Nikita Kucherov

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‘A good start’ — Stamkos stands out in preseason debut

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The Tampa Bay Lightning and National Hockey League unveiled the 2018 All-Star Game logo Friday.

Far more importantly for the Bolts this evening was the return of their all-star center Steven Stamkos, as he made his preseason debut in what was his first game in 10 months.

His 2016-17 season was abruptly ended in the middle of November because of a knee injury and subsequent surgery, making it the second time in four years his regular season had been disrupted by a major injury.

It may still take a while before Stamkos feels truly comfortable coming back from this injury.But his performance on Friday proved to be a very promising start for No. 91, the Bolts and their fans in Tampa Bay.

He didn’t score, but he assisted on two first period goals, including a nice set-up to linemate Nikita Kucherov, and the Lightning beat the Nashville Predators by a score of 3-1. Stamkos also received a healthy dose of ice time, playing more than 19 minutes, including 5:32 on the power play.

His pass to Kucherov resulted in a power play goal.

“It was exciting to get out there, I was pretty anxious about it… It was a good start, something to build on,” said Stamkos afterward, per the Lightning. “It was nice to just go through a game day, I haven’t done it in a long time… I was glad with how the first one went.”

Stamkos to make preseason debut tonight vs. Predators

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For the first time since Nov. 15, 2016, Steven Stamkos will be in the Tampa Bay Lightning lineup.

Per Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times, the prolific scorer will play tonight for the Bolts, as they continue the preseason against the Nashville Predators.

Stamkos suffered a knee injury last November. He underwent surgery but didn’t make it back to the lineup for the remainder of the year, marking the second time in four years his regular season was derailed by a significant injury.

“Listen, I snapped my leg in half and came back and was playing the best hockey of my career,” Stamkos told the Tampa Bay Times, referring to his broken leg suffered during the 2013-14 season.

“So this is another hurdle. I’m confident that when you put in the work, you’re going to find ways. It may be different ways. You may have to adjust certain parts of your game. But we’ll handle that when I see how it feels in a game situation. We’ll know more tonight.”

Given such a lengthy time away from game action, it might be wise — at least early on — to temper expectations of Stamkos.

He is one of the league’s most dangerous scorers. But he also hasn’t played a game in 10 months. In a conversation with the Tampa Bay Times, Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise, who had the same surgery in 2010, said it “took probably a year and a half to get back to feeling back to normal.”

It appears Stamkos will center a line tonight with Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov, who should certainly be pleased to be playing alongside No. 91.

Maple Leafs may look to Russia to improve defense (again)

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Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that the Toronto Maple Leafs confirmed that Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello recently made a visit to Russia, but they didn’t admit why they went.

It turns out that they were scoping out KHL defenseman Igor Ozhiganov, who plays for CSKA, according to Johnston and others.

Ozhiganov, 24, did not go drafted. He does, however, have some interesting NHL connections. For one thing, he suited up for the same team that Nikita Zaitsev did, so that experiment has already worked out quite well for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As you can see from the tweet above, Ozhiganov will play in the KHL through 2017-18. That’s impressive due diligence from the Leafs’ brass, although you wonder if such maneuverings might put the defenseman higher on the radars of other teams hoping to add depth to their bluelines in the future.

Raw Charge notes that Ozhiganov is a buddy of Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov, who definitely sings the defenseman’s praises. Even with Mikhail Sergachev in the mix, the Bolts are a group that will probably want to bolster their mix (especially in the uncomfortably likely event that Dan Girardi disappoints).

Either way, NHL fans will need to wait at least a season to see what Ozhiganov is capable of … and where he lands.

Bovada gives McDavid higher odds than Crosby to win Hart in 2017-18

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In handing Connor McDavid an eight-year, $100 million extension, the Edmonton Oilers essentially are paying the 20-year-old star based on the assumption that he’ll provide MVP-quality play.

At least one Vegas oddsmaker agrees, as Bovada tabbed McDavid as the favorite to win the Hart Trophy, edging Sidney Crosby.

That’s interesting, yet it might be even more interesting to note where other players fall in the rankings. Auston Matthews coming in third is particularly intriguing.

Who are some of the more interesting choices? The 20/1 range seems appealing, as Carey Price is one of the few goalies with the notoriety to push for such honors while John Tavares has the skill and financial motivation to produce the best work of his career next season.

Anyway, entertain yourself with those odds, via Bovada: (Quick note: Bovada originally had Artemi Panarin listed as still playing with Chicago. PHT went ahead and fixed that in the bit below.)

