Hindsight may one day make the post-Stanley Cup handshake between Jonathan Toews and Steven Stamkos an iconic moment, not so much a passing of the torch but more welcome to the club.
Already the Lightning look like they could be a young carbon copy of the Chicago Blackhawks, who beat Tampa on Monday night for their third Cup in six years. From ownership to the roster, the right decisions could get the Lightning back to the final.
Tampa Bay owner Jeff Vinik could follow Chicago's Rocky Wirtz in stabilizing the franchise, so the breeding ground is there. Stamkos is a respected young leader like Toews, Victor Hedman a game-controlling defenceman like Duncan Keith and Nikita Kucherov could develop into some facsimile of Patrick Kane.
The Lightning even have prospects waiting in the wings to be the next generation: Jonathan Drouin may soon be a regular like Teuvo Teravainen, and Andrei Vasilevskiy looks like the future in goal. But the onus is on Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman to push the right buttons this off-season and beyond.
If Yzerman stays true to the patient vision he used to remake the Lightning after their 2011 Eastern Conference final run, he'll give himself a chance to get it done.
"There are no quick fixes, no real solutions," Yzerman said recently. "You kind of just stick with the process. Really trying our best to hang on to your draft picks, try to make good choices, then give them time to develop."
Like Bowman inherited Toews, Kane and Keith, Yzerman had Stamkos and Hedman as franchise cornerstones. Signing Stamkos this summer to a long-term extension like Toews and Kane got might be the next step of that process, and Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn will need new deals in the coming years.
Bowman after winning the Cup in 2010 had to make difficult choices in a salary-cap environment. He isolated the core, which included forwards Toews, Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa and defenceman Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook and traded Dustin Byfuglien, Brian Campbell and Andrew Ladd, among others.
Draft picks like Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw took their place for the 2013 Cup run, and Teravainen and defenceman Trevor van Riemsdyk came up for this one.
"What we try to do with our young players is not rush them to the point where the expectations are unrealistic," Bowman said. "When they do make it into the NHL, they’ve had some time to develop their game, to gain some confidence usually in the American (Hockey) League."
The Lightning may be more like the Detroit Red Wings of the near future in that many of the young players — Johnson, Palat, Killorn and Kucherov — won in the AHL with coach Jon Cooper like Grand Rapids Griffins stars Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco did under Mike Babcock's replacement, Jeff Blashill.
Tampa Bay's biggest issue might be having too many good, young forwards, but from depth Yzerman could shore up the blue line headlined by Hedman and Anton Stralman. He already swapped out Brett Connolly for draft picks after trading first- and third-rounders to acquire veteran defenceman Braydon Coburn at the deadline.
Filling holes through trades and free agency can't be overlooked, either. Bowman plugged in Michal Handzus in 2013 and then Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette this year, while Yzerman has acquired Stralman, Ryan Callahan and Valtteri Filppula to complement the core.
When Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville called Richards last off-season, he told the veteran free agent before hanging up: "Come to Chicago. We'll win a Cup." Tampa Bay is already an attractive free-agent destination as proven by Filppula and Stralman signing in the place affectionately known as "Hockey Paradise."
"I think, No. 1, you have to convince agents, players, everyone that, 'Hey, they're for real down there, they run a really good program, it's somewhere we can be successful,'" Yzerman said, adding that the combination of no state income tax and warm winters doesn't hurt. "Ultimately players, they want to be successful. They want to go to an environment where they can be successful."
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