Jeff Vinik giving the St Pete Times Forum a facelift for next season

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When Jeff Vinik bought the Tampa Bay Lightning from Len Barrie and Oren Koules, there was a serious need for an owner who would pour time, money, and energy into getting the franchise back on the path towards respectability. A great new general manager, a hotshot young coach, a few good moves, and a run to the Eastern Conference Finals later and the Lightning are regarded as one of the better teams in the East. What a difference 16 months can make. Now that Vinik’s team has made his mark on the league, he’s using his money to make a mark on the building his team plays in. Literally.

In February, the team announced a $35 million renovation project to give the St Pete Times Forum a much needed facelift. The 15-year-old building was ready for a little touching up; but instead ownership is going all out and giving the building a complete makeover. Anything worth doing is worth doing right. From the St. Petersburg Times, Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke shows exactly where the priorities for the renovated building lie as they tore out eight luxury suits to open up the concourse for fans:

“That was a very challenging decision because ultimately, for our long-term viability, we’ve got to make sure we draw more revenue. But we felt the building in some ways needed a soul.”

(snip)

Re: new seats in arena: “It was the more expensive option, but at the end of the day it really underscored for all of us how serious this guy [owner Jeff Vinik] was in serving our fans. It was a six-figure decision, and he was right. I think it was a moment many of us will remember for a long time, his jumping from seat to seat and saying, ‘This is more comfortable. This is the right thing to do.’ “

These are the kinds of things that will endear a billionaire owner to his team’s fanbase. The renovation project is something that is needed to maintain the building as a world-class venue, but it’s not something that Vinik needs to do to keep the Forum as an acceptable place to house the Lightning. Just look at Nassau Coliseum.

From all accounts he’s doing it the right way—rethinking the entire arena to make it a more distinctive place for the Lightning to call home. More importantly, he’s making the fan experience better for the 21,500 people who show up for a home game. The team is ripping out over 500 seats to install a huge pipe organ with a bar that will be one of the arena’s new distinguishing features. As said before, they tore out eight luxury suits so the concourse is opened up for a better fan experience. There will be new, more comfortable seats all over the arena and the sightlines will be reconfigured. The list goes on and on.

On top of the $35 million, Vinik is having one of the entrances rebuilt/reconfigured (West Plaza entrance) to give the arena a “grand entry” point to serve as the face of the building. Again, the new entrance will be fully funded by Vinik in order to make the arena the best possibly location for his team and their fans. A new entrance won’t translate to any more wins on the ice, it probably won’t help lure any free agents, and it certainly won’t help the ratings on television. It just makes the Forum a more appealing place for the Lightning fans.

The moves show that ownership is behind this team for the long-haul. In an environment where the Atlanta Thrashers move to Winnipeg, the Coyotes are in a state of flux, and a segment of NHL fans are calling complaining about just about every sunbelt team, the move is symbolic gesture of permanence. The financial commitment says, “feel free to devote yourself to being a fan, because we aren’t going anywhere.” If you don’t think that’s important, ask a Phoenix Coyotes fans what it’s like rooting for a team when they’re never sure about the future. The Atlanta Thrashers could have used a move like this—but it’s a move that the Atlanta Spirit group never would have made.

Sixteen months ago, who would have ever uttered these words: “Lightning fans are lucky to have the owner they do.”

Bruins cruise vs. Canadiens in Julien’s return to Boston

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Don’t blame Claude Julien if Wednesday made him think of better times, and not just because it was his welcome back night in Boston.

Coming into this one, it was a tale of two teams going in opposite directions, and the teams stuck to their scripts. The Boston Bruins remain red-hot with a 4-1 win, while the Montreal Canadiens are mired in mediocrity .. or worse?

When you’re as disappointing as the Canadiens have been, plenty of things are going wrong. It was a weak start even with a 1-0 lead and 1-1 first period in mind, and it obviously didn’t get any better.

Nights like these have to sting for Julien, a coach known for his sophisticated systems and eye for defensive detail.

There are questions about Max Pacioretty possibly being trade bait. People wonder if Jonathan Drouin or Alex Galchenyuk fit as centers, or if neither work that way. Yet, these performances make you realize that as exasperated as management must be, they may also appreciate more specific distractions.

Because, frankly, this was a team … non-effort.

Then again, the Bruins are a red-hot squad, so maybe they shine an especially harsh light on the Habs’ haplessness?

Boston generated a 32-22 shots on goal advantage in this one, with multiple contributors stepping up. Big guns came through (Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were among the goal scorers, Patrice Bergeron collected two assists), while David Backes and others added to the fun.

It was the kind of effort Julien would have been very happy with, if it didn’t come at his expense.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at Anaheim Ducks

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PROJECTED LINEUPS

Pittsburgh Penguins

Dominik SimonSidney Crosby — Daniel Sprong

Carl HagelinEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Conor ShearyJake GuentzelPhil Kessel

Tom KuhnhacklRiley SheahanRyan Reaves

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Olli MaattaJustin Schultz

Matt HunwickJamie Oleksiak

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Canadiens vs. Bruins; Penguins vs. Ducks]

Ducks

Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

Derek GrantRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

Chris WagnerAntoine VermetteJ.T. Brown

Cam FowlerKevin Bieksa

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson

Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour

Starting goalie: John Gibson

What should Blackhawks do without Corey Crawford?

