Lightning strike twice with Yzerman, Cooper combo

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They don’t have the hardware of, say, Dean Lombardi + Darryl Sutter or Stan Bowman + Joel Quenneville, yet the Tampa Bay Lightning’s front office duo of GM Steve Yzerman and head coach Jon Cooper seem like they have the potential to do something special.

Sure, they both took very different paths to this very intriguing fork in the road, yet both appear bright and nimble enough to do some damage in the 2014-15 season and beyond.

Yzerman: an All-Star as a GM?

It’s true that Yzerman inherited franchise players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman from the previous regime, yet he’s been very forward-thinking in building the team into what many believe will be a contender. The team is currently bursting with young scorers – many of whom were drafted by Yzerman & Co., including late gems like Ondrej Palat – while sporting an enviable array of defensemen and some nice options in net.

Ben Bishop might be “the guy” for now, yet his contract opens the door for 2012 first-rounder Andrei Vasilevskiy to eventually fight for the No. 1 spot. More than a few NHL teams likely envy such flexibility.

Yzerman also made the best of the Martin St. Louis trade situation and made some of the shrewdest signings of this offseason, so the situation looks pretty rosy right now.

A unique take behind the bench

While Yzerman’s name pops out for obvious reasons as a Hall-of-Famer and an executive groomed in Detroit’s front office, Cooper flies under the radar as an underrated head coach.

He took an unusual path to head coaching in the NHL, but that “outsider” perspective might just come in handy. If the NHL follows what seems to be a trend in the NFL when it comes to optimism and open-minded behavior from bench bosses, Cooper could very well be ahead of the curve.

That breath of fresh air feeling seemed apparent even in an early Grantland feature back in 2013:

“One GM told me,” he said, “and I’ll never forget this: ‘The NHL can be toxic and negative. You don’t have that in you. Don’t lose that.’ I’ll always take that with me.”

After going 5-8-3 in an abbreviated stint in 2012-13, Cooper coached the Lightning to a promising 46-27-9 record (101 points) last season, so there’s evidence that he’s on to something, even if his team suffered a first-round sweep.

Big challenges ahead

Naturally, all of these positive prognostications could look pretty silly if the Lightning fall flat over the next couple of years.

Yzerman faces a serious challenge in keeping that young core together once entry-level and second contracts run out; the knives would only sharpen if he fails to keep Stamkos from eventually bolting for Toronto when he becomes a UFA.

Also, as strong as this team looks on paper, the Lightning’s last surge came when Guy Boucher was prowling the bench. It’s easy to assume that everything will continue to trend up when the team isn’t far removed from failures.

… Which brings us to Cooper, aka the guy with inherently shakier job security. Boucher went from media darling to “Where are they now?” features (he’s coaching in the Swiss league) with dizzying speed, so the Lightning need to keep climbing or Cooper’s doubters will multiply.

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This is a fascinating time for the Lightning franchise, as so many signs point up … yet there is so much work to be done. From the look of things, Tampa Bay has the right duo for the job, though.

Rangers make changes after loss in Anaheim

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The scuffling New York Rangers — coming off a 6-3 loss Sunday in Anaheim, and with just two wins in their last seven — are expected to have a slightly different lineup tonight in San Jose.

Up front, winger Matt Puempel is likely to replace rookie Pavel Buchnevich. And on the back end, Dan Girardi will come in for Kevin Klein.

The Girardi-for-Klein switch is no huge surprise. Both d-men have been battling injuries, with Klein only returning Sunday after an extended absence due to back spasms. Head coach Alain Vigneault told reporters that he “didn’t want to put two injured defensemen in at the same time,” so Klein gets the night off tonight.

As for the potential scratching of Buchnevich, that decision would be slightly more controversial. The 21-year-old has two goals and three assists in his last 11 games, but clearly has not gained the full trust of his coach.

Henrik Lundqvist is expected to start in goal after a tough return to the net against the Ducks.

Canucks hint at shutting down injured Markstrom

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It doesn’t sound like Jacob Markstrom will play any more games for the Vancouver Canucks this season.

The 27-year-old goalie has been trying to recover from a knee injury suffered in the Canucks’ skills competition on Feb. 26.

“I don’t think things are great,” head coach Willie Desjardins said today. “We’ve got to make a medical decision on him.”

It has to be frustrating for Markstrom, who was hoping to challenge Ryan Miller for the starting job this year. The tall Swede played well at times, going 10-11-3 with a .910 save percentage — but in the end, he only made 23 starts.

“He’s a good goalie,” Desjardins said of Markstrom. “He can challenge for the number-one spot. Every time he goes in net, I’ve got lots of confidence in him. He’s left his mark this year.”

Markstrom is signed through 2019-20, while Miller is a pending unrestricted free agent.

It’s possible that the Canucks will re-sign Miller and come back with the same netminding tandem next season.

Oilers sign Walter Brown Award winner Gambardella

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Joe Gambardella, the UMass-Lowell senior that scored 52 points in 41 games this year, has signed a two-year, entry-level deal with Edmonton, the club announced on Monday.

Gambardella, 23, captured this year’s Walter Brown award as the top American-born collegiate player in New England. He beat out the likes of Clayton Keller, Colin White, Charlie McAvoy and Tage Thompson for the honor, and joined a distinguished list of past winners.

Rangers forward Jimmy Vesey won the Walter Brown in ’16 and ’15, while Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau won it in ’14.

Gambardella is the first UMass-Lowell player to ever win the award, which has been given out annually since 1953. It capped off a nice year in which he also paced the River Hawks to the NCAA tournament.

An undrafted free agent, Gambarella’s ELC will kick in next season. It’s also worth noting that one of his UMass-Lowell teammates, defenseman Michael Kapla, signed with the Devils earlier today.

 

 

Coyotes to honor Cunningham for his ‘tremendous courage’

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The Arizona Coyotes will honor Craig Cunningham with a ceremonial puck drop on April 8 before their final home game of the season against the Minnesota Wild.

From the team press release:

Cunningham, who survived a medical emergency prior to the Tucson Roadrunners game on November 19, has made a remarkable recovery. Fans will have an opportunity to congratulate him on the tremendous courage, willpower and perseverance he’s demonstrated throughout his rehabilitation.

Cunningham was recently honored by the Roadrunners.

The 26-year-old’s hockey career is unfortunately over after doctors were forced to amputate part of his left leg due to concerns over infection.

True to form, though, he’s maintained a positive attitude.

“Obviously I miss playing every single day, and I miss the atmosphere around the locker room,” Cunningham said, per the Arizona Daily Star. “The guys have been great. From Day 1, they’ve been to see me every day. It’s been pretty incredible.”