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5 big picture takeaways from the most unusual Stanley Cup Playoffs

As Steven Stamkos finally took the Stanley Cup from Gary Bettman and lifted it above his head, the shower of sparks in the background became pyrotechnic explosions, and for a moment, none of it looked real. I was reminded of the type of scene you’d see at the end of a 2000s-era video game, where you’d beaten the final boss and had a moment to revel in the visual reward of flashing lights and “you did it”-themed text that signified your journey’s end.

It was a scene, a very obviously staged scene, but what else could it have ever been?

The end somehow arrived at what’s usually the beginning, with the fall weather creeping closer to winter than summer, where hockey season would normally be but days away. It was, and is, all so surreal.

If there were ever a time for a look back, it’s today. What just happened? Not to get too existential, but what does it all mean, man? Let’s pan out to some big picture “what we learned” thoughts from all this.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

• The cruellest thing about hockey is that on any given night you can have a lot of talent, bring your best effort, do just about everything well, and lose to a lesser group. Some nights it feels unfair, but when you step back and look at overall trends, things tend to sort themselves out. The NHL plays a lot of regular season games and has best-of-7s in playoffs to give the top teams the best chance of having justice served.

It may not happen in a given year, but if you take yet another step back further, teams that are at or near the league’s top-five for numerous consecutive seasons tend to get rewarded. The exceptions stick out like sore thumbs — there’s the 2011 Vancouver Canucks and the teams around those years, the past decade of the San Jose Sharks…as the great philosopher Rihanna once opined, nothing is promised.

With that, I appreciate Tampa Bay is the latest example of sustained excellence eventually paying off. A couple years back Washington had the same experience. All you can do is get that great core, build around it, and hope you get the necessary luck (with opponents, health and bounces) along the way.

This is why the goal for teams is rarely to stack their deck as much as possible in a single season. The cruelty of hockey itself requires blocks of years where you’re great just to maybe get your one Cup. Good to see the Lightning rewarded for what’s been a great team seemingly for an impressively sustained stretch.

• There was a while there in the NHL where two trends were becoming clear: the understanding of the aging curve was being better wielded by NHL general managers (who used to believe “peak” was older than it is), and teams aiming to find value players were seeking contributors on entry-level deals. You can see how those trends holding hands could shift the league demographic.

We told each other the league was becoming a “young man’s league,” and marvelled at teams with great farm systems who were plugging in guys from the AHL on the cheap. That shift badly hurt the pockets of veteran players on the UFA market, as did the coinciding financial squeeze on hockey’s middle class in general.

It’s possible the league overcooked their belief in these newer ideas, though.

The idea has been that if you can get X contribution from an old vet for league minimum, or X contribution from a prospect on league minimum, you may as well pay the young guy and hope he eventually gives you X-plus. The problem is, the Stanley Cup Final is a reminder that we’re often squinting to equate a rookie’s contributions with what a vet can give (“they’re pretty much the same, statistically”), particularly as the hockey gets harder and the games get bigger.

A lot gets excused away for those new on the job, but maybe good teams would benefit from less internships and more senior members?

Corey Perry wasn’t league minimum, but he’s a wily vet the Stars got on the cheap, and they needed every ounce of his contributions. Andrew Cogliano and Blake Comeau played meaningful roles for them, too. How about Pat Maroon or Zach Bogosian? You can stretch this and note Kevin Shattenkirk loosely fits the mold at $1.75 million as wel.

There’s going to be some veteran guys available for league minimum this summer, and it feels like for the first time in a long time, there can be value to be had in veteran UFAs.

• While we’re looking at overall trends, how about Tampa Bay being all-in on speed and skill, getting upset by Columbus, then moving towards a more gritty style…and winning the Cup? There’s no point dressing up that reality to suit any other narrative — that’s a change they made that directly resulted in success.

When you look at the teams who win the Cup, it’s clear there needs to be a talented offensive core. You just have to have guys who can score. St. Louis doesn’t generally seem to fit that mold, but let’s not let recency bias blind us too much — offensive stars have always been key to winning. Tampa has it, and that’s what makes them great first. But the additions of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow (and Maroon before that, and Bogosion, and Luke Schenn) undeniably helped this team over the hump to their Cup victory.

That all seems a worthwhile note for teams looking at their roster fringes and trying to build towards a Cup.

One related point before moving on here: Tampa’s roster alteration benefitted greatly from them drawing teams who also played a grinding style. They drew heavy defence-first teams (all four opponents were top-10 in goals against per game, with Columbus, Dallas and Boston being the three best in the NHL there), and so they were perfectly equipped to work their way through the slog. I don’t know how it would’ve gone against a team like a healthy Colorado Avalanche. Maybe they course-corrected too much for a group like that. Maybe it would’ve been different against the Vegas Golden Knights. But they could only play the teams in front of them, and you’d have to be blind to miss how getting more physical helped this team this year.

• Of the Lightning’s Cup run, Andrei Vasilevskiy played — hold on let me double check the stats — all the minutes. If there was a goalie in Tampa’s net, it was him. And that’s over a condensed playoff calendar, which should’ve been physically grinding.

One thing that’s made me crazy in recent years is the obsession with goalie tandems, which I think are great in the regular season, but come playoffs, give me a great No. 1 and average No. 2 over two “good” 1A/1B guys any day.

The point about goalie tandems should be that you have someone good enough so your starter isn’t unduly taxed over the course of a long season. If you’re a couple days before a playoff series, and the staff hasn’t yet decided who’s going to start for your team in Game 1, it’s possible your “starting” goalie isn’t good enough.

• Did the circumstances make this particular Stanley Cup any less valid, or did it maybe make it the hardest one to win ever? You’re going to hear opinions on both sides of that in the days and years to come, but it’s wrong to claim either. Honestly, it was just different. Certainly the most unique ever, but on exactly the same historical-value footing as every Cup won before and likely after it.

Each year brings its own unique set of challenges to overcome, and this year’s were what they were. There wasn’t any travel, but there was a condensed schedule. There wasn’t the distraction of normal family life or pestering calls for tickets, but there was isolation. There wasn’t the pressure that comes with 19,000 screaming fans, but there wasn’t the energy and adrenaline offered by them either. You didn’t have to control your emotions so much as you had to find them.

The Tampa Bay Lightning managed the unforeseen obstacles brilliantly, in part by making changes to tackle the ones they could foresee in transactions before.

When it was all over it looked like the Lightning had acted out climbing a mountain in front of a green screen, that maybe to someone farther down the road in post-production would see the Cup Final and trophy presentation as they were meant to be seen. But while it may have looked arranged and acted to the viewer, the mountain was there beneath their feet, real as ever to those who climbed it.

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