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.

NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Lightning vs. Devils; Canadiens vs. Sharks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Tuesday night. In the early game, the New Jersey Devils host the Tampa Bay Lightning at 7:30 p.m. ET. To watch the game online, click here

The Lightning are coming off a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Monday night. For the sixth game in a row, Nikita Kucherov managed to find the back of the net (he actually scored twice, including the game-winner).

When injuries were piling up for the Bolts last season, the Russian winger was the guy they relied on to get the job done. This season, that hasn’t changed. The Lightning are healthier than they were a year ago, but he just keeps on rolling.

Another player who’s performed well, is goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. The young netminder became the full-time starter when the Lightning traded Ben Bishop to the Kings last season. Although he had some ups and downs last year, he’s been terrific this season.

His individual numbers might not jump off the page (3.00 goals-against-average and a .914 save percentage), but he’s come up with a number of big saves already in 2017-18. Last night’s game against the Wings was no different.

“He’s our starter for a reason,” head coach Jon Cooper said after the win over the Wings, per the Tampa Times. “If you want to win in this league, you have to check and you need your goaltender to bail you out on occasions. And the times we haven’t been checking, Vasy has bailed us out.”

After missing the playoffs last season, many expected the Lightning to be better now. The same can not be said for the Devils, but they’ve been one of the pleasant surprises so far.

New Jersey has a 4-1-0 record and they own a plus-8 goal differential. This young team has really come together early, and it’ll be interesting to see if they’re able to keep it together.

Rookies Will Butcher and Jesper Bratt have been nothing short of fantastic in the early going. Butcher, who the Devils signed as a college free agent this summer, has eight assists in five games. Bratt has accumulated six points in five contests, which isn’t bad for a 19-year-old drafted in the sixth round.

“He’s a good player,” forward Drew Stafford said of Butcher, per NJ.com. “You guys are seeing that. Doesn’t really surprise me anymore. He’s a heck of a player, so for him to have the success that he’s had so far — granted, it’s power play — but that’s something I feel like he can ride as far as he can.”

In the late game, the San Jose Sharks host the Montreal Canadiens at 10:00 p.m. ET. To stream that game live, click here

It’s been a tough start to the year for the Canadiens, as they’ve managed to come away with one win in their first five contests.

Despite adding Jonathan Drouin this off-season and having Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk and a few others, Montreal is still the only team in the league to has played five games and scored less than 10 goals.

They scored a season-high three goals against the Maple Leafs on Saturday night, but they fell 4-3 in overtime thanks to Auston Matthews‘ game-winner.

“I think our guys are focused on what needs to be done internally, inside the dressing room, and what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Claude Julien said, per the Montreal Gazette. “I think so far they’ve done a pretty good job of that. There’s no doubt when you got some guys that are goal-scorers that haven’t scored yet … it’s a normal thing that they might be squeezing the stick a little bit. But that’s what they got to overcome and that’s what we got to try and do and improve our game as we go along here.”

Pacioretty scored a goal in the season opener against Buffalo, but he hasn’t found the back of the net since. Drouin and Galchenyuk both netted their first goals of the season on Saturday night. Three goals in five games from those three players simply isn’t enough.

This will be the first of a three-game road swing in California that never seems to treat the Canadiens well.

Things haven’t been much better for the San Jose Sharks, as they have just one win in four contests.

“It’s on us as players,” Logan Couture said, per the San Jose Mercury News. “If we’re playing well, then the lines aren’t going to change. If we’re not, then they’re going to change them around. How we play will dictate what the lineup is.

“No one’s scoring. You could say our line’s not scoring and we’re not, but no one is. As a team, we’ve got to find ways to create some more offense.”

The Sharks have scored eight goals, like Montreal, but in one less game. Kevin Labanc has three of the eight markers.

If you’re a betting person, you may want to look at the under in this one, but weird things seem to happen when east coast teams go play out west.

Enjoy the hockey!

PHT Morning Skate: 5 players that are off to slow starts this season

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–The Score looks at five players that are off to slow starts in 2017-18. Brent Burns was incredibly productive in the first half of last season, but he’s been awfully quiet so far. (The Score)

–Speaking of players that are struggling, Antoine Roussel is off to a disappointing start with Dallas. He was one of the top possession players on the Stars roster, but the results just haven’t been there. There’s still plenty of time for him to turn things around though. (defendingbigd.com)

–The Montreal Canadiens are off to a rough start this season, but Montreal Gazette columnist Jack Todd believes they have what it takes to turn it around. Carey Price can be better, Jonathan Drouin can contribute more offensively and Max Pacioretty can score more goals. (Montreal Gazette)

