How the Tampa Bay Lightning built a juggernaut out of spare parts
Dave Sandford / National Hockey League / Getty

In a 4-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 3 - their league-best 36th victory of the season - the Tampa Bay Lightning got goals from Victor Hedman, Yanni Gourde, Chris Kunitz, and Cory Conacher.

Hedman's pedigree is well-established; the 6-foot-6 defenseman was the second overall pick in 2009 and has developed into one of the NHL's top blue-liners. But for the other three goal-scorers, the path to the NHL was significantly more daunting; all three were undrafted free agents, passed over for a variety of reasons before playing their way onto the Lightning's radar and, eventually, the roster.

Their role in Tampa's rise to the top of the league standings is nothing short of astounding. Entering Tuesday, the Lightning led the NHL with a 38-15-3 record while ranking first in goals per game (3.6), sixth in goals against (2.6), and third in power-play success rate (23.8 percent) - and they've done it with a lineup built largely out of spare parts.

Nearly a quarter of the players who've appeared in at least 20 games for the Lightning this season are undrafted free agents. Three others are seventh-round picks, including two they selected themselves. Nikita Kucherov, the league's leading scorer, was taken 58th overall in 2011. Brayden Point, chosen in the third round in 2014, played in this year's All-Star Game - in front of the home fans at Amalie Arena - in just his second NHL season.

Tampa has become the NHL's Island of Misfit Toys, getting major production out of players previously considered too small, too slow, or just not good enough for the league. And, in an era in which virtually every talented player is scouted multiple times per season, no team tops the Lightning when it comes to identifying the few hidden gems that do exist.

"The Lightning are an incredible story," Rogers Sportsnet and NHL Network hockey insider Chris Johnston told theScore. "It is a story of excellence at every level. The Lightning have one of the best and most committed owners in the league. They have a fantastic front office, which has made shrewd trades and navigated some tricky contract situations. And they have an innovative coaching staff and lots of great players. They've come a long way as an organization in half a decade."

Much of the credit belongs to general manager and master architect Steve Yzerman, who inherited a roster in May 2010 that had gone three straight years without a playoff berth. And, while a team that features Hedman and 2008 No. 1 overall pick Steven Stamkos is never truly hopeless, it was clear from the outset an injection of young talent was an absolute must.

Many were curious to see what Yzerman had learned about roster construction from his Hall of Fame career in Detroit, which served as the model NHL franchise for most of the 1990s and 2000s. And it didn't take him long to show what he picked up from his time in Hockeytown.

"What Steve Yzerman appears to have gleaned from his time with the Red Wings is the value of making your plan and sticking with it," Johnston said. "He doesn't waver when the winds start blowing in different directions."

Despite sharpening his skills in a two-year stint with the Red Wings' front office prior to joining the Lightning, Yzerman's first crack at the draft didn't go so well. Only two out of eight players Tampa selected in 2010 (Brett Connolly and Radko Gudas) appeared in an NHL game, and both were shipped out of town in separate deals on March 2, 2015.

But Yzerman hit the mother lode the following year, snagging Vladislav Namestnikov in the first round, Kucherov in the second, and Ondrej Palat with the 208th pick. The trio has combined for 672 career NHL points; Kucherov and Palat both rank in the top 10 in scoring in their draft class, while Namestnikov is enjoying a career year with 40 points in 56 games.

"When NHL teams basically stopped drafting Russian players out of fear they'd never leave the KHL, Yzerman didn't follow suit," Johnston said. "He selected Andrei Vasilevskiy, Kucherov, Namestnikov, and Nikita Nesterov over two drafts. Each of them became part of the Lightning team that went to the 2015 Stanley Cup final. In Detroit, of course, Yzerman played alongside some great Russian players, and he believed that the lure of the NHL would still be strong enough for the best players to come to North America.

"He trusted his instincts. (They) paid off."

Kucherov is the diamond of Yzerman's draft trove, entering Tuesday with 71 points in 56 games on the heels of an impressive 40-goal, 85-point showing last season. The 24-year-old Quebec Major Junior Hockey League alum is on pace to become just the third player not drafted in the first round to win a scoring title since the 2004-05 lockout, joining Lightning legend Martin St. Louis (2012-13) and Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn (2014-15).

That 2011 draft, which also yielded puck-moving defenseman Nesterov (148th overall) and forward prospect Matthew Peca (201st), established Yzerman and his scouting team as one of the savviest units in the NHL - and the mid-to-late-round hits kept on coming:

  • Cedric Paquette was taken in the fourth round of the 2012 draft; after starring for Blaineville-Boisbriand of the QMJHL, the hard-hitting center spent a year in the AHL before becoming a fixture in Tampa's bottom-six forward corps.
  • Towering defenseman Jake Dotchin was selected in the sixth round in 2012; Dotchin split his Ontario Hockey League tenure between Owen Sound and Barrie, then spent parts of three seasons in the AHL before getting promoted to the Lightning.
  • Point was drafted 79th overall out of Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League; passed over for being undersized, Point went on to play in a pair of World Junior Hockey Championships and has produced 87 points in 124 career NHL games, including 47 in 56 games this season.

Yet, for as much value as Tampa has mined from unheralded prospects, what truly sets the Lightning apart from the majority of the league is their faith in - and development of - players who never even made it to the draft stage.

Tampa's fascination with the underdog predates Yzerman's arrival by a decade. Signed as a free agent from Calgary in 2000, the diminutive St. Louis went from undrafted afterthought to two-time Art Ross Trophy winner and 2004 Stanley Cup champion; he retired in 2015 as the all-time franchise leader in assists (588), points (953), and game-winning goals (64).

