This story is part of ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 12 Owners Issue. Subscribe today!
Tampa Bay Lightning
Title track: 21
Fan relations: 2
Stadium experience: 3
Bang for the buck: 9
Change from last year: +3
The Lightning fell just short of the ultimate prize last season, losing a hotly contested, six-game Stanley Cup final to the Blackhawks. But the Bolts are hockey's big winners as far as we're concerned. Not only did Tampa Bay reach the upper echelon of our Ultimate Standings, finishing third overall and first among NHL teams, it is top-four among all pro clubs in four categories.
The Lightning finished eighth across all leagues in the players category, and while that position isn't as impressive as their score in ownership, fan relations, affordability or stadium experience, their success in those areas flows from the product they put on the ice. The franchise has slowly cultivated an authentic fan base in central Florida, the rare Sun Belt market to do so, and the average ticket price of just $44.50 (the NHL's second lowest) is enough to make fans forget about paying a league-high 6 bucks for a 20-ounce soft drink. Efforts to keep opposing fans out of Amalie Arena by limiting ticket sales to Florida residents have been successful, enabling the club to maintain a partisan atmosphere in the league's seventh-largest building, where they posted the best home record in the NHL last season.
The Bolts aren't poor anywhere, but it's notable that despite their stirring run to the final, their title track jumped just five spots heading into 2015-16. The explanation could lie in the uncertain long-term future of franchise player Steven Stamkos. The captain is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at season's end, and although Stamkos and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman both say they want their partnership to continue, there's no deal yet. Without Stamkos and his all-world scoring ability on board, the Bolts' championship prospects would dim considerably.
While Stamkos is the undisputed headliner, Yzerman has put plenty of pieces around him, resulting in a 25-point jump in personnel since last season. The GM took a risk by swapping now-retired future Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis for gritty Rangers forward Ryan Callahan last year, but Yzerman was able to retain the pending unrestricted free agent by inking him long-term. He then added two of Callahan's former New York teammates, imposing center Brian Boyle and underrated defenseman Anton Stralman, as free agents last summer. But the GM's gamble on undrafted, undersized Tyler Johnson -- whose breakout 2014-15 included an All-Star selection and the playoff scoring crown -- was Yzerman's savviest move of all. No surprise, then, that the Lightning recorded the best score in hockey for getting the most for the money they spend (and affordable tickets, and fan promotions, and honest ownership, and social media, and fan friendliness ...).