By: Paul Ryan
TAMPA, FL (WFLA) — “We’ve been lucky,” admits Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman without cracking a smile.
He isn’t referencing Tampa Bay’s first round comeback over Detroit or its narrow escape of the New York Rangers. Yzerman has always been about the big picture.
“You look back at any team that gets to this point, or any team that has any kind of long-term or sustained success, and it’s really through home-grown talent,” he explains. “It’s just impossible, even more so with the salary cap, to try and really build a team to be successful over a period of time just through free agency and through trades. You need the assets to build a team.”
Thanks to Yzerman and his staff, the Lightning have plenty of assets. Young, home-grown talent with names that litter the backs of jerseys on Amalie Arena’s concourse: Stamkos, Johnson, Hedman, Palat, Kucherov.
12 Lightning are under the age of 25, and most of them have come up through the Tampa Bay system.
Under the guidance of fresh-faced head coach Jon Cooper, who has won championships at pretty much every level outside of the NHL, that garden of talent has blossomed earlier than Yzerman or anyone else could have hoped.
Cooper attributes much of the growth to the disappointment surrounding last season. Stamkos broke his right leg in November, thrusting young players into roles they weren’t necessarily ready to fill.
“You have to go through some adverse times to become the player and the person you are,” detailed Stamkos. “You learn so much through those tough times. It was tough to go through an injury like that and not get a chance to play in the Olympics and come back and get swept in the playoffs. But I think all those things have built up to where we are today.”
“It’s easy to look back now that we’re in the Cup Final, but we were feeling really good about ourselves in the middle of April. Six days later, it wasn’t so good,” stated Cooper. “We went into the summer with the sting of what had happened, and I think it fueled us this year.”
Now the Lightning will face off against one of the NHL’s most storied franchises, the Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago has made it to the Stanley Cup Final in three of the past six seasons, allowing the club to raise two Stanley Cup banners into the United Center rafters.
“You can’t really put a price on that kind of experience,” admitted Lightning forward Alex Killorn. “But I think we have a really good, young group. A passionate group that is going to make some noise.”
Killorn recognizes Chicago’s secret to success. The same young, home-grown assets Yzerman streamlined into the Lightning locker room have been winning Cups in The Windy City. Brandon Saad, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook… The Blackhawks’ draft history reads like an NHL All-Star team.
Killorn admits he and the Lightning strive for the same success the Blackhawks have had. “I think the way they play is also similar to the way we play. We play a fast game. They have a lot of skilled guys. I think you can see a lot of similarities in both groups.”
Now the Lightning will attempt to dethrone the team they borrowed a championship blueprint from. Are the Blackhawks ready to give up their spot on the pedestal? Or will the Bolts have to learn how to lose before earning immortality inscribed on Lord Stanley’s Cup?
“I want to be a winner,” declared Stamkos. “Everyone on our team wants to be a winner, and that’s what we’re looking forward to doing during this series… To become winners.”
The puck drops for Game 1 Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Amalie Arena. Watch the game on NBC News Channel 8 including pre- and post-game coverage. Follow updates on WFLA.com and on Twitter and Facebook.
By: Paul Ryan