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These are tough times for the Lightning, from Yzerman right on down

This is not where the Bolts expected to be 29 games into the season.

Buoyed by this summer’s extension of captain Steve Stamkos — and the long-term contract for cornerstone d-man Victor Hedman — the Lightning were picked by many as a Stanley Cup favorite.

But after Saturday’s 4-3 loss to the Penguins, a game in which they led 3-1, the Bolts found themselves with a mediocre 14-13-2 record, sitting fourth in the Atlantic Division.

“This is probably one of our worst [stretches] if not our worst in the last couple of years,” head coach Jon Cooper told the Times of a seven-game stint in which the Bolts went 1-5-1. “You go through the resume the last three or four of years of the all the ups and downs this team had.

“This is just a different one.”

A quick rundown of the issues plaguing Tampa Bay:

• Stamkos suffered a major knee injury in November and, following surgery, will be out four-to-six months. A huge blow, to say the least. Health problems have also plagued forward Ryan Callahan, who’s still recovering from offseason hip surgery.

• After a terrific ’15-16 campaign that culminated with a Vezina nomination, Ben Bishop has struggled. He’s said he’s trying not to let his contract situation become a distraction — he’s a UFA on July 1 — but one has to think that, after an offseason filled with trade speculation, Bishop might be sidetracked by his uncertain future. He could also be somewhat rattled by the impressive play of Andrei Vasilevskiy, long considered to be the club’s goalie of the future.

• GM Steve Yzerman might like to make a move, but is hamstrung by the club’s financial picture (the Bolts are pressed right up against the salary cap ceiling). That could part of his growing frustration, illustrated here in a piece from longtime Bolts beat writer Erik Erlendsson:

In speaking to a few people around the building, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman was visibly upset during Thursday’s loss to Vancouver and left his spot in the press box by the end of the second period and headed straight for the locker room area, presumably for the coach’s office (he rarely spends any amount of time in the players’ areas).

• Speaking of the coach, Cooper had some telling remarks about his group following that aforementioned Vancouver loss. In particular, the club’s inability to rally after a setback.

“I thought we came out, we were outstanding and they come down, one shot, it’s in the net (and) it seemed that was it,” Cooper said, per Lightning Insider. “The little bit of adversity hits, which I didn’t think was any at all. There’s 55 minutes left and I thought we were playing hard. Guys were doing some good things and then we just kind of stopped.”

• In his latest 30 Thoughts column, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman had this:

Always wonder about teams with good goal differentials that are outside a playoff position. Tampa Bay is there now, plus-5 and one point out in the East.

“They get pushed around a lot,” one opposing coach said.

• The angst isn’t solely reserved for coaching and management. Slater Koekkoek, the 10th overall pick in 2012 who looked as though he’d finally secured a spot on the club’s defense, was sent to the minors recently… and wasn’t happy about it.

“Koekkoek was upset at his latest demotion to AHL Syracuse Friday, and it’s hard to blame him,” wrote the Times’ Joe Smith. “You can argue the former first-round pick deserves more of a chance to stick in the NHL.”

Needless to say, it’s a dicey situation in Tampa Bay right now.

It’ll be curious to see how the club responds this week, in a three-game Western Canada road swing through Calgary (on Wednesday), Vancouver (on Friday) and Edmonton (on Saturday).

Report: Predators avoid arbitration … with Marek Mazanec

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The Nashville Predators avoided salary arbitration in at least one case on Thursday, but it wasn’t the biggest name they were worried about.

FanRag’s Craig Morgan reports that Marek Mazanec settled for a one-year deal worth $650K at the NHL level and $100K in the AHL.

That two-way split is quite relevant, as Mazanec probably comes in fourth on the Predators’ goalie depth chart behind Pekka Rinne, Jusse Saros, and Anders Lindback. Actually, with Matt O’Connor in mind, Mazanec may even come in at fifth.

One interesting wrinkle is that Lindback gets the same $650K at both levels while Saros and Mazenec see different salaries depending upon where they are, according to Cap Friendly’s listings. From a sheer financial standpoint, that might give Lindback some fuel to push as Rinne’s backup, though Saros is already pushing for starts after strong showings in 2016-17.

It’s not the easiest situation for Mazanec, but credit Predators GM David Poile for giving his team plenty of options in net. Both Mazanec and Lindback saw elevated action when Rinne was hurt in 2013-14, so these situations can change quickly at times.

Mazanec was the least crucial of the Predators’ three salary arbitration situations, as Viktor Arvidsson‘s hearing is scheduled for Saturday (July 22) while Austin Watson is set for Monday (July 24). Arvidsson emerged as a legitimate first-line winger last season, so that will be a significantly trickier situation for the Predators.

For more on Arvidsson’s situation, click here.

Penguins GM confident they can find third-line center with Bonino gone

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August is nearing, and the Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t made a trade or signing to replace Nick Bonino, their outstanding (but former) third-line center.

