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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.

Yes, NHL will share protected, available player lists for expansion draft

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We can debate all day how much the NHL, Vegas Golden Knights and others involved really want to do this, but they’re making the right choice with the expansion draft nonetheless. The league will make protected and available players lists available at the same time they’re shared with teams, according to NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika.

(The NHL tweeted out as much, too.)

Could this lead to feelings being hurt or perhaps even certain sneaky deals being scuttled? Perhaps, but those are headaches that management should be expected to absorb.

The bottom line is that an expansion draft is a dream come true for armchair GMs, rumor enthusiasts, fantasy sports fans and … really, just about anyone interested in hockey. It would be a bewildering decision to try to keep all of this information locked down, even for a league that frequently garners a reputation for choosing comfort over entertainment value.

Cotsonika reports that such lists will probably be made available on June 18, though that isn’t set in stone.

(If you’re the type to take off work if a trade deadline was exciting, you might want to start drumming up excuses/putting aside vacation time/practicing your best “I’m sick” voice just in case …)

Cap Friendly provides a handy timeline for the expansion draft process:

Goalie nods: Blues give Hutton first start in two weeks

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Even though Jake Allen has played extremely well of late, Carter Hutton will get the call when the Blues take on the Coyotes in Arizona tonight.

Some of this could have to do with the opponent. The Coyotes are playing out the string on a forgettable campaign, and have lost six of their last seven. That includes a 4-1 defeat in St. Louis on Monday (in which Allen stopped 27 of 28 shots for the win).

As mentioned above, Allen has been great in March and deserves huge praise for turning his season around. He’s gone 8-1-1 this month with a remarkable .951 save percentage, allowing a mere 14 goals over his 10 appearances.

Hutton, though, has played equally well when called upon. He’s gone 4-1-0 over his last five starts, posting a .962 save percentage and a pair of shutouts. In his last outing, on Mar. 16, he allowed just one goal in a victory in San Jose.

For the Coyotes, Louis Domingue is in goal.

Elsewhere…

— A good matchup in Pittsburgh tonight, as the two defending Stanley Cup champions go head-to-head. Marc-Andre Fleury starts for the Penguins, while Corey Crawford goes for the Blackhawks.

— Calgary can clinch a playoff spot with a win tonight so, unsurprisingly, it’ll go with No. 1 Brian Elliott. No word yet on who starts for the visiting Kings, though it could be Ben Bishop after Jonathan Quick lost last night in Edmonton.

Philipp Grubauer gets the call for Washington, after Braden Holtby led the Caps to victory in Minnesota on Tuesday. Grubauer will take on Calvin Pickard, who starts for the Avs.

Vegas wants ‘progressive’ head coach, says McPhee

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Golden Knights GM George McPhee continued to list the characteristics he wants from a head coach this week, explaining that he’s searching for a forward-thinking bench boss.

“We want someone who is very current on the game, who is progressive on how the game should be played,” McPhee said in a recent phone call with season ticket holders, per the club website. “We’re looking for that progressive guy that can really help us through the early years and help develop our team and our players.”

So, time to connect the dots.

Back in November, Vegas owner Bill Foley laid the initial groundwork for McPhee’s coaching profile, saying he wanted to hire an experienced head coach.

“He’s not looking for a first-termer,” said Foley. “Some may or may not be available. … I would say the coach that we name is going to be a recognizable individual.”

Among the names that have already been floated, many fit the above billing: Jack Capuano, Gerard Gallant, Ken Hitchcock and Michel Therrien, among others.

Vegas has already spoken with Gallant and reportedly made contact with Capuano as well, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Gallant was nominated for last year’s Jack Adams as the NHL’s top coach, and McPhee is familiar with Capuano, having worked as an adviser to Isles GM Garth Snow prior to taking the Golden Knights gig.

It’s also believed former Flyers head coach Craig Berube is being considered, along with current Montreal associate Kirk Muller.

 

Pre-game reading: Tonight’s Kings-Flames game could get testy

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— Up top, the Calgary Flames don’t want Matthew Tkachuk to play any differently — even though Drew Doughty called the rookie winger a “pretty dirty player” after taking the 19-year-old’s elbow to the face earlier this month.

— Tkachuk was suspended two games for that elbow. Still, there could be fireworks tonight when the Flames and the Kings meet again in Calgary. Especially after Tkachuk replied to Doughty’s remarks with the following: “I expected more from him, honestly, than to go right to the media and start complaining after a loss.” (Calgary Sun)

— TSN’s Gary Lawless thinks Sergei Bobrovsky should win the Hart Trophy over Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby. Lawless writes: “No other player has been as important to his team and its results as Bobrovsky has to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Take Bobrovsky off the C-bus and it’s not necessarily in the ditch but it isn’t nipping at the Capitals for the league lead.” (TSN)

— Coyotes captain Shane Doan is understandably frustrated about the lower-body injury that’s kept him out of the lineup the past six games. At 40, this could be Doan’s last year in the NHL, so hopefully he’s able to return and play at least once more in front of all his fans. (Arizona Republic)

— Golden Knights owner Bill Foley doesn’t want each team’s protected list to be made public ahead of the expansion draft. That being said, Foley is also realistic: “I’d rather we know what each team has left unprotected and we make our picks and it’s a big surprise. I think there’s going to be a lot of leaks, though. I found one thing about the NHL that … everyone talks.” (Yahoo)

— An appreciation of the Detroit Red Wings playoff streak, which will finally come to an end this season. The last time the Wings missed was 1990. As noted by Nick Cotsonika: “No player in the NHL today was in the NHL then, not even Jaromir Jagr. Nine of the franchises in the NHL today weren’t in the NHL, 10 if you include the Vegas Golden Knights, who begin play next season.” (NHL.com)

Enjoy the games!