In 2019, the Columbus Blue Jackets engineered one of the biggest upsets in Stanley Cup playoff history. Columbus had never won a playoff round. They faced the Tampa Bay Lightning, a regular season juggernaut who posted a plus-103 goal differential while matching the NHL record of 62 wins.
Tampa jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first period of Game 1. "The biggest turning point of that series was early in the second period," said David Savard, then a defenseman with the Blue Jackets. "Our goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, made a massive save on [Nikita] Kucherov, on a pass from [Steven] Stamkos, that would have made the game 4-0. That kept us in it. We got a goal, and then we kept believing. After that, we stuck to the process. We saw a little frustration in their team, and that fueled us to play the right way."
After Columbus won that game, and the next three, the Lightning became the first Presidents' Trophy winners ever to be swept in the first round.
When Columbus faced Tampa Bay in the playoffs again in 2020, things had changed. Lightning GM Julien BriseBois put an emphasis on toughness, adding Patrick Maroon and Zach Bogosian in free agency, then acquiring forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow at the trade deadline.
"I feel like we [the Blue Jackets] were a big part of why they went and got Coleman and Goodrow," Savard said. "They were more focused on offense before. Now, they were way harder defensively. They didn't rely on their talent to win games, they relied on hard work. Our mindset was to play defensive against them, limit odd-man rushes and stuff like this, and it was almost impossible to create something against them."
Tampa eliminated Columbus in five games, and broke through to win the Stanley Cup. As the Lightning embarked on their quest to repeat in 2021, they identified the next player they needed to get them over a hump: David Savard.
Savard, 30, played his entire 10-year NHL career in Columbus. He's a defensive-minded defenseman, who was known, if anything, for his propensity to block shots. He's the Blue Jackets' all-time leader with 958, which is nearly 200 more than anyone else. He is not renowned for the criteria often used in Norris Trophy voting these days: offensive capabilities. Savard had a 107-game goal drought that stretched into this season. Asked to describe Savard, one former teammate offered three phrases: "Low-key, low maintenance, hard worker."
"I'm usually under the radar," Savard said. "And I don't mind that role. I like competing and playing hard for my team, but I don't do it to be the top guy or whatever."
Yet with Savard on an expiring contract, and the Blue Jackets realizing they needed to rebuild, the defenseman was approached by GM Jarmo Kekalainen after a late-March road trip to Detroit and Florida. "I kind of saw it coming," Savard said. "Jarmo basically told me there was a good possibility they were going to let me go."
For nearly two weeks, Savard was in an unfamiliar place: the most sought after, and perhaps most talked about, defenseman in the entire NHL. "I tried not to pay attention to too much of what was being said," Savard said. "It was definitely weird, knowing so many people were talking about you. At the same time, it was really cool to know a lot of teams wanted you."
Ultimately, the Lightning landed Savard, giving up a 2021 first-round pick, 2021 fourth-round pick and 2022 third-round pick for the rugged defenseman.
For Savard, it was an unbelievable opportunity. "Not a lot of teams have won back-to-back Cups, and so it's a great chance to do something special," Savard said. "It's pretty cool to be part of that group."
For the Lightning, it was a steep price to pay for a player who can leave this summer. The extra draft capital was thrown in to fit Savard under the Lightning's tight cap, as the Blue Jackets and Red Wings both retained part of Savard's $4.25 million cap hit.
The Lightning had also given up first-round picks for Coleman and Goodrow, and those moves immediately led to a Stanley Cup. Savard knew fans expected him to help deliver the same -- even if he was given less wiggle room, with a contract expiring this summer.
"When you arrive on a new team, you want to do well, and you might put too much pressure on yourself," Savard said. "At first, you're trying to keep your same game. Obviously it's a team that has so much skill, you're trying to make more plays than you have to. But sometimes you need to take a step back, and breathe, and let the play come to you."
It wasn't the smoothest start for Savard, who was used to doing things a certain way for so long. Over his first 14 games in Tampa, the Lightning were outscored when Savard was on the ice, 14-3.
"I felt like I was thinking too much out there," Savard said. "You always want to be in the right place. Hockey is still the same game. I know their system, but it's all about the battles. If you think too much on the ice, you're late to plays. I think the neutral zone [strategy] is a lot different than what I was used to in Columbus for the last six years [John Tortorella] was there. I played most of my games always with the same partner for years. Now I'm adjusting to that, and still even learning the names of drills and things like this because there's not time to learn them. But every game I'm feeling more comfortable out there. And that's good, because we're gearing up for a long run."
Savard has been improving, and credits the coaching staff for regularly meeting with him whenever possible to keep him up to speed. "We haven't had much time for practices," he said. "But they're really good about showing me things good or bad. Everyone is trying to help me out, and it's been pretty easy to fit into the group and know the guys."
To begin the first round, Savard admits, "I wasn't at my best." Toward the end of the series, he tried to "play more physically, play my style" and it showed. Game 6 of the first round, for example, may have been one of his best in a Lightning uniform, including smothering a 2-on-1 chance in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy. He missed the first two games in the second round because of an upper-body injury.
Being on the Lightning has given him a new appreciation for their players, and what they were able to accomplish last year.
"Obviously, looking at Kuch in the first round is pretty impressive. I've been on the other side of some of those passes, but to look at him every day and see how he works in practice is pretty cool," Savard said. "And I think of Brayden Point too. What he did [in Game 6 of the first round] to close out the series, the little plays he makes through guys, and to find open spaces is pretty incredible. He was hard to play against, but I'm really happy to be on his team now instead of the other side of that."
Savard and his wife, Valerie, are living out of a rental property in Tampa Bay with their three young children. "The kids are pretty young, so it wasn't too hard, they didn't have too many friends to say goodbye to," he said. "But it was a new experience for them, and they handled it really well, which makes it easier for me to just play hockey."
Savard enters free agency this summer, meaning he'll get a say on where he goes next.
"I haven't really put much thought into it, really," he said. "Right now, I'm trying to focus on playing well here and helping the team win a Stanley Cup. After all this is done, we'll figure out what the situation is. It's hard to know, with the expansion draft, what teams will have room with the cap, so we'll see when that day happens."