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Look, it’s quite possible that Corey Crawford will be back this season for the Chicago Blackhawks.

As of this moment, there are more questions than answers, with semantic arguments bubbling up about whether he’s dealing with concussion issues, vertigo, or what. Either way, it’s an unfortunate situation.

Let’s say the very bad happens and the Blackhawks won’t get their crucial goalie back as they try to claw their way into a playoff spot in the competitive Central Division. What should GM Stan Bowman do?

Here are a few scenarios.

Stay put

We can debate where Crawford ranks among the NHL’s best goalies (is he a top-five guy, top 10, elite?), but it’s fair to say that he’s had one of the toughest gigs. It’s a good thing that he produced a fantastic .929 save percentage this season, because Chicago’s defense isn’t what it once was. They’re tied for the eighth-most shots allowed per game (32.6) and are in the top 10 in most high-danger chances allowed (via Natural Stat Trick).

Jeff Glass is a great story, and he’s provided very acceptable backup-level work alongside Anton Forsberg (Glass’s save percentage is .910, Forsberg’s at .911).

That’s heartening, but the bottom line is that the Blackhawks rank at the bottom of the Central with this mix of Crawford’s great goaltending and respectable work from Glass/Forsberg. They may only sink with Glass and Forsberg, and that’s assuming that those two don’t fall apart altogether.

The more uncomfortable question is: maybe they should just “Take the L” and regroup for next season? As is, it’s tough to imagine the Blackhawks making the playoffs, or making any noise if they do make it.

If they would rather not punt this season, then a trade would be the best option to explore.

Go after an obvious guy

The Detroit Red Wings want to move Petr Mrazek. If Crawford goes on IR, Chicago might not even need Detroit to retain much/any of Mrazek’s $4M, possibly making the asking price more reasonable.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen the best of Mrazek (2015-16), but he’s only made 13 appearances in 2017-18, as the Red Wings still haven’t gotten the whole “rebuild” memo yet. Or at least they haven’t read it.

Mrazek would stand as a “high-risk, high-reward” acquisition. You could probably put Buffalo Sabres starter Robin Lehner under that heading, assuming Buffalo would let him go. Logically, you’d think Lehner would be more costly, considering his sneaky-strong individual stats.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli notes that San Jose Sharks backup Aaron Dell might draw some trade interest, with some looking at him as the next backup who might take the next step to become a starter. Chicago could provide Dell with quite the audition in that regard.

The road less traveled

Actually, Dell stands as a template for the type of guys who the Blackhawks might want to at least inquire about: backups who might not be long for their current teams.

Philipp Grubauer is one name that stands out. With a solid .916 save percentage this season and a sparkling .922 mark for his career (81 regular-season games), Grubauer’s excelled when given chances. The problem is that he plays on the same team as Braden Holtby, which means that those chances seldom come.

Grubauer is a pending RFA, and he’s likely to be too expensive for the Washington Capitals after this season. Maybe the Blackhawks can make it worth Washington’s while to acknowledge that likelihood, and get something for him rather than letting him go for less later?

The Blue Jackets still have Joonas Korpisalo through 2018-19, with his contract expiring at the same time as that of Sergei Bobrovsky, so a conversation about “Korpi” likely wouldn’t last too long. Still, why not ask?

One other off-the-beaten path consideration would be Antti Raanta.

The Blackhawks and Coyotes aren’t shy about making moves together, and Raanta’s debut season hasn’t gone as planned in Arizona. The Coyotes might not have necessarily soured on Raanta, but if they decide to go in a different direction in net in the future, maybe it would be worth moving him?

Chicago obviously has experience with Raanta, so that could make it a more comfortable transition as a “rental,” too.

***

Look, the Blackhawks struggled with Crawford in the lineup, playing at an outstanding level. There’s no guarantee that landing a goalie would make the difference, even if that netminder generated great work and didn’t cost a ton in a trade.

On the other hand, this Blackhawks core isn’t getting any younger, while the Central is loaded with teams that have bright futures.

For all we know, this might be one of this team’s last, best shots. GM Stan Bowman needs to turn over every stone to try to find an answer, whether that ends up coming down to making a big move or accepting the painful status quo.

Personally, I’d rotate between grumbling and crying.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Wednesday Night Rivalry – Canadiens at Bruins

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PROJECTED LINES

Montreal Canadiens

Max PaciorettyPaul ByronCharles Hudon

Artturi LehkonenTomas PlekanecBrendan Gallagher

Alex GalchenyukJacob De La RoseJonathan Drouin

Nicolas DeslauriersByron FroeseDaniel Carr

Karl AlznerJeff Petry

Jordie BennJakub Jerabek

Victor Mete — David Schlemko

Starting goalie: Carey Price

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Canadiens vs. Bruins; Penguins vs. Ducks]

Boston Bruins

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciRyan Spooner

Danton HeinenRiley NashDavid Backes

Tim SchallerSean KuralyNoel Acciari

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy

Torey KrugBrandon Carlo

Matt GrzelcykAdam McQuaid

Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask