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After breakthrough season, Tampa Bay Lightning face tough off-season questions

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Tampa Bay Lightning players, fans and front office members probably woke up with some sadness in their hearts today after the team fell just a bit short of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals. That being said, there probably weren’t many people who expected them to get this far in just the first full season for new GM Steve Yzerman and head coach Guy Boucher.

Yet there might be another reason many people around the franchise have heavy hearts this morning: the Lightning face some tough decisions going into this summer. On the bright side, Yzerman can put his stamp on this team with a ton of salary cap space. Various sources indicate that the salary cap ceiling will range from $60.5-$63.5 million, which would leave the Lightning with about $24-$27 million to work with and 9-12 roster spots to fill. On the not-so-bright side, some of the most important players from the 2011 playoff run (and 2010-11 regular season) need new contracts.

Let’s take a look at the many tough calls Yzerman and his staff face this summer.

Steven Stamkos (restricted free agent – previous cap hit: $3.725 million) – How much will the Lightning need to pay Stamkos, a 21-year-old forward who posted two 90+ point seasons, with 51 goals in 2009-10 and 45 in 10-11? If you ask me, the Lightning would have been better off signing him soon after July 1, 2010, before the league really started clamping down on “loophole” contracts with Ilya Kovalchuk. Don’t be surprised if Stamkos shoots for a Vincent Lecavalier-level $7 million+ salary cap contract, although Yzerman will probably try to point him closer to Martin St. Louis’ $5.25 million annual cap hit.

Either way, the days of getting Stamkos’ production for less than they pay Ryan Malone ($4.5 million) are over.

Dwayne Roloson and Mike Smith (unrestricted free agents – previously registered $2.5 million cap hits each) – Both of the goalies the Lightning started during the Eastern Conference finals will be unrestricted free agents on July 1. The 41-year-old Roloson won’t require a long-term deal while Smith will probably take a pay cut after failing to stick as a No. 1 goalie, so neither netminder should be super-pricey. Neither seem like iron-clad solutions in net, either, though. Will Yzerman opt to shoot for a free agent goalie such as Ilya Bryzgalov or Tomas Vokoun instead?

Simon Gagne (unrestricted – previously $5.25 million) – When healthy, Gagne is an asset, especially in the playoffs (12 points in 15 postseason games in 2011; 12 in 19 in 2010). The questions are: how healthy can the Lightning expect him to be and what kind of term is he looking for? At 31-years-old, Gagne could reasonably ask for a 5-6 year deal and get it (somewhere). I’m just not sure if Tampa Bay would be that place.

Teddy Purcell (restricted – previously $750K) and Sean Bergenheim (unrestricted – previously $700K) – Stamkos, Gagne and the goalies were predictable problems for Yzerman. How many people saw the red-hot playoff runs by Purcell (six goals, 17 points) and Bergenheim (nine goals, 11 points) coming, though? Bergenheim might make more money since he’s an unrestricted free agent and received more buzz from the hockey media (despite scoring six fewer points). Either way, their accountants probably feel more confident now than they did in April.

Eric Brewer (unrestricted – previously $4.25 million) – A lot of people thought Brewer was “done” before the St. Louis Blues traded him to the Lightning, yet he lead a shaky Tampa Bay defense in ice time with 25:42 minutes per game in the postseason. That’s about 3:30 more per game than the second leading skater, Victor Hedman. Brewer is likely to take a pay cut with his next contract, but he probably regained some bargaining power during the playoff run.

Others: Adam Hall, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Randy Jones (unrestricted); Mike Lundin and Matt Smaby (restricted).

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As you can see, the Lightning need to make some tough choices this summer. They also need to factor in the summer of 2012, too, as Victor Hedman, Steve Downie, Dominic Moore and other players will see their contracts expire at that time.

Ultimately, we’ll see if Yzerman can continue the momentum from a great first season in a much tougher second summer. Tampa Bay features plenty of firepower on offense, but have questions in net and problems on defense. It should be fascinating to watch what direction this team takes as the 2010-11 season approaches. We’ll keep you informed along the way.

