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Yzerman kept the gang together; Now Lightning must deliver

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Over and over again, it seemed like there would be a salary-cap challenge that would derail the Tampa Bay Lightning. Each time, GM Steve Yzerman seemed to pull a rabbit out of his hat.

Splendid summer of 2016

Instead of heading to, say, Toronto, Steven Stamkos signed with the Lightning. Not long after, Victor Hedman stayed around for about a half million less than Stamkos.

Nikita Kucherov seemed like he’d present a hurdle the Lightning couldn’t clear during that same, complicated summer of 2016. Instead, Yzerman pulled wizardry in signing him for a little less than $4.8 million. Not bad for a forward who only added volume to the murmurs that he might actually be the best Lightning forward on that roster.

Keeping the gang together

After a brutal season, one wondered if the Lightning would finally feel the same sting as other salary-cap-challenged-contenders (or hopeful contenders).

Now, sure, management might not have parted ways with Ben Bishop if there was no cap ceiling. And while Jonathan Drouin never felt like a part of the core, money likely inspired his trade as much as anything else.

MORE: Drouin traded to Montreal for package including Mikhail Sergachev

Still … it’s resounding how often Yzerman’s come out on top in these discussions. This summer’s been another example of that, as he managed to sign Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat to similar, possibly team-friendly deals. Many teams would envy “The Triplets” of Johnson, Palat, and Kucherov coming in at less than $15M combined.

After years of looking at the Lightning’s place in the standings with one eye and their looming cap worries with the other, now everything’s just about locked up.

So, the question is – especially after last season’s nightmare – can this hyped group regain its place among the contenders? Can they back up that promise by actually winning a Stanley Cup?

Pivotal players

Palat seems to be a pretty steady guy, one who might have a “high floor but low ceiling.”

There are more interesting fork-in-the-road moments for the Lightning, instead.

1. What to expect from Stamkos?

Injuries keep wrecking Stamkos’ seasons, almost to an absurd degree. He was limited to 17 games in 2016-17 and 37 in 2013-14.

Stamkos gets lost in the shuffle of elite discussions in large part because of injuries. At first, $8.5 million seemed like a steal for the Lightning, and he’s still slated for great things at 27. Still, the situation is cloudier than it was when he signed that mega-deal.

2. Is Andrei Vasilevskiy the real deal?

The Lightning went with the younger – and cheaper – goalie in essentially choosing Vasilevskiy over Ben Bishop. His contract mimics Matt Murray‘s in price, and if he’s legitimately a difference maker, could be a similar steal. Even so, Vasilevskiy matches this Lightning team in actually needing to deliver on such promise.

3. How good is Tyler Johnson, really?

Take a look at Tyler Johnson’s past four seasons:

2013-14 – 24 goals, 50 points
2014-15 – 29 goals, 72 points
2015-16 – 14 goals, 38 points
2016-17 – 19 goals, 45 points

Now, Johnson has also shown promise in the postseason including in 2015-16. So there are multiple flashes of a true “game-breaker” type, which could be especially noteworthy with the loss of Drouin.

Johnson stands as a mystery, especially if you’re the type who attributes much of Johnson’s and Palat’s best moments to being on a line with Kucherov.

***

Overall, the Lightning are in a great spot, and Yzerman’s hard work explains why. Maybe we can quibble with Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi signings, and some might argue that the wrong calls were made with Ben Bishop and/or Jonathan Drouin.

Still, with heaps of tough contract challenges in front of him, Stevie Y mostly hit homers rather than striking out.

At least, he did so on paper. The Lightning need to make it happen on the ice, or his brilliance will mainly seem theoretical.

The Colorado Avalanche’s win streak hits double digits

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The streak is now in double digits.

The Colorado Avalanche won their 10th straight game on Monday night, taking down the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2.

Yes, that’s 10 wins by the team that ended last season with an NHL-worst 48 points.

Hockey is wonderful, isn’t it?

The Avalanche have been pretty darn good during that streak, outscoring opponents 41-16 during that span. Scoring four goals per game on average will win you more than it won’t.

And the Avs have had success on the back end. Jonathan Bernier has been completely lights out during the streak. He is on a streak of his own with nine straight wins, becoming the third netminder in franchise history to win nine in a row.

Colorado’s streak is also an NHL-best this season and it’s the second longest streak in Avs history (they won 12 straight during the 1998-99 season).

The Avs are sitting on 57 points, good for the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jason Zucker takes a puck to the head (video)

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How in the world did he get up?

Too many players have been getting drilled in the head lately by slap shots. It’s an ugly site to behold whenever it happens

Somehow, however, Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild was able to pop right back up and head directly to the dressing room. No passing GO on this one.

The puck hit him so squarely in the helmet that it ricocheted back toward the Thomas Chabot, who uncorked the shot in the first place.

Even more insane is that Zucker was able to return to the game.

Talk about hard-headed.

Who could take Taylor Hall’s place if he has to miss the All-Star Game?

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With Taylor Hall set to miss the next couple of games due to a hand injury, and with that injury putting his All-Star Game prospects in jeopardy, we look at the players who are worthy of replacing the New Jersey Devils forward if he has to miss this weekend’s festivities.

Two names that immediately come to mind are Pittsburgh Penguins forward Phil Kessel and Philadelphia Flyers forward Sean Couturier.

There was already an argument that Kessel deserved to be at the ASG over Sidney Crosby. He was leading the Penguins in points then and two weeks later, he continues to pace Pittsburgh with 21 goals (tied with Evgeni Malkin) and 54 points, three more points than Crosby.

Couturier has already smashed his previous career highs in both goals (26) and points (47). He’s been part of the reason that Claude Giroux is already headed to the ASG and deserves to be there himself.

At third would have to be Sebastian Aho. The talent in the Metropolitan is evident with his snub. He’s clearly the best player on the Carolina Hurricanes this season (no disrespect to Teuvo Teravainen).

Aho is well on his way to eclipsing his rookie-season totals and a big reason why the Hurricanes are three points back of a playoff spot.

Beyond those three guys, there’s a few that certainly deserve the honor:

  • Anders Lee has 27 goals this season, seven off the pace he set last season with half the season to go.
  • Jakub Voracek leads the NHL with 45 assists, four more than teammate Giroux.
  • Evgeni Malkin. Not having a bad year.

It’s important to remember that the at-least-one-player-per-team rule goes out the window when it comes to replacing another All-Star.

There are certainly some very deserving names that didn’t get the first call.

But life’s about second chances.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Tampa Bay Lightning vs Chicago Blackhawks

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Projected Lines

Tampa Bay Lightning

Nikita KucherovBrayden PointTyler Johnson

Vladislav NamestnikovSteven StamkosChris Kunitz

Alex Killorn — Matthew Peca — Yanni Gourde

Michael Bournival — Cedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Jake DotchinAnton Stralman

Mikhail SergachevDan Girardi

Braydon CoburnAndrej Sustr

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

NHL on NBCSN: ‘Out of sync’ Lightning look to end three-game losing skid against ‘Hawks

Chicago Blackhawks

Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsAnthony Duclair

Patrick SharpNick SchmaltzPatrick Kane

Alex DeBrincatArtem AnisimovRyan Hartman

Tomas Jurco — David Kampf — Vinnie Hinostroza

Duncan KeithJordan Oesterle

Erik Gustafsson — Brent Seabrook

Michal KempnyConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Jeff Glass