TRAIKOS: Despite what bookmakers say, Lightning should be Cup faves

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TORONTO — When the Tampa Bay Lightning lost to the Colorado Avalanche in last year’s Stanley Cup final, it ended their bid for a third straight championship. But it didn’t necessarily end their reign as a top team in the NHL — no matter what the various betting sites might suggest.

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According to Bet365, six teams currently have better odds of winning a championship next season than Tampa Bay. 

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They include Colorado (+475), Vegas (+700), Boston (+800), Carolina (+1,250), Florida (+1,250) and Toronto (+1,250). Meanwhile, Tampa Bay (+1,400) is ranked just ahead of Calgary (+1,600), which is not even in a playoff spot, as well as New Jersey (+1,600), which has one playoff win in the past 10 years.

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Are we missing something here? 

Did Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov both get injured without anyone knowing? Did Victor Hedman get traded while we were asleep? Did Andrei Vasilevskiy suddenly forget how to stop pucks? 

Or maybe the hockey world simply gets bored talking about a team that has been at the top of the food chain for almost a decade.

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“Everybody’s looking for something new, right? Like somebody new to win it,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “But what’s wrong with the team that wants to sit there and maybe throw the word ‘dynasty’ around?”

You can argue that Tampa Bay is already a dynasty. Up there with those New York Islanders teams that won four straight championships in the early `80s, and those Edmonton Oilers teams that won five Cups in a seven-year span. In some ways, what the Lightning have done is even more impressive.

In a salary cap era, winning back-to-back titles — as Tampa Bay did in 2020 and 2021 — is incredibly hard. Making three straight trips to the final is something that hadn’t been done in almost 40 years. 

Dig deeper and Tampa Bay’s reign goes even further back.

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“I look at this group here and they’ve gone to four finals in eight years, and six of the last eight conference finals,” Cooper said, referencing the Stanley Cup loss to Chicago in 2015. “That’s hard to do. If you can make that run to the top and to be able to stay there and what those guys have done is remarkable.

“Now, is it easy for fans and the media to sleep on it and say, ‘Oh, they’re just the Lightning again? I suppose. So, cherish it when you’re here. And if you’ve got the chance to stay there, make sure you do.”

Two months into the season, Tampa Bay is not going anywhere. 

After starting the year with 7-6-1 record, the Lightning headed into Tuesday’s game against the Maple Leafs with the fifth-best record in the NHL, having won 13 of their last 16 games. You just might not know it because they play in a division where Boston still hasn’t lost in regulation on home ice and Toronto recently went on a run where they picked up points in 15 straight games.

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“It’s certainly been a more under-the-radar season,” said Stamkos. “But I think last year was similar too. We just go about doing our thing. We know we have a nucleus here that’s been here for a while that has been through a lot. And we can kind of just navigate the waters of an 82-game schedule and know how to react.

“There’s not a lot that needs to be said with this group. We know that we have a good team. We know we have some really, really talented players and if we play our game we know (what we can do).”

While the core is the same, this isn’t the same team that won in 2020 or 2021. After losing their entire third line a year ago, Tampa Bay had to say goodbye to winger Ondrej Palat and defenceman Ryan McDonagh in the summer. Those are two big losses. Palat finished second on the team in playoff scoring last year, while only Victor Hedman logged more minutes on the backend than McDonagh.

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“We’re a different team than we have been in the past,” said Stamkos. “But that’s no reason to throw in the towel.”

Indeed, there are 10 players on this year’s roster who were not part of the Cup-winning teams.

This is now an older team. Some might say it should be a tired team. The result of amassing nearly a season’s worth of playoff games over the past three years. That takes a toll. 

It’s why teams rarely win back-to-back championships anymore — much less return to the final year after year after year. And yet, despite the wear and tear and mental fatigue, this is still a team with Stamkos and Kucherov, with Hedman and Vasilevskiy, with Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli.

The scariest part is that with the exception of Stamkos, who becomes a UFA at the end of 2024-25, most of the core is signed for the next three to seven years.

“I’m 32 and we’ve got this unbelievable team and you just can’t let these opportunities go by,” said Hedman. “When you have a successful team like we do, we just have to take advantage of that. We’re not going to play this game until we’re 65.”

In other words, don’t bet on Tampa Bay not returning to the Cup final for a fourth straight year.

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