but that doesn't mean it won't try to add to the roster. [DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published February 25
Updated February 25

TAMPA — Sports history can be convincing.

It often lays the foundation for things people should and shouldn’t do in order to avoid this or accomplish that.

But it becomes irrelevant when someone or something defies the odds.

The Lightning is having a historic season. Nikita Kucherov is the first player to reach 100 points, and he did it in 62 games. Steven Stamkos is three goals from passing Vinny Lecavalier for the franchise career record. Andrei Vasilevskiy has passed Ben Bishop for the most shutouts in franchise history.

The team is on pace for at least 59 wins and 123 points, according to the website Hockey Reference.

But history may not be on the Lightning’s side when it comes to winning the Stanley Cup.

In the past 25 years, no team has won the Cup without a previous Cup winner on its roster.

The Lightning let Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline come and go with no apparent needs — save for one. None of its players has won the Cup.

[ Up Next: vs. Kings, 7:30 Tonight | TV/Radio: NBCSN, AM-970 ]


How important is it to have Stanley Cup-winning experience on your roster?

Mark Messier and seven other former Cup winners started this 25-year run by leading the Rangers to the championship in 1994.

In those 25 years, only three teams have made it to the Cup final without at least one previous winner on its roster: the 2017 Predators, the 2006 Oilers and the 1999 Sabres.

“GMs believe in (having a Cup winner) because you need that experience,” said Lightning TV analyst Brian Engblom, a three-time Cup winner in his player career from 1977-87.

In 2008-09, the Penguins acquired four players who had Cup wins: Ruslan Fedotenko (free agent and 2004 Cup winner with the Lightning), Craig Adams (waivers), Bill Guerin (trade) and Chris Kunitz (trade). The Penguins went on to take the 2009 Cup, and that helped establish a core group with experience — led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury — that won again in 2016 and 2017.

Engblom said it’s important to have that kind of experience on a roster because of the playoffs’ intensity. When teams lose one, two or even three in a row during a series, that experience helps settle teams and keep things in perspective.

But what would be the cost to the Lightning to get a Cup winner by the trade deadline?

“You have to have a close-knit team, and you can tell these guys are really close,” Engblom said. “And that means this is our last shot. And that family atmosphere, that camaraderie goes a long way.”

NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, a special assistant with the 1991 Penguins team that won the Cup, said the Lightning must balance any desire to acquire a Cup champion with the risk of altering positives in the locker room. He doesn’t see getting a Cup winner as a must.

“They’ve got tremendous depth,” McGuire said of the Lightning. “They’ve got role players that understand and appreciate their roles. They have guys who are itching, like Kucherov and Stamkos, who want to win. Steven’s an amazing leader. They’ve got arguably the best goalie in the league.

“It’s important never to mess with the integrity of your dressing room if you have a good dressing room. You want to give the guys a reward without taking anything away. Sometimes teams over-tinker, so they hurt the chemistry of the team.”

Is the experience on the Lightning’s current roster enough?

Of the 23 players on the Lightning’s pre-deadline roster, more than half have played in at least one Cup final. Eleven helped the Lightning reach the 2015 final against the Blackhawks. Four helped the Rangers get there in 2014 against the Kings. Braydon Coburn and Anton Stralman have each played in two Cup finals.

“I think they have enough (experience),” McGuire said.

Stralman thinks it’s enough, too.

“You want the experience,” he said. “You want guys that have been there, and I think this is a team that’s really hungry because all of us have been there, more or less, and not pulled through. That’s definitely a motivating factor as well.”

Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman (6) keeps the puck away from Chicago Blackhawks center Brad Richards (91) during a 2015 Stanley Cup Finals game in Chicago. Stralman said the team has enough playoff experience to win the Cup. In 2015, Richards, who won with the Lightning in 2004, added to the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup winners. [DIRK SHADD  |  TIMES (2015)]
Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman (6) keeps the puck away from Chicago Blackhawks center Brad Richards (91) during a 2015 Stanley Cup Finals game in Chicago. Stralman said the team has enough playoff experience to win the Cup. In 2015, Richards, who won with the Lightning in 2004, added to the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup winners. [DIRK SHADD | TIMES (2015)]

Does having a Cup winner guarantee success?

Cup-winning experience can be valuable, but having a previous Cup winner on a great team does not always equal hoisting the Cup above your head.

Over the past 25 years, teams that lost in the Cup final added for their Cup final season a total of eight former winners in free agency, four off waivers and 20 in trades.

In the 2015 Cup final, the Lightning had one player on its roster who had won the Cup previously — Valtteri Filppula, with the Red Wings in 2008 (he signed as a free agent in 2013). The Lightning lost to the Blackhawks in six games.

In the summer of 2017, the Lightning signed four-time Cup winner Kunitz for the season. It lost last year’s Eastern Conference final to the Capitals.

Then there was the 2008-09 Red Wings, who lost the Cup final to the Penguins. They had a combined 42 Stanley Cups spread across 20 players. A good portion of those players had been part of the team as it won four Cups from 1997-2008. None of those 20, however, had been acquired for that season in free agency, in trades or off waivers.

The Lightning acquired former Cup winner Chris Kunitz (14) in 2017, but even with this experience, the team failed to advance past Washington in the Eastern Conference Finals. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD |  Times (2018)]
The Lightning acquired former Cup winner Chris Kunitz (14) in 2017, but even with this experience, the team failed to advance past Washington in the Eastern Conference Finals. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2018)]

Have new additions worked?

In the past 25 years, Cup winners acquired for their season that ended with a title five former winners as free agents, 16 in trades and one on waivers. The best example of the benefit is the 2009 Penguins.

Can hunger for the Cup carry Lightning?

Motivation won’t be a problem for the Lightning whether it adds a Cup winner today or not, Engblom said.

“You know exactly what it feels like. You also know exactly what it took in order to win,” he said. “Everybody wants to win, and everybody wants it bad.”

Contact Mari Faiello at [email protected]. Follow @faiello_mari.

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