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Afterwords: A Sobering Look at How Tampa Bay Passed the Stars Long Before Thursday Night

The best team of the last five years is pretty good. Here’s why.

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NHL: Dallas Stars at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

You’re sowing the seeds of a nightmare from hell

Your prayers and your demons lie dead where they fell

***

If you want to use this game as a referendum on the team itself, you certainly can. The Stars took too many penalties and couldn’t capitalize on the handful of scoring chances they got. They weren’t able to generate sustained pushes, and even the expected blowout-level score effects never really showed up in a game that was 3-0 before your first beer was half-empty.

If you think the team isn’t fast enough, then here you are. If you think the team can’t hang with skilled teams, there you go. Losing 6-0 like this is a grooved pitch at 82 MPH, and you can swing away if you choose.

But I think it’s more interesting to look at Tampa, and to reflect on how their moves as an organization have led them here. This might end up being the best team since the lockout when all is said and done, and getting the equivalent of a Super Mario 64 thwomp dropped on your head isn’t a big shock when you’re going up against that kind of power.

So, how’d they do it? Why is Tampa better than Dallas? Is it one or two simple things? You wish, champ. One or two simple things can be traded for or signed. No, Tampa has built a Cap-ready monster, and it’s here to give you nightmares (see above) and score goals, and it’s getting bored of the nightmares already, so in the 14 seconds you spent reading this article already, Tampa just scored twice more. Now you know how Anton Khudobin felt.

First off, let’s all remember with appropriately forlorn expressions that Andrei Vasilevskiy is basically the Russian equivalent of Jack Campbell Gone Right, insofar as the Lightning drafted him in the first round back in 2012 (19th overall). So that whole, “never draft goalies in the first round” thing? The exception to that canard is when the goalies actually turn out to be studs. Then you can pick them all day long, yessir. Anyway, Vasilevskiy did so well that Tampa was fine trading Ben Bishop four years after Vasilevskiy was drafted, and here we are. (Aside: It’s probably best not to think about what things would have been like if Jack Campbell had been able to start 50 great games in, say, 2014-15. Please, don’t even think about it. I’m trying to spare you.)

Ah, but Tampa isn’t all goaltending and no offense; that’s our boys! No, Tampa has scored, and scored plenty. They have 229 goals already, with 24 more games to play. The Stars are on pace to score 209 goals by season’s end. So I guess what I’m saying is, 6-0 really isn’t anything other than an accurate representation of the disparity between these two teams’ scoring prowess. The Bolts have built a preternaturally potent offense, and it’s mowing down teams as quickly as the NHL schedule can line them up. So I guess, in a way, this is what 2014-15 would have looked like with a fantastic goalie prospect between the pipes. Hm, seems fun.

If you want to compare some more: Steven Stamkos is probably the Tyler Seguin of Tampa, although they also have Brayden Point and someone named Nikita Kucherov, so I guess it’s more like they have two Seguins and a Jamie Benn in his prime along with a bunch of other amazing second line talent spread throughout the bottom nine. It’s worth remembering that Tampa drafted Stamkos first overall and Hedman second, with the recently departed Jonathan Drouin having been drafted a cool 3rd from the top. The NHL pays teams to be bad, not to be mediocre, and Tampa is an example of what happens when a team plays the game the right way from the front office on down.

To that end, it’s almost a cruel irony that Joe Nieuwendyk was able to squeeze as much competitiveness out of his rosters as he did, given how much more fashionable it is these days for teams to outright tank. Dallas may have prided itself on always being “in the race” in the first half of this decade, but man, some top-five picks probably wouldn’t have hurt, eh? Ah, well. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for Dallas to make the playoffs in 2010 and 2011 along with everyone else. We’re all a bunch of dumb fans when the hockey lather gets going.

So yes, Tampa has drafted a couple of good players in later rounds—Ondrej Palat in the 7th, Point in the 3rd—but they’ve largely hit on their early ones and acquired good players elsewhere, as the undrafted Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde remind you. That’s a core that’ll play all day, and when you add a crucial UFA defender like Anton Stralman when too many other teams passed him up a couple years ago, and then you flip another first-rounder (Drouin) when his value’s still really high for Mikhail Sergachev, yeah, the picture of this insane team really starts to take shape.

