A skilled team that got eliminated early in the playoffs by a tougher opponent a few years removed from a Stanley Cup Final loss signed a forward with his name engraved on the trophy and a big defenseman hungry to win after years of not being in contention.
Rewind to 2019 and early 2020 and that description fits the Tampa Bay Lightning, who added some grit and toughness to their talented core and went on to win the Stanley Cup. In the present day, it's the Nashville Predators, who are among the many contenders copying Tampa Bay's blueprint to try to get over the hump.
The Lightning effect was clear as soon as NHL free agency opened. Teams such as the Predators, Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs augmented their lineups with the same kind of hard-nosed players the Lightning did — an acknowledgement that to go deep in the playoffs and win it all, it can't just be all about scoring and skill.
“We’ve had a good team the last couple years, but for whatever reasons, the fits, the chemistries, how we played just wasn’t good enough on a consistent basis,” Nashville general manager David Poile said Thursday.
“I still think we’ve got a pretty highly skilled team with a top four defensemen and I think we’ve got five or six really high-skilled forwards, but it’s a team game and it takes all different types of guys to be successful.”
For the Predators, it meant adding 2012 Cup-winning forward Brad Richardson and 6-foot-1, 207-pound defenseman Mark Borowiecki. The Panthers traded for agitating winger Patric Hornqvist and signed rugged defenseman Radko Gudas and big center Alexander Wennberg, who was on the Columbus Blue Jackets when they upset the Lightning in the first round in 2019.
The Maple Leafs brought in winger Wayne Simmonds for some “functional toughness” and poached veteran blue liner Zach Bogoisan off the Lightning's roster after he was a key free agency signing of theirs on the road to the Cup.
“You need those guys,” said Kevin Shattenkirk, another newcomer on Tampa Bay's championship team who left to sign with Anaheim. “You need guys that are going to have a little bit of sandpaper. I think what it also does is it allows your skilled players to realize that they have a little protection out there. They have guys that are going to stick up for them if other teams are trying to take liberties and run around and try to intimidate you.”