Colorado’s core is under heavy scrutiny, yet again

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25: (l-r) Joe Sakic and Alan Hepple of the Colorado Avalanche attend the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Prior to Thursday’s loss to Columbus, Colorado GM Joe Sakic was asked how his core players have performed during an ugly 9-12-1 start to the year — “inconsistent,” he said — and was then asked he had any intention of breaking the core up.

“Not right now, no,” Sakic said, per the Denver Post. “It’s early in the year.

“I have faith in them, but to me, the start is not a core thing — it’s a team thing.”

Not long after Sakic said that, the Avs lost their fourth straight game, putting them on 19 points — tied with Arizona for the fewest in the NHL.

And then, in his first real bit of message-sending, head coach Jared Bednar took the core to task.

“I’m going to say this,” Bednar said in his postgame media availability. “Tonight, I thought our supporting cast did a real good job up front. I didn’t love some of our top guys tonight. Not that they didn’t work hard, but I didn’t love their game as a whole.”

The controversy surrounding Colorado’s core guys dates back to the Patrick Roy era. After missing the playoffs for a second straight year — which he called “unacceptable” — Roy unloaded on his top players in an April radio interview, saying “the core needs to show more leadership.”

“It was like this when I played for Montreal, it was like this when I played for the Avs,” Roy continued. “The core are the ones that have to carry the team. They’re the ones where, when you lose a game, it has to hurt from the inside. You should want more.”

At this point, it’s probably prudent to identify exactly who comprises the Avs’ core. The Post says it’s “generally considered to be six players, now all tied up to long-term contracts.” Six of the longest-term contracts on Colorado’s books belong to Nathan MacKinnon (signed through 2023), Erik Johnson (2023), Gabriel Landeskog (2021), Tyson Barrie (2020), Matt Duchene (2019) and Semyon Varlamov (2019).

Carl Soderberg, signed through 2020, could be seen as the potential seventh member.

Roy clearly wanted to move on from at least some of these guys, and the fact Sakic didn’t was a major reason why Roy abruptly resigned in August. But it wasn’t that Sakic just keep the core intact — he actually strengthened his commitment to it by giving Barrie a four-year extension this summer, at a time when many figured the puck-moving blueliner would be dealt.

In light of that, it’s not really surprising that Sakic came out yesterday and publicly defended his core guys.

He’s sticking to his guns.

For now, anyway.

Like the Blackhawks, the Ducks have a youth movement of their own

Anaheim Ducks' Ondrej Kase, center, of the Czech Republic, celebrates his goal against the Vancouver Canucks with Ryan Getzlaf, left, Nick Ritchie, front right, and Cam Fowler, back, during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Vancouver, British Columba. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
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The Anaheim Ducks, after a fairly unimpressive start under new/old coach Randy Carlyle, are slowly but surely beginning to find their game. The Ducks dominated the Canucks last night in Vancouver, a 3-1 triumph that came after consecutive victories in San Jose and at home to Montreal.

Last night’s game-winning goal was scored by Ondrej Kase, a 21-year-old rookie forward from the Czech Republic who was playing only his eighth NHL game.

That’s worth mentioning, because the Ducks have been forced to introduce a number of young forwards into their lineup, after losing the likes of David Perron, Chris Stewart, and Jamie McGinn to free agency, and while Nate Thompson remains sidelined with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Carlyle was asked if his lineup needed some fresh blood anyway, after last season’s disappointing first-round playoff exit.

“Well, if we did or didn’t, it was budget,” he said. “Simple as that. So that’s the way the hockey world works. You can’t maintain the level of player and the pay scale when you have talent in your lineup that grows. So you always have to have a fresh supplement of talent, and they have to be entry-level people.”

The Ducks, of course, had to give significant raises to a couple of their young stars, Rickard Rakell and Hampus Lindholm.

     Read more: With Lindholm signed, Ducks GM hopes to keep team together

Kase, a seventh-round draft pick in 2014, is just one of the rookie forwards who’ve played for the Ducks this season. Joseph Cramarossa is another. Nick Ritchie isn’t a rookie, but he’s still on his entry-level deal.

