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.

For Penguins’ defense, it’s been a group effort to replace Letang

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PITTSBURGH (AP) The handful of men who carry out the most thankless of tasks for the Pittsburgh Penguins are a rag-tag group thrown together by circumstance and a touch of foresight by general manager Jim Rutherford.

They are largely anonymous and blissfully so, only too happy to work in the considerable shadows created by the stars who play in front of them and their unquestioned leader, the one forced to watch the franchise’s run to a second straight Stanley Cup Final in immaculately tailored suits from the press box while he recovers from neck surgery.

When defenseman Kris Letang‘s star-crossed season ended for good in early April when he abandoned any hope of a comeback from the injuries that limited him to just 40 games this season, the chances of the Penguins becoming the first team to win back-to-back titles was supposed to vanish along with him.

Yet here they are hosting Nashville in Game 1 on Monday night, four wins away from a repeat that seemed improbable seven weeks ago. And they’ve done it with a group of blue liners who lack Letang’s unique talents or the undeniable dynamic charisma of the defensemen like P.K. Subban who have helped power the Predators’ dominant sprint to the final.

“That’s fine with us,” said Brian Dumoulin, who leads the Penguins in ice time during the postseason. “They’re great players and stuff like that. No chip on our shoulder. We know who we are as a D core.”

They might be one of the few. A quick introduction.

There’s well-traveled Ron Hainsey, the 36-year-old who needed to wait a record 907 games before reaching the postseason for the first time in his 14-year career.

There’s Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, the battle-tested veteran and the baby-faced kid from Finland, both of whom spent significant chunks of time on the injured reserve this season only to develop an unquantifiable chemistry during the playoffs.

There’s Dumoulin, who has become Pittsburgh’s new iron man with Letang out. There’s Ian Cole, the thoughtful well-bearded conscience who revels in the more physical aspects of his job.

There’s 39-year-old Mark Streit, who like Hainsey was brought in as insurance at the trade deadline then spent six weeks as a healthy scratch only to fill in capably when another spate of injuries struck in the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa.

Mostly, however, there’s Justin Schultz. Considered a disappointment during three-plus underwhelming seasons in Edmonton, Schultz has spent 15 months in Pittsburgh remodeling his game.

It’s Schultz who has taken over as the quarterback on the Penguins’ potent power play. It’s Schultz who has found a knack for the big moment. He delivered the winning goal in Game 4 of the second round against Washington. He put the Penguins ahead in the third period of Game 7 against Ottawa and ended up with the secondary assist on Chris Kunitz‘s knuckler that finally put away the Senators in double overtime.

Schultz is reluctant to talk about his transformation or the upper-body injury that sidelined him for four games during the Ottawa series. He returned for the decider to play more than 24 minutes, gritting his teeth all the way through.

When asked if the injury limited his ability to get off the shot that became his third goal of the postseason, Schultz responded with typical modesty.

“Not full but like I said, those guys did such a good job screening … it didn’t have to be the hardest shot to get through,” said Schultz, who set a career -high with 51 points during the regular season and has added another 10 in the playoffs.

Schultz, however, could always shoot. That’s never been the problem. It’s at the other end of the ice where he’s truly matured and likely made him one of the most coveted free agents to be in the process.

The defenseman who never had any trouble jumping into the play has not become adept at thwarting them too.

“He’s always had ability to excel on the offensive side,” said Penguins assistant Jacques Martin, who coaches the defense. “He’s got tremendous vision. He’s been able to replace Kris on the power play. The area (of growth) that’s most noticeable has been his defensive side … his positioning. He’s improved his compete level, his use of his stick, his position. All areas he’s grown in over the season.”

The Penguins have needed every last ounce of it as they have from the rest of their defensemen who has spent the last four months trying to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Letang.

It’s been a group effort. More than once Pittsburgh has been forced to go long stretches in games with only five defensemen because one of them went down. When Shultz left Game 2 against the Senators, Dumoulin played 26 minutes, Hainsey nearly 25 and Maatta 22. The Penguins survived 1-0 to even the series.

“If you look at last year in playoffs it was Kris Letang and then the rest of us,” Dumoulin said. “That’s not the case right now. Obviously whatever role that you’re asked to do, whatever opportunity is there, you’re going to do it. We’re not going to be the offensive guy Kris Letang was. Nobody is going to be in that aspect.”

The object is to make sure it doesn’t matter. So far, it hasn’t.

“I think we have a group back there that cares about each other, that are really playing within their limitations,” Martin said. “I think that’s the key.”

