NHL players can go their entire career without ever getting a chance to play in the Stanley Cup final and when you're on a rebuilding team, it may be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. So what's it like to go from the basement to the penthouse overnight? That's what a number of players experience every year at the trade deadline and two of the most prominent this season are Colorado's Josh Manson and Tampa Bay's Nick Paul.
Manson, the rugged defenseman, started off the year in Anaheim, where the Ducks were finding out what they had in dynamic youngsters such as Trevor Zegras, Jamie Drysdale and Troy Terry. While the team did have other veterans in Kevin Shattenkirk and Hampus Lindholm (to name a couple), by the time the deadline was approaching it was clear there would be no post-season in the O.C.
Manson was dealt to Colorado in mid-March for prospect blueliner Drew Helleson and a second-rounder in 2023, putting him on the same dynamic Avs back end as Cale Makar, Devon Toews and Samuel Girard. Needless to say, he has learned how to pick up the pace in Colorado, where Makar and friends often make a difference on offense as well.
"We're still learning from each other and it's so much fun," Manson said. "You need to play within the system and find open lanes. It's a whole group effort to play fast and that's what this team has been doing so well."
Manson knows how hard it is to win a Cup, as he grew up watching his father Dave Manson play in the NHL. Dave's best opportunity came in 2000, when his Dallas Stars made the final against New Jersey, falling to the Devils in six games. As soon as Josh got to Colorado, he realized how different the Avs' mindset was from the rebuilding Ducks.
"Oh man, it was crazy," he said. "You don't really realize the mentality you have. In Anaheim, when I first came in (2014-15, led by Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry) we were winning. We had a winning culture and we were expected to win. Then you start losing and you think you're doing the same things, but you're on the losing end of games. Coming here, it's a refresh. There's the mentality, that hunger, that belief in the group that if we just go out and play, we're going to win. It's a special thing and you can't quite put your finger on it, but when you're in it, you can feel it. The guys here expect to win and that's an intoxicating feeling."
It's been a similar experience for Paul, whose Ottawa Senators had a ton of young talent - Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Josh Norris - but are still putting the pieces together. Paul was acquired by the Lightning a few days after the Manson deal, with Ottawa getting energy guy Mathieu Joseph and a 2024 fourth-rounder in return.
"It's definitely a little different," Paul said. "In Ottawa...you're not used to losing, but it's part of building, right? It's part of learning how to win. Then you come to a team that already knows how to win. You can feel it in the room from the leaders: you're down in a game but you have confidence in each other that somebody is going to step up and we're never out of the game. There's always the possibility to come back and win. Just that calm, confident belief in each other is a little bit of a change."
Paul has already paid dividends for Tampa Bay during this run, notching both Lightning goals in the 2-1 Game 7 victory over Toronto in the opening round. And even though he's a penalty-killer and two-way guy, he also has some excellent stick skills (I have personally seen him pull off some gravity-defying lacrosse-style shootout goals at summer pro camps in Toronto), which he is not afraid to use with Tampa Bay.
"Coming to this team, I had a little more confidence to pull some moves off or do an extra play," he said. "I started my role simple and hard, winning all my battles and doing things to help the team win as a role player. But I also have that touch that can help when goals need to be scored. That was one thing where I came to the team, I knew my role and knew what I wasn't going to stray away from, but they also let me show my ability and skill and gain confidence to make plays. It has definitely been a great fit with open communication."
Three months ago, Paul and Manson were looking at early tee times this summer. Now, thanks to a change of scenery, one of them will be hoisting the Cup for the very first time.