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Time to be sellers? Lightning have some big decisions to make over next month

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This is not the position the Tampa Bay Lightning were supposed to be in this season.

After reaching the Stanley Cup Final two years ago, and then coming within a Game 7 (a one goal loss) of reaching them again, the Lightning entered this season as one of the top favorites to win the Stanley Cup. More than halfway through the season, and just one month away from the NHL trade deadline, the Lightning currently find themselves six points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 32 games to play. When it comes to overcoming that deficit, history is not on their side, especially with four teams sitting between them and a playoff spot (several of which have multiple games in hand on them). Basically, it’s crunch time for them.

Given that spot in the standings it creates quite a dilemma for general manager Steve Yzerman and how he should handle the NHL trade deadline.

This is still an extremely talented roster, one that has been one of the top three or four teams in the league over the past two seasons. For as disappointing as this injury-plagued, offensively starved season has been, this is still a team that should have a foundation in place to compete for a Stanley Cup again in the very near future.

But even if the Lightning are expected to get Steven Stamkos back in the lineup at some point before the end of this season, it still might end up being too little, too late to make any kind of a significant difference. The damage this season has already been done in the standings, so it is probably not a year in which Yzerman is going to be tempted to give up future assets to add something to a roster that is probably going to miss the playoffs anyway.

But would they be willing to become sellers if the team doesn’t close any ground in the playoff race over the next couple of weeks? Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times wrote this past week that the recent trade of defenseman Nikita Nesterov to the Montreal Canadiens could be just the start of their moves this season.

First, you have Ben Bishop, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, sitting out there as an obvious trade chip. He is having a down year (probably his worst since joining the Lightning organization) and they already have his long-term replacement (Andrei Vasilevskiy) in place and signed for the next few years on a very team and cap friendly contract. For as much as Bishop has struggled this season they almost certainly do not want to lose him for nothing after the season and you have to think he would be an immediate upgrade for somebody like, say, the St. Louis Blues, an otherwise good team that is getting crushing right now by its goaltending.

But once you get beyond him, the Lightning are looking at a potential salary cap crunch this offseason when Victor Hedman‘s new contract kicks in and Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov head into year two of their current deals.

At the moment Tampa Bay already has close to $60 million in salary cap space committed to just 13 players for next season (via CapFriendly). Without knowing exactly how much the salary cap is expected to rise that probably only leaves them with about $13-16 million (depending on what the salary cap looks like next season) to fill out the remainder of the roster.

The problem is they have three massive restricted free agents that will be in need of new contracts over the summer: Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat.

Even though Johnson and Palat have had down years offensively, they are all players that the Lightning would almost certainly love to keep, but they are also certain to get raises. If all three are re-signed that will take up a significant portion of their remaining cap space.

The Lightning are also going to have to do something to address what has been a season-long need on defense. Doing that, while also keeping the aforementioned trio of restricted free agents is going to be a tall task for Yzerman and his staff.

At some point, whether it is before the trade deadline or in the offseason the Lightning are going to have to part ways with somebody on the roster to make all of that happen.

Report: Sabres interested in Pens director of amateur scouting Randy Sexton

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New Sabres GM Jason Botterill has been on the job for less than a month, but with the draft around the corner, he’s got to start filling some holes in his front office.

Botterill, who came over from Pittsburgh, is allowed to bring former Pens colleagues of his over to Buffalo, but only if they’re given promotions by the Sabres (no lateral moves).

According to a report by Chuck Gormley, one person who could move from Pittsburgh to Buffalo is Randy Sexton, who currently serves as the Penguins’ directer of amateur scouting.

Sexton would bring plenty of experience to the Sabres’ front office, as he’s been a general manager with both the Ottawa Senators and Florida Panthers.

Having someone with that kind of experience could be beneficial for a rookie GM like Botterill, so the move would make a lot of sense from that point of view.

Related:

Botterill has “no problem” with Lehner as No. 1

Botterill to use Pens’ NHL-AHL relationship as model for Sabres

PHT Morning Skate: How good has Subban been during Nashville’s run?