Related: Penguins’ run to Stanley Cup Final filled with challenges

 

Bobby Ryan doesn’t seem too concerned about being taken in the expansion draft

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The Ottawa Senators had their final meeting with the media for the 2016-17 season on Saturday following their disappointing Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Finals.

One of the more entertaining moments came during Bobby Ryan‘s scrum when he was asked if he has given any thought to potentially being taken in the expansion draft by the Vegas Golden Knights.

Ryan quickly responded by saying “No,” before laughing and saying “are they going to take $7 million?” He continued to laugh, saying, “I think I’m good.”

The $7 million comment is obviously in reference to his contract that still has five years remaining on it and carries a cap hit of $7.25 million the rest of the way.

The thing is, though, Vegas would almost certainly take a $7 million player if they felt they were going to get $7 million worth of production along with it. Especially since the team has an obligation to take on a certain amount of money in the expansion draft and reach the NHL’s salary floor. Ryan had a down year for the Senators, recording only 25 points in 62 games during the regular season, by far the worst offensive season of his career. He did salvage the year in the playoffs, however, by bouncing back with 15 points in the Senators’ 19 playoff games during their run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Three of his six goals in the playoffs were game-winners, including an overtime goal in Game 1 of the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That said, Ryan is probably correct that Vegas will not be taking him, if for no other reason than his age (he turns 31 next March) and the fact his contract has so many years remaining on it.

The expansion draft will take place on Wednesday, June 21, and every team in the league will lose one player to the NHL’s newest team.

Wild GM is hopeful prized prospect Kirill Kaprizov will join Minny for 2018-19 season

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With rumors on social media suggesting prized Wild prospect Kirill Kaprizov has agreed to terms on a long-term deal in the KHL, Minnesota’s general manager Chuck Fletcher has decided to clear the air.

The Wild selected Kaprizov, a five-foot-nine-inch tall forward, in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft.

He had 42 points in 49 regular season games in the KHL this year — promising, if not impressive numbers for the now 20-year-old Kaprizov. He also lit up the 2017 world juniors, with nine goals and 12 points in seven games.

He was recently traded to CSKA Moscow. Despite reports of this long-term deal to stay in Russia, Fletcher, speaking to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, seemed confident the Wild will be able to bring Kaprizov into their lineup for the 2018-19 season.

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

“We’ve been in contact with his agent over the last couple weeks and we haven’t been made aware of anything like you’re communicating to me,” Fletcher said. “We’re operating under the assumption he’s got a year left. He’s going to play for CSKA, and then he’s interested in coming over and playing for the Wild for the 18-19 season. He’s a heckuva player. I think he’ll be ready to step in and be a good hockey player for us a year from now. That’s our expectation and our hope. We haven’t been notified of anything to the contrary.

“There was a rumor a few weeks ago of something to this effect, too, and his agent shot it down and said it wasn’t true. It’s just been communicated to us that he’s going to play for CSKA another year, and our hope he’s going to suit up for the Wild in 18-19.”

There has also been a recent report that it’s expected former Sabres general manager Tim Murray will join the Wild.

Fletcher also shot down that report for right now, saying it wasn’t “accurate,” although his full comments didn’t completely shut the door on the possibility of such a scenario happening further along down the road.

“We’ll see what the future brings, but right now, that’s not true at all. There’d be a lot of hoops and hurdles there, and it’s not even a good thing to speculate on because there’s nothing true to that at all right now. That’s not true at all.”

Related: Wild owner confirms Fletcher safe as GM

AP sources: Capitals to host Maple Leafs in outdoor game at Naval Academy

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Two people with knowledge of the situation say the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs will play an outdoor game at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, next season.

The people spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Saturday because the NHL had not announced the event. The game is scheduled to be played March 3 at the 34,000-seat Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium that hosts Navy football games.

It will be the first NHL outdoor game at a U.S. service academy, though quite possibly not the last. The league has explored doing games at the Army’s home at West Point and at the Air Force Academy.

It’s the third outdoor game for the Capitals and Maple Leafs and the first in the Washington area since the 2015 Winter Classic downtown at Nationals Park.

Capitals-Maple Leafs at the Naval Academy will be one of at least three outdoor games next season. The Ottawa Senators will host the Montreal Canadiens in the Heritage Classic on Dec. 19, and the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres will play in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 at Citi Field in New York.

NHL Network revealed on air that the league would announce a game at Navy on Monday.