–A lot of Nikita Kucherov‘s success comes from being unpredictable. One thing he worked on this off-season was improving his backhander. “It’s a tough league, you have to make chances out of nothing. Look at those guys, Kane, Crosby, watch them and it’s a huge part of their game. It’s something I want to add to my game and be better at.” (Tampa Bay Times)

–Even though the NHL added concussion spotters in 2015-16, their system is far from perfect. On Friday night, Marc-Andre Fleury took a knee to the head and he was allowed to stay in the game. Fleury is now out indefinitely. It’s time for the NHL to improve this whole process. (fanragsports.com)

–The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the rare teams that are loaded with young depth at the AHL level. They’re so deep that some are wondering if they should loan out some of their prospects to other AHL teams instead of sending them to the ECHL. (faceoffcircle.ca)

–The Nashville Predators were one of the few eight seeds that made a run to the Stanley Cup Final. Before you draw hope for your team based on the Preds’ accomplishments, you might want realize that they weren’t your typical eighth seed based on the numbers they put up last season. (ontheforecheck.com)

–Every fall, EA Sports releases a new NHL video game that gets people excited for hockey season. Operation Sports looks at ways EA can improve game play. Better passing control? More elaborate dekes? Sign us up. (operationsports.com)

Taylor Hall is known for his play on the ice, but his social media game is pretty strong, too. Just ask former teammate Jordan Eberle, who found that out the hard way after he chirped Hall on Twitter. (Sports Illustrated)

–We don’t know if Matt Duchene will ever be traded. But regardless of where he plays this season, what kind of upside does he have? Although Duchene is off to a good start, there’s a good chance his numbers will come down a little bit. (milehighhockey.com)

–NHL.com’s Dave Stubbs sat down with former defenseman Hal Gill to ask him five questions. They discussed how the game has changed, what it’s like to win the Stanley Cup and they also talked about P.K. Subban. (NHL.com)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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The Buzzer: Nikita Kucherov just keeps scoring goals

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Player of the night. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning have played six games this season. Forward Nikita Kucherov has scored a goal in all of them.

He continued that goal scoring streak on Monday night in the Lightning’s 3-2 win in Detroit by scoring a pair of goals, including the game-winner to help lift them to their eighth consecutive win over the Detroit Red Wings.

With that win the Lightning now have the best record in the NHL, while Kucherov’s seven goals are the second most in the league, trailing only Alex Ovechkin (nine).

Kucherov has seen his production increase every year he has been in the NHL. He set a career-high with 40 goals a year ago and seems like he is on track to top that mark this season. Now playing in his age 24 season he should be right in the thick of his prime years in the NHL. When it comes to pure skill and offensive production there are only a handful of players in the league that can top what Kucherov is doing.

Highlight of the Night.

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilievsky stopped 29 shots on Monday night but perhaps none were better than this pad save to rob Tomas Tatar right on the door step.

Vasilevskiy had a slow start to the season but has been outstanding in his past two games, stopping 57 out of 60 shots in the Lightning’s wins over the St. Louis Blues and Red Wings.

Factoid of the Night.

Justin Abdelkader scored on a penalty shot for the Detroit Red Wings on Monday night becoming the first Red Wings player to do that in nearly 10 years.

Ten years?! That seems like a heck of a long time between penalty shot goals for a team.

Misc.

Mike Green continued his incredible start to the season by scoring his first goal of the season for the Detroit Red Wings. He is now up to nine points in five games this season.

Steven Stamkos picked up a pair of assists in the win for the Lightning, giving him eight on the season. Once he starts scoring goals (he only has one so far) he is going to be a force. His absence a year ago was a big reason why the Lightning fell just short of the postseason. With him back healthy they now have two of the top offensive players in the league (Nikita Kucherov).

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Leon Draisaitl lands on injured reserve for Oilers

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After missing his team’s 6-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night, the Edmonton Oilers announced on Monday that forward Leon Draisaitl has been placed on injure reserve.

He was injured one week ago in a game against the Winnipeg Jets and has been sidelined with an eye injury and concussion symptoms ever since. It’s a big blow to an Oilers team that is off to a slower than expected start having won just one of their first four games.

Draisaitl signed an eight-year, $68 million contract over the summer making him a significant part of the Oilers’ core alongside Connor McDavid. He finished the 2016-17 season as one of the top offensive players in the league and is going to be counted on to help carry the offense again when he is healthy. The Oilers don’t have a ton of forward depth and are going to need McDavid and Draisaitl to be the focal points once again if they are going to live up to the preseason hype that made them one of the odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

Before he was injured this season Draisaitl had recorded one assist in three games.

The Oilers host the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.

It is not yet known how long he will be sidelined.