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–Prior to last night’s game between Ottawa and Pittsburgh, the Senators held a moment of silence for those affected by the attacks in Manchester. A very touching moment. (The Score)

–Speaking of that game, the Senators managed to win it 2-1 thanks to some incredible goaltending from Craig Anderson. You can check out the highlights from the game by clicking the video at the top of the page.

–Sportsnet’s Andrew Berkshire takes a deeper look at P.K. Subban‘s contribution to Nashville’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. Despite dealing with a herniated disc, Subban has really been a key part of the Predators’ success both offensively and defensively. (Sportsnet)

–Many hockey fans thought Pekka Rinne‘s better days were behind him after he struggled during the regular season, but his playoff numbers have been incredible. From the start of his career, Rinne has always been underrated, so being underestimated is nothing new to him. (Yahoo)

–The Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs made a couple of trades last offseason. First, the Leafs got Frederik Andersen from the Ducks. Then, it was Toronto that shipped Jonathan Bernier to Anaheim. Could the two clubs make another huge deal this summer? The Leafs need a right-handed defenseman, and with the expansion draft coming up, the Ducks may have some blue liners to move. (The Hockey News)

–Former NHLer Manny Maholtra held a part time role with the Canucks last season, and he’s hoping for a larger one next year. “We’ve started discussions and it’s something I would definitely like to do. Obviously, a lot has to do with how (Travis) Green feels and how he wants to build his staff.” (Vancouver Province)

–We know that Brendan Smith wants to re-sign with the New York Rangers, but what will it take to get him under contract? According to the New York Post, Smith will likely fetch a four or five-year deal worth north of $4 million. (New York Post)

Crosby: Penguins ‘probably deserved better’ vs. Senators in Game 6

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If you didn’t know that the Stanley Cup Playoffs can be awfully cruel, then the last week or so of action should make it pretty clear.

The Nashville Predators lost top center Ryan Johansen to a scary ailment few would have seen coming. The Anaheim Ducks fell in both games to the Johansen-less Predators, even after dominating significant chunks of Game 6. At least one Ducks player wondered if the better team won.

Much like in life, “fair” and “deserve” only matter so much. Sports have a scoreboard to serve as the ultimate deciding factor.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have similar thoughts after falling 2-1 to the Ottawa Senators tonight, extending the Eastern Conference Final to a decisive Game 7. You can nitpick questionable penalties and missed chances, but really, how negative can you be after Craig Anderson puts forth a blazing 45-save performance (with no overtime)?

Mike Sullivan and others echoed such thoughts.

” … Obviously, we’re disappointed in the result, but I don’t think we can get discouraged by that,” Sullivan said. “I think we’ve got to take the positives from it, and we’ve got to build on it, and we’ve got to become a more determined team for Game 7.

That’s not the sort of take that’s going to make the Senators angry in Game 7. The tone of the Senators’ discussions was likely very different after they lost Game 5 by a 7-0 score, yet maybe there was similar self belief.

Anderson puzzles Penguins as Senators force Game 7

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Who could blame fans for chanting “Andy” tonight?

The Ottawa Senators said they would choose to fight in Game 6, and Craig Anderson truly battled in this one, refusing to allow this unlikely run to an end on Tuesday. They wouldn’t roll over, even after a 7-0 humiliation in Game 5.

The underrated goalie continued his memorable (and emotional) 2016-17 season with a brilliant performance, making 45 saves to help Ottawa manage a gutsy 2-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

With that, hockey fans get a true treat: the Eastern Conference will go to a Game 7 on Thursday.

The Senators opted for a “bend but don’t break” strategy for much of the contest, possibly to Guy Boucher’s preference. Even so, the Penguins managed to grind their way to a 1-0 win thanks to another hard-work goal from Evgeni Malkin.

Mistakes would come back to haunt the Penguins, however, as Bobby Ryan broke Ottawa’s lengthy power-play drought to tie things up on a 5-on-3.

With their season in question thanks to a 1-1 tie in the third period, Mike Hoffman sent a booming shot by Matt Murray, and that ended up being all the Senators needed to tie the series 3-3.

Anderson was the standout, but Erik Karlsson was a hero in the way his detractors might not expect.

You can watch Game 7 on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday. The game is also available to stream via the NBC Sports App.