“We’re still very much so a work in progress from the standpoint that we haven’t found a niche for every player,” said Carlyle. “You know, big Ritchie’s been a good player for us. … Cramarossa basically coming in and earning a spot in training camp. Kase. Those are decent entries into our lineup and we don’t have to play them too high. And that really helps when you don’t have to put them into your top-six forward grouping.”

That’s because the Ducks still have veterans like Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Corey PerryJakob SilfverbergAndrew Cogliano, and Antoine Vermette.

The Ducks, in that way, are a lot like the Chicago Blackhawks, who’ve been forced to an even larger extent to insert fresh blood into their lineup. It’s been a work in progress for Chicago as well. Though the ‘Hawks have been winning a lot of games, they’ve been heavily reliant on their veterans for goals. Whether they can become a consistent three- or four-line threat by springtime remains to be seen.

In fact, for both teams, that question may very well determine how far they go in the playoffs.

Because like Carlyle said, for teams to remain successful in today’s NHL, there has to be that constant supply of young talent. The Pittsburgh Penguins, with their contributions from all the Baby Pens, proved that again last season.

When that supply runs out, well, did you see the team the Ducks played last night? There’s a reason the Canucks are no longer among the league’s elite. Their supply ran out for a few years, and it’s only starting now to be replenished.

Abdelkader out 2-4 weeks as another — yes, another — injury hits Detroit

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 15: Justin Abdelkader #8 of the Detroit Red Wings skates against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center on March 15, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Flyers defeated the Red Wings 4-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Injuries are a part of the game. But in Detroit, they’re becoming a fabric of the team.

On Friday, the Red Wings announced that burly power forward Justin Abdelkader would miss the next 2-4 weeks with a MCL sprain (per the Free Press), suffered in last night’s OT loss to Florida.

Abdelkader — who has four goals and eight points through 22 games this season — was averaging 16:26 TOI per night prior to getting hurt. He’d also been heating up lately after a slow start to the year, with four points in his last six contests.

As mentioned in the headline, this is just the latest in a series of injuries to hit the Wings:

Andreas Athanasiou has been out since Nov. 11 with a knee injury.

Darren Helm has been out since Nov. 17 with a shoulder issue.

Jimmy Howard hasn’t played since Nov. 25 due to a groin strain.

Alexey Marchenko was placed on IR last week with a shoulder problem of his own.

Brendan Smith is out four weeks with a knee injury.

Tyler Bertuzzi is out 3-5 weeks with a high ankle sprain.

The club is expected to make another recall from AHL Grand Rapids to fill the Abdelkader void. Leaning on the Griffins has been a common trend this year — in last night’s game against the Panthers, both Anthony Mantha and Ryan Sproul saw significant playing time.

Gudbranson threatened Martin in a ‘fit of rage,’ didn’t really mean what he said

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Erik Gudbranson didn’t really mean it. He doesn’t actually intend to kill Matt Martin.

“That was kind of a spur of the moment,” Gudbranson said Thursday. “I was walking to the dressing room. I was just frustrated. That was a tough night. Do I mean anything I said? Absolutely not. That’s outrageous. That’s just kind of a fit of rage. Unfortunately, it got blown up to that proportion.”

Gudbranson, of course, was heard saying, “Matt Martin’s dead,” after his Vancouver Canucks got thumped, 6-3, in Toronto on Nov. 5. Martin, the big Maple Leafs forward, had gone after Canuck rookie Troy Stecher in the boisterous affair, which had also featured a controversial Nazem Kadri hit on Daniel Sedin, among a few other things.

The Canucks have a rematch with the Leafs Saturday in Vancouver.

Gudbranson was asked if he’d heard anything from the league ahead of the game. He hadn’t, personally, but his general manager, Jim Benning, was contacted, and then Benning relayed the message to Gudbranson.

The message is obviously that the league will be watching closely.

The Canucks, currently missing their two best defenseman, had one of their worst performances of the season Thursday, falling 3-1 to the Ducks at Rogers Arena. So they should be doubly motivated to play well Saturday against the visitors from Toronto.

“That’s a good hockey team that spanked us in their own building,” Gudbranson said of the Leafs. “Our main focus, and especially mine, is coming out and getting two points. That’s the best way to hurt them. We need to be ready for a big tilt.”