When Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat’s new contracts were announced recently, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was heralded as a wizard once again. His team had needs that seemed almost impossible to fully address based on their salary cap restrictions. Instead, two-thirds of Tampa Bay’s “Triplets” took a very reasonable salary when they could likely garner more on the open market to remain with the team that got them to the show. While Yzerman deserves a lot of credit, there’s a larger narrative at work when it comes to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
There’s a direct line from Jeff Vinik’s purchase of the club in 2010 to where the Bolts are now. At the time, his pledge to make the organization world-class seemed like little more than a pipe dream. Fans had witnessed their team flounder and fall to the basement of the league. There was genuine concern that the Lightning would be relocated. That’s how dire things seemed. Instead, Vinik has more than followed through on his promises. The product on and off the ice is fantastic. The brand is visible and valuable in the community. While the front office won’t be the ones scoring goals or stopping pucks, putting the players in the best possible position to succeed is key. It hasn’t gone unnoticed around the NHL.
The Lightning’s change in culture is worth noting for a few reasons. First of all, the team is a perennial contender. Falling short of this year’s playoffs seemed like an odd aberration and not a new normal. While the climate and low taxes may still be a draw, the chance to contend for the Stanley Cup looms large for players when their contracts are up. Look no further than Chris Kunitz. The veteran winger has won four Stanley Cups over his career, including two in the last two years with the Pittsburgh Penguins. When Kunitz met with the local media for the first time last week he specifically referenced to the team’s potential to go all the way. And he ought to know about that sort of potential first hand.
Another reason why the club’s culture is important is when it comes to retaining core players. When Steven Stamkos’ contract was coming up in 2016 there were months of speculation. Would he return home to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs? Could the Lightning hope to make a legitimate offer with their salary cap concerns? Ultimately the captain would take a significant discount to stay with the Lightning. It was a similar story for Victor Hedman and his contract extension. Nikita Kucherov seemed poised for a breakout deal after becoming one of the league’s most dangerous snipers. Shorter term bridge deals have almost become a thing of the past in today’s NHL but Yzerman was able to make it work for the Russian winger. While Johnson and Palat’s new deals seem to be in line with what they were due, it’s not hard to imagine another GM offering more. They opted to stay. That speaks volumes for the Bolts.
It didn’t happen overnight but the Lightning have remade themselves into a desirable destination for the NHL and its players alike. Sure the weather’s nice and the tax breaks are a bonus but that’s become secondary to the opportunity afforded here. Players want to play where they have a consistent chance to win championships. There’s an important correlation between teams that regularly contend and strong team cultures from top to bottom. Tampa Bay seems poised to reap the benefits of what they have built for years to come.