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Who needs hockey prospects when your defense plays this well?

John Romano | The Lightning have dealt first-round draft picks and prospects to finally build a defense than can handle the rigors of Stanley Cup play.
Jan Rutta and Victor Hedman (77) get between goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and Montreal's Shea Weber and Brendan Gallagher during Tampa Bay's 5-1 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final Monday night.
Jan Rutta and Victor Hedman (77) get between goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and Montreal's Shea Weber and Brendan Gallagher during Tampa Bay's 5-1 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final Monday night. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jun. 29
Updated Jun. 29

TAMPA — What would you pay for a Stanley Cup defense?

Three first-round picks? Four? Five? Six? Would you throw in Ben Bishop? How about a couple of second-rounders, too?

If the price seemed high for the Lightning, you should have seen the emotional cost of losing too many postseason games from 2015-19.

The Greatest Show on Ice might have led to more regular-season victories than any other NHL team for those five seasons, but the inability to get the job done at the most important time of the year was turning Tampa Bay into a playoff punchline.

So, yes, the Lightning invested some trade capital in defensemen. Quite a bit of capital. In a four-year span from 2017-21, the Lightning dealt four prospects drafted in the first round, two future first-round selections, two seconds, a third and Bishop to upgrade the blue line.

In return, they got Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, Jan Rutta and David Savard.

David Savard (58) works against fellow defenseman Jani Hakanpaa (58) of Carolina during the second round.
David Savard (58) works against fellow defenseman Jani Hakanpaa (58) of Carolina during the second round. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

And, at least, one Stanley Cup with another in reach.

Not such a high cost, after all.

“We’ve been able to create some chemistry together, guys that have fit right in,” said Victor Hedman, the only defenseman who pre-dates all of those moves. “Big guys who can skate and move the puck, so it fits right into the way we want to play hockey.”

The turnaround has been dramatic. It isn’t just that the Lightning held teams to 2.28 goals per game in last year’s postseason, or are down to 2.00 goals per game in these playoffs. It’s the consistency from game to game.

In the 2018 and 2019 playoffs, the Lightning were 0-8 when scoring two goals or fewer. In the past two postseasons, they’ve gone 9-10 when being held to two goals. It’s the difference between a team that once relied solely on offense to a team that can now win against the Islanders and Canadiens of the NHL. In some ways, the Lightning out-Canadiened the Canadiens in Game 1.

“To be honest, we’ve probably simplified our game. We’ve tried to take some of the risk out of our game,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “I’ll admit it I was partially the architect of some of the risk and the Greatest Show on Ice attitude we had about trying to score goals and as many as we could ... we’ve limited some of the risk we put in their game but we really focused on the defensive side of the puck.

“Our players have really grown together, I guess that’s one of the big things. The emergence of Sergachev and having the vets of Hedman and Mac and Cerny. It’s a great group. They will defend first. That’s the mentality they’ve taken as opposed to having the offensive side first, and I think that’s really helped.”

Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) battles against the glass with Islanders center Brock Nelson (29)during the semifinals.
Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) battles against the glass with Islanders center Brock Nelson (29)during the semifinals. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Of course, it isn’t just the defensemen that have changed the way the Lightning play. The forwards have learned to play a smarter, more conservative, brand of hockey, and the acquisitions of Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman gave Tampa Bay a different look on the third line.

“Our decision-making with the puck, our understanding of when there’s a play to be made and when there’s not, I think that’s the biggest key for our success over the last handful of years,” McDonagh said. “For sure last year, and hopefully again this year. It’s not feeding teams, not turning the puck over.

“When you turn the puck over and don’t manage the game the right way when the puck is on your stick, that’s when things can get out of sorts. That’s something we stress all of the time. Yeah, we’ve got some skill and we like to make plays but … try not to force things.”

When you break down the Lightning roster, it’s fascinating to see how they’ve come together. Most of the big names on offense (Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli) were drafted by Tampa Bay while Hedman is the only one of the top six defensemen who wasn’t acquired in a trade.

So did Tampa Bay mortgage its future to bring this defensive corps together?

Not really. The only future draft picks that have been lost are the 2021 first-round and 2022 third-round picks that were used in the Savard trade. Otherwise, most of the other picks were first-rounders that were already in the Lightning system.

And it’s not like Tampa Bay’s defense is about to crumble. McDonagh is 32, Hedman, Rutta and Savard are all 30, and Cernak and Sergachev are 24 and 23.

“We trust one another,” Hedmand said. “Yeah, full confidence in the D corps playing against any line.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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