Yzerman's first notable UDFA addition, forward Tyler Johnson, signed with the Lightning in March 2011 in the midst of a 115-point breakout with the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL. After two productive seasons in the AHL and a 14-game audition in St. Petersburg, Johnson made the Lightning full time in 2013-14 and promptly put up a 50-point season, finishing third in the Calder Trophy voting.

He has been one of the team's most reliable forwards since, setting a career high with 72 points in 2014-15 and having recorded 16 goals and 26 assists through his first 55 games this season.

Yzerman's UDFA success continued with the addition of defenseman Andrej Sustr, who signed with Tampa out of Nebraska-Omaha of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in March 2013. The 6-foot-7, 220-pounder has suited up in more than 300 regular-season games and 46 playoff contests.

Gourde, 26, is the latest undrafted free agent to make waves in Tampa. The former Quebec Major Junior Hockey League scoring champion and league MVP signed in 2014, and finally made it to the big club after spending the majority of the next three seasons with the Lightning's AHL affiliate.

Gourde is third in the NHL among rookie scorers with 42 points, behind only Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders and Brock Boeser of Vancouver. And while Gourde is a longshot to win the Calder Trophy, if he does, he'll be just the third UDFA in 27 years to do so, joining Chicago Blackhawks forward Artemi Panarin (2016) and Hall of Fame goalie Ed Belfour (1991).

"It's amazing," Gourde said following Monday's practice. "(But) of all the personal stuff, it's nothing compared to the team we have this year, and the accomplishment we're trying to do here. It's fun to be part of it."

For as well as the Lightning have made out with young UDFAs, Tampa has also invested smartly in veteran players who went undrafted.

Kunitz, 38, signed with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2003; the Lightning are his fourth NHL team. Bruising defenseman Dan Girardi, 33, spent nearly 11 years on Broadway after joining the Rangers as a UDFA in 2006. Conacher, 28, is enjoying his second stint in Tampa after inking a deal in 2012; he had 24 points in 35 games before being traded to Ottawa the following April.

Having a mix of high draft picks and former minor-league grinders in the same dressing room could conceivably create problems when it comes to chemistry. But Johnson says one of the keys to Tampa's success is how none of the players dwell on where they've come from - only on how they're playing now, and what they hope to accomplish in the future.

"I think it's all about the kind of player you are today," Johnson said. "It doesn't matter if you're a first-round pick, if you're first overall, or if you're undrafted - everyone's treated the same, it just depends how you play.

"Everyone's treated the same, everyone has the same amount of input in what we do. I think everybody helps each other, even the young guys. Different things that they're doing, we can learn from, and as vets, we try to help them in certain situations because we've been there."

Gourde agrees.

"It's a big thing, and everybody in this organization gets along," he said. "It's a big part of this team. We work together, we want to get better together, and I think everything is team-oriented."

The Lightning boast the NHL's most eclectic player mix - and having the right man at the helm has been critical to their success. Head coach Jon Cooper took over in 2013 after spending three seasons in the AHL and winning the league title with Norfolk in 2012; that team featured Conacher (80 points), Johnson (68), and Palat (30).

Cooper's relationships with several of the Lightning's late picks and UDFAs - having coached many of them in the minors - have served him well. Tampa Bay won at least 42 games in each of his first four full seasons and is well on its way to surpassing that total this year.

"There aren’t many NHL coaches like Jon Cooper," Johnston said. "He's part-motivator, part-goofball, but all-in on doing the work necessary to win a Cup. Where Cooper seems to excel is connecting with his players - and that shows most with the way younger guys have been absorbed into this lineup.

"He's taken a teenager like Mikhail Sergachev, for example, and put him in a position to succeed with sheltered minutes at even strength and lots of power-play time. He's a coach that earns the trust of his guys, makes them comfortable, and gets more out of them as a result."

Yzerman has said relying on young players with friendly contracts is a must in today's cap era - and in that regard, the Lightning's sustained success might actually work against the team down the road. After all, someone is going to pay Kucherov, Point, Palat, and others - and, as we've seen with other teams, particularly the Blackhawks, keeping together a solid young core is incredibly challenging if everyone plays their way into a big contract.

But Johnston believes if any team is equipped to navigate the league's salary cap minefield, it's the Lightning.

"When you have as many high-quality players as Tampa does, the cap is always going to pose challenges," Johnston said. "But the Lightning have done an incredible job of holding the line with their guys. Yzerman got Kucherov to sign a bridge deal out of entry level and now he's one of the biggest bargains in the league.

"Even when Kucherov gets a big pay raise next summer, the GM will be able to point to an internal cap - with Stamkos at $8.5 million and Hedman at $7.88 million on long-term deals. It’s highly unlikely his next AAV (annual average value) is much higher than those. That, in turn, will establish a bar for Point, Sergachev, and future Lightning stars to come."

That the Tampa Bay front office likely faces some difficult contract decisions is a minor quibble for a team that was in total disarray just five years ago. Locked in as the prohibitive favorites to win their second Stanley Cup, Yzerman and the Lightning are in a truly enviable position - built both to win now and to compete for years to come, a finely-tuned machine that is so much more than the sum of its unconventional parts.

(theScore NHL editor Sean O'Leary contributed to this feature.)

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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How the Tampa Bay Lightning built a juggernaut out of spare parts
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