Oh, but it’s not all about roster building, no. Let’s not forget how Tampa chose Jon Cooper as their head coach while the rest of the NHL continued to spin the Wheel of Former Coaches every time a vacancy came up. Cooper, in case you didn’t know, went to law school and was a public defender for 11 years before he got into coaching. His story is like the Ken Hitchcock path to the NHL, except where the coach is totally willing to roll seven defensemen in Mikhail Sergachev’s early days just to get the kid some sheltered ice time and some looks on the power play without needing to rely on him defensively at first. How about that shot by Sergachev tonight, eh?

(Aside: Julius Honka has now taken the last month off from playing hockey games, so that’s another tactic, too. Both equally valid ways of utilizing your assets and roster slots, absolutely.)

Full disclosure: Cooper was rolling seven defensemen for years, so it’s not like a major change was instituted just for a smaller, offensive defenseman (so-called) or anything. Cooper is just a coach who is willing to think outside the box, who values chemistry and camaraderie over NHL-regurgitated aphorisms. And when you have a really, really good roster, you can try new stuff like a 3-man stack at the blue line on the PK and see if it works instead of worrying that it might lose you a crucial two points. (This article on Cooper and his staff is fascinating, especially considering that it’s where current Stars assistant coach Rick Bowness came from.)

Anyway, I could go on. Victor Hedman is just stupid good, but Tampa has continually looked to add more and better defensemen around him so other teams don’t have much of a window (aside from whatever led to the Dan Girardi move; gotta throw a bone to the hockey boys so they don’t get suspicious, I guess) in which to exploit even the lower lines. Tyler Johnson went from being the next big thing to being a somewhat complementary piece, with his 19 goals and 16 assists “only” being good for the fourth-highest forward total on the team. The Stars’ equivalent of that slot is Jason Spezza, who is not quite providing that level of production. But then, that says more about the Stars’ roster makeup than it does about Spezza.

Tampa is a bit of a self-propelled machine at this point, with some of the best players taking a bit less than they could get elsewhere thanks to Florida tax laws and the team’s overall prospects as an elite force in the NHL. Players want to win, and they’ll pay a bit of cash to do so when the chances look good. Something something Golden State Warriors.

So, yeah. The Stars got skunked 6-0, and that feels bad. But this season is a great example of what a team can do when everything just clicks and you stick with the plan, and I think that’s worth admiring on some level. I’ve written at length before about the Stars’ impatience as a franchise, and how their choices a few years ago led to their path diverging from Tampa’s. That divergence grows more obvious every day, although I would also add to that impatience a misplaced trust in size and heaviness by Dallas as the other huge difference between these teams.

Dallas is the biggest team in the NHL (2nd in height, 2nd in weight), while Tampa Bay is one of the lightest (4th shortest, 9th lightest). When the Stars traded to re-acquire Jamie Oleksiak, it was a perfect representation of where this organization is going compared to Tampa Bay. Dallas chooses size and certainty over other lesser-known players with a higher ceiling but lower-class pedigree. Choosing to be hard to play against instead of being a team that takes the initiative. You know the drill.

You know which teams are hardest to play against? The ones who score the most goals, which is to say who win the most games. Tampa has found goals from all over the place, and now their roster is cram-jam full of points. You don’t have to love them for doing it every night, but it’s hard not to marvel at how they’ve built it. The Stars are far, far more than a mere six goals from catching Tampa.

There are things to be excited about. Yes, even this year. Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg are studs on the blue line, and will be for a few years. That’s such a massive head start on so many other teams. Tyler Seguin is signed for eight more years, and that’s also fabulous. But after that, it’s tough to find too many similarities to Tampa Bay’s elite framework, and that’s troubling. Dallas is like a cover band who knows what parts of the song are supposed to make the crowd go wild, but without sufficient understanding of the harmonies to really draw people into the music enough to make the power chords land.

Creativity is vital to any team’s hopes, and maybe no team moreso than one stuck on the bubble. That’s where the Stars—who are once again a wild card team—are, and have been for two years. The draft lottery isn’t likely to feed them another franchise player any time soon, and they have a whole lot of goals that need to be found if they’re going to keep pace with the new wave of the NHL that we all thought they were riding on the crest of just a few years ago. They have the goaltending, finally; now they need to attend to the goals.