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The rest of the NHL is far behind, only history’s best are ahead of the Lightning

The coach and general manager of the NHL’s greatest regular-season team have been watching the Lightning all season and they say 62 wins is within reach.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates after he beats Sabres goaltender Carter Hutton (40) to score the final goal in the shoot out as the Bolts win with a final score of 2 to 1.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates after he beats Sabres goaltender Carter Hutton (40) to score the final goal in the shoot out as the Bolts win with a final score of 2 to 1.
Published Feb. 23, 2019

TAMPA — They are architects of history. They built teams, and they built legacies.

One is a Hall of Fame coach, the other a Hall of Fame executive. They were rivals for parts of two decades, and partners for parts of two others. Combined, they have 21 Stanley Cups on their resumes.

And for the past four months Scotty Bowman and Jimmy Devellano have been watching, sometimes together, as the Lightning has shredded the league and flirted with the NHL record of 62 victories.

Their NHL record of 62 victories.

Only two teams have ever eclipsed the 60-win mark, the 1977 Canadiens (60) and the 1996 Red Wings (62). Devellano was the general manager for that Detroit team, and Bowman coached them both.

So what is their assessment of Tampa Bay?

The Lightning could skate with either team.

“I’d like to see the Lightning play that Detroit team," said Devellano. “They’re very similar. All kinds of talent, goals coming from different places, a stud on defense, a good goaltender. Oh yeah, the Lightning could have played with Detroit."

“Most teams you can look at and say they need better goaltending or better this or better that," Bowman said. “You don’t say that with these guys. They’re deep, they’re very good. Very impressive."

Bowman, 85, and Devellano, 76, know this first-hand. Both retired in the Sarasota area, and both are frequent spectators at Amalie Arena.

They agree that, in some ways, what the Lightning has done in 2018-19 is already as remarkable as their Montreal and Detroit teams in the 1970s and 1990s. There is one champion every year, but truly great teams have been harder to come by in the salary cap era.

Building a stellar roster today requires sharp accountants as well as dedicated scouts. Even if the Lightning falls short of 62 wins or 130 points – and Tampa Bay is on pace for both – it will still likely be the most dominant regular season since the cap was instituted 15 years ago.

In that sense, the Lightning is a bit different from the Canadiens and Red Wings. Those teams were part of legitimate dynasties, built during a time when it was easier to keep a roster intact.

That ’77 Montreal team was in the middle of a seven-year stretch with five Stanley Cup titles. The ’96 Red Wings lost in the Western Conference finals, but went on to win three of the next six Stanley Cups.

The Lightning may not have that luxury. Winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular season record is a grand accomplishment, but the window for a Stanley Cup will not stay open long.

“The Presidents’ Trophy is a wonderful thing. I give it more credit than fans and media do," Devellano said. “But our sport isn’t geared that way. The big thing is the Stanley Cup, and that’s the way it is. We learned that lesson in Detroit. That’s a lesson the Lightning needs to pay attention to."

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Tampa Bay will not likely match either Montreal or Detroit for sheer star power. The Canadiens had nine Hall of Famers on that “77 team, not including Bowman. The Red Wings had seven, plus Bowman.

Montreal also dominated the league in ridiculous ways. The Canadiens outscored their opponents by 216 goals, or an average of 2.7 goals a game. While those numbers were particularly gaudy, Bowman says its an example of the Lightning having a tougher schedule in a league now geared for parity.

“I don’t remember a lot of teams that were ever expected to give us a challenge," Bowman said. “What the Lightning is doing is hard. I know it’s a little easier to score now, but not at the rate they’re scoring. They can get 3 or 4 goals in a period. They’ve done a nice job adding young guys like (Brayden) Point, (Mathieu) Joseph, (Anthony) Cirelli and Yanni Gourde with (Steven) Stamkos and (Nikita) Kucherov and (Tyler) Johnson. There’s not much difference from one line to the next."

So can Lightning players do it? Can they match Detroit’s 62 wins? Can they join the Canadiens and Red Wings as the NHL’s only 60-game winners?

“They’re so far ahead, I don’t even check the standings," Devellano said. “What do they need to do?"

It would take a 15-5 finish to catch the Red Wings, or 13-7 to reach 60 wins.

“Oh hell yes, they can do that," Devellano said.

“I’d like to see it. They’re a good group."