DENVER — Four more wins, and history will come calling.
Four more wins and the Lightning will bypass the very good, sidestep the merely great and eventually leave their skates where only legends reside.
Four more wins and the Lightning are a genuine dynasty.
That’s not official, by the way. There is no ceremony to separate common champions from hockey royalty. But do not, for one moment, debate whether it is appropriate.
Should the Lightning get past the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup final beginning Wednesday night, they will have accomplished something thought to be a relic of bygone days.
Three consecutive championships in an era where parity is not just encouraged but fervently pursued by the NHL’s bylaws. Free agency. The salary cap. Expansion drafts. Four layers of playoffs. These are complications that previous generations never imagined, let alone encountered along the way.
The Hockey Hall of Fame recognizes nine teams as dynasties, beginning with the Ottawa Senators in 1920 and ending with the Edmonton Oilers in 1990. The common thread among all nine teams is they won four Stanley Cups within an eight-year period.
Given that criteria, you might say it would be premature to anoint Tampa Bay as a dynasty after three titles in only three seasons. Or maybe it’s time to look at this argument with an open mind.
“What Tampa is doing is so impressive in the salary cap era,” said Phil Pritchard, vice president and curator of the Hall of Fame. “Maybe it’s time to redefine what a dynasty is. I mean, they’re back three straight years, and while they have their core, they’re doing it with different guys every year. So maybe that’s what a dynasty is today.”
Do you think it’s coincidence that some team managed a three-peat in each decade from the 1950s to the 1960s to the 1970s and to the 1980s, but that the trail stops cold in the 1990s once free agency became part of the NHL’s landscape?
Forty years have passed since the last team accomplished what the Lightning are hoping to do in the next two weeks. Forty years without a Gretzky, a Lemieux, an Yzerman or an Ovechkin leading a team to three consecutive Stanley Cup celebrations.
Is that not a clue that we could be seeing something historic in the coming days?
Back when the Senators began their run of titles in the 1920s there were only four teams in the NHL playing a 24-game regular season with a two-game playoff before the Stanley Cup final against the winner of the Western Hockey League or Pacific Coast Hockey Association. And even with that paucity of competition, the Senators never managed to win three Cups in a row.
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
In fact, only the Maple Leafs (twice), Canadiens (twice) and the Islanders throughout history have pulled off the three-peat. All are listed among the Hall of Fame’s dynasties because they went on to win a fourth Cup within a short period of time.
I’m not arguing that, should the Lightning win, their rigorous road makes them superior to the Canadiens of the 1970s or the Islanders of the 1980s. But I am arguing that the NHL’s changing circumstances and increased obstacles would make the Lightning their equals.
“In order to win you need to have a lot of players who not only were as good as you thought they were, but exceeded expectations. And that means those guys are going to make more money,” said Lightning broadcaster Brian Engblom, who was on the postseason roster for the final three of Montreal’s four straight titles from 1976-79. “And that just makes it harder to keep intact. So, yeah, I think what the Lightning have done compares to (Montreal).
“It’s not just the salary cap, but free agency, too. You go back to those Islanders teams and I think there were 16 guys who were on three of those Cup teams. That’s phenomenal.”
Here’s another way of looking at the stability of New York during its historic run of four consecutive titles from 1980-83:
The Islanders had 10 players score 35 points or more during the regular season in 1980. All 10 of those players stayed together throughout that four-Cup run, along with goaltender Billy Smith. The only time they lost anyone was when they traded spare parts for future draft picks because they needed to make room for prospects.
Now compare that to the Lightning who lost four players to free agency (Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Carter Verhaeghe and Kevin Shattenkirk), one to the expansion draft (Yanni Gourde) and two others (Tyler Johnson and Cedric Paquette) in trades necessitated by the salary cap.
“I’m just utterly impressed by what they do to win a hockey game,” coach Jon Cooper said. “And they have every excuse in the world not to. Because nobody would fault them. They say, ‘Hey, you won one. You won two.’ And to come back and go for a third?
“It’s probably not the greatest word to use, but I’m damn impressed by this.”
If the NHL and the Hall of Fame and hockey fans around the world are going to compare eras, then we need to be mindful of the unique circumstances each era presents.
In one respect, the Lightning have already exceeded what most of history’s acknowledged dynasties accomplished. Just by reaching a Stanley Cup final for the third year in a row, Tampa Bay has accumulated 11 consecutive series victories in the postseason.
That’s more than Toronto in the 1940s or Montreal in the 1950s. In fact, it is more than any other franchise other than the Canadiens of the 1970s and the Islanders of the 1980s.
Most of these Lightning players already have rings, have memories, have their names etched on the Stanley Cup. So what is left for them now?
Four more wins, and greatness awaits.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.