The Tampa Bay Lightning are four wins away from cementing themselves as one of the greatest dynasties in NHL history. Beating the Colorado Avalanche to win their third consecutive Stanley Cup will be one of the biggest challenges the Lightning have faced in this historic run, but if they can pull it off, they will have accomplished something that few thought possible in the sport’s modern era.
Throughout NHL history, three franchises have combined to win at least three consecutive Stanley Cup championships just five times. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens have done it twice, and the New York Islanders have done it once.
- Toronto Maple Leafs, 1947-1949
- Montreal Canadiens, 1956-1960
- Toronto Maple Leafs, 1962-1964
- Montreal Canadiens, 1976-1979
- New York Islanders, 1980-1983
As you can see, if the Lightning win this series against the Avs, they will be in some rarefied air. But Tampa will have accomplished that feat in very different — and arguably more difficult — circumstances than the teams before them.
The NHL has changed a lot since the Maple Leafs, Canadiens and Islanders went on their dynastic runs.
For starters, there was no salary cap for any of those past dynasties, which made it much easier to retain key players for close to a decade or the entirety of their careers. Those franchises didn’t ever have to make tough financial decisions after one or two Stanley Cups due to salary cap issues.
Then you have to consider what the league itself looked like for those runs.
From 1942 to 1967, there were only six teams in the NHL. The playoffs consisted of two rounds – a semifinal and the Stanley Cup Final. In 1974, the NHL expanded to 18 teams, with the Islanders entering in 1972. By the time the Isles began their run, the league was at 21 total teams.
Now consider the fact that there has been a hard salary cap in place since the 2005-2006 season, and that Tampa Bay has had to go through two expansion drafts in recent years with the NHL growing to its current size of 32 teams.
The combination of the salary cap and expansion has made winning multiple Stanley Cups in a row extremely difficult. The only other team to accomplish that feat in the cap era was the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017. In their quest for a third consecutive title, the Penguins fell to the Washington Capitals in the second round.
Throw in the current financial constraints on the Lightning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and what they’ve done only gets even more incredible. The NHL salary cap has remained flat at $81.5 million for the last three seasons, yet Tampa has been able to get creative in order to field a championship-caliber team yet again.
In 2020-21, Tampa used the long term injured reserve when Nikita Kucherov missed the regular season due to injury. That allowed the Bolts to spend to the cap while also getting Kucherov back for that playoff run. This past offseason, Tampa lost its entire third line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, and Barclay Goodrow. Those three guys were integral to the team’s second Stanley Cup.
But general manager Julien BriseBois found ways to replace them. Corey Perry was signed to a cheap one-year deal, fourth-round pick Ross Colton has developed into a strong depth piece and both Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul were savvy mid-season additions via trade.
Again this year, the Lighting used magic to avoid salary cap trouble. Before the season, they traded Tyler Johnson and his $5 million cap hit to the Blackhawks while acquiring Brent Seabrook, who was promptly placed on LTIR. That gave the team the breathing room necessary to make a few of those key additions.
To be clear, this is not about diminishing the accomplishments of those other teams that came before Tampa. Winning one Stanley Cup is hard. Winning three or more in a row is a Herculean feat. The Maple Leafs, Canadiens and Islanders all did something that will live in NHL history forever. I just want to put into context exactly how special this run for the Lightning has been.
Tampa Bay still needs those four wins to really cap off this dynasty, but regardless of what happens against the Avalanche, the franchise has created a benchmark that all other franchises are trying to reach.