On the bright side, the Penguins have remarkable breathing room considering their status as repeat Stanley Cup champions. Cap Friendly places their 2017-18 room at about $10.38 million.

That robust space likely explains why GM Jim Rutherford seemed fairly calm about the whole situation, as Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

“I do feel confident that, by the start of the season, we’re going to have a third-line center that we’re comfortable with,” Rutherford said. “Whether it’s one of those guys on the list or one of the guys that I could go and get right today.”

Rutherford (jokingly?) said that he had a list of “hundreds of names” as options, although it’s difficult to top Mackey’s suggestion of Phil Kessel‘s buddy, Tyler Bozak. After all, Bozak is a competent player who carries a $4.2 million cap hit that Pittsburgh could comfortably absorb (and the Toronto Maple Leafs might need to shed). It doesn’t hurt that Bozak’s contract expires after 2017-18, so the Penguins wouldn’t be on the hook if things don’t work out.

Of course, Matt Duchene is another name worth considering. It almost feels a little strange to ponder that speedy Avalanche forward being a “third-line center,” especially if Pittsburgh would want to get the most out of him.

MORE: Duchene might begin next season with the Colorado Avalanche

After that, though … the pickings could be much slimmer than Rutherford indicated to Mackey.

Shallow pool

Take a look at this current list of forwards who are unrestricted free agents.

There are some potential bargains here (P.A. Parenteau, Jiri Hudler, anyone?), but the situation gets significantly shakier if you’re picky enough to look only at centers. The likes of Daniel Winnik and Ryan White are reasonable roster additions, but the drop-off from Bonino could be pretty drastic.

What about other trade possibilities?

That’s a shaky group, too, especially if you apply Bozak-like terms as far as guys who only have one year left on their current contracts.

Honestly, the Penguins’ best bet in looking at that list would probably come down to an in-season move with a team that realizes it’s not a contender or simply understands that a player won’t be back.

Maybe the Calgary Flames would want to cut bait on Matt Stajan or (less realistically) Mikael Backlund? Would the Ducks move speedy, versatile sometimes-center Andrew Cogliano? There are other remote possibilities, such as the Leafs instead trading Leo Komarov (or especially unlikely moves in Paul Stastny or Tomas Plekanec).

Even if the above list seems enticing, how many of those teams would really want to move those players now, especially the bigger difference-makers?

If you’re the Penguins, you’re probably hoping that a Bozak deal could take place. And maybe you’re sweating this situation more than you let on.

(Note: There’s also the slight possibility that the Penguins might identify a replacement from within, though a contending team like Pittsburgh might not be so comfortable with that approach.)

Blues have ‘wiggle room’ after locking up Parayko

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The St. Louis Blues didn’t break the bank to keep Colton Parayko for five more years, and that’s important since they don’t believe the NHL’s salary cap will rise significantly in the next little while.

Parayko’s cap hit came in at a manageable $5.5 million, as the two sides narrowly avoided an arbitration hearing that was scheduled for today.

“You like to have as much wiggle room as possible,” GM Doug Armstrong said, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Now we view the cap will stay flat for the foreseeable future. We’re content with the space we have. We’ll move forward and get ready for training camp.”

The Blues now have a number of key players locked up long term, including Parayko, Alex Pietrangelo, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund, and Jake Allen.

For Armstrong, the next big decision could involve Paul Stastny, the 31-year-old center who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

But a decision on Stastny doesn’t need to be made now, or even before the season starts. It’s the trade deadline that could be the real pressure point, akin to the Kevin Shattenkirk situation this past year.

Per CapFriendly, the Blues have just over $3 million in cap space, with one roster spot left to fill.

‘Highly unlikely’ Suns will pursue shared arena with Coyotes

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The Arizona Coyotes appear to be on their own in pursuit of a new arena in the Phoenix area.

That’s because Robert Sarver, the owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, says it’s “highly unlikely” he’ll pursue a shared arena with the Coyotes.

Instead, Sarver is focused on upgrading the Suns’ current home (and Coyotes’ old home) in downtown Phoenix, Talking Stick Resort Arena.

From the Arizona Republic:

Sarver said building a new arena would have “maybe made more sense” four or five years ago when the cost estimate was $450 million to $500 million. The costs now, Sarver said, are “significantly higher.” Thus his focus on upgrading Talking Stick, which soon will be the second-oldest arena in the NBA.

“I think it’s the most economically viable alternative for the city and us,” he said. “I like downtown Phoenix. That’s my first preference. I think the NBA is more of an urban game. That’s our demographic.”

Talking Stick Resort Arena, formerly called America West Arena when the Coyotes played there, was designed for basketball and isn’t ideal for hockey. In that way, it’s a lot like Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which hasn’t been a great fit for the Islanders.

The Coyotes recently hired a new president and CEO, Steve Patterson, whose top priority is finding the team a new home in the Phoenix area.