2017 – 2018 – Who will win the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player?
Connor McDavid (EDM)                         3/2
Sidney Crosby (PIT)                              5/2
Auston Matthews (TOR)                         17/2
Alex Ovechkin (WAS)                            9/1
Patrick Kane (CHI)                                 14/1
Vladimir Tarasenko (STL)                       15/1
Evgeni Malkin (PIT)                                16/1
Carey Price (MON)                                 20/1
John Tavares (NYI)                                20/1
Jamie Benn (DAL)                                 25/1
Steven Stamkos (TB)                             25/1
Erik Karlsson (OTT)                               33/1
Nikita Kucherov (TB)                              33/1
Jack Eichel (BUF)                                  50/1
Ryan Getzlaf (ANA)                               50/1
Patrik Laine (WPG)                                50/1
Brad Marchand (BOS)                            50/1
Tyler Seguin (DAL)                                50/1
Nicklas Backstrom (WAS)                      60/1
Brent Burns (SJ)                                    60/1
Braden Holtby (WAS)                            60/1
Phil Kessel (PIT)                                    60/1
Artemi Panarin (CBJ)                              60/1
Joe Pavelski (SJ)                                  60/1

Under Pressure: Andrei Vasilevskiy

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This post is part of Lightning Day on PHT…

By all accounts, Tampa Bay had a pretty good summer.

Captain Steve Stamkos recovered from major knee surgery, and will start next season at full health. GM Steve Yzerman deftly maneuvered under the salary cap, locking in Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov to team-friendly deals. That gave the Bolts enough money to add some veteran presences in free agency — Dan Girardi and Chris Kunitz, specifically.

Add it all up, and you’ve got the blueprint for a bounce back after a disappointing ’16-17 campaign.

So long as Andrei Vasilevskiy holds up his end of the bargain, that is.

For the first time in his five years with the Lightning organization, Vasilevskiy will enter as the club’s unquestioned No. 1 netminder. It was the role Yzerman envisioned when he took Vasilevskiy with the 19th overall selection in 2012 and now, the plan has come to fruition.

There were just a few roadblocks along the way.

The biggest one, literally, was the emergence of Ben Bishop, who played like one of the NHL’s top-flight netminders over the last few years — and, in doing so, created a conundrum. The better Bishop played, the more valuable he was to the Lightning. The more valuable he was to the Lightning, the more he cost to keep. Yzerman could’ve mitigated that cost by signing Bishop long-term, but that would’ve stunted Vasilevskiy’s development.

Having two talented goalies is a good problem to have. But it’s still a problem.

This is how the Lightning ended up in the uncomfortable situation of last year. Bishop, fresh off being named a Vezina finalist (and nearly being traded to Calgary) slumped through a campaign riddled with contract uncertainty. At the same time, the Bolts made the push to get Vasilevskiy more minutes, and more exposure as a No. 1 goalie.

It was a tough season. Pegged by many as a potential Stanley Cup finalist, the Bolts missed the playoffs entirely — and it’s hard not to look at goaltending as a culprit. The Lightning finished with a .910 team save percentage, 16th in the league. Bishop dealt with injury problems and Vasilevskiy, as some expected, struggled adjusting to a heavier workload.

Then Bishop was traded. And things changed.

It’s hard to ignore the uptick in Vasilevsky’s numbers after Bishop landed in L.A. The 23-year-old went 12-4-2 with a 2.27 GAA and .929 save percentage in 18 starts following the trade, playing a huge role in Tampa’s late-season playoff surge. (It should be noted the goalie brought back in the trade, Peter Budaj, was a journeyman veteran in a clearly defined backup role. He was in no way pushing Vasilevskiy for starts, and the tandem worked so effectively the Bolts re-upped with Budaj in June.)

There’s clarity in goal for the Bolts now. And there’s also a clarity in vision for the upcoming campaign — get back into the playoffs, and make a run at unseating Pittsburgh as power team in the Eastern Conference.

This is where the pressure comes in for Vasilevskiy. He will, almost undoubtedly, have to start more than his career-high of 47 games. He’ll need to be more consistent than last year, when his monthly save percentages went .929, .944, .892, .896, .919, .922 and .936.

He’ll be asked to shoulder a bigger load than ever before, while still learning his craft. Remember, Vasilevskiy only turned 23 a few weeks ago. He was the sixth-youngest goalie to appear in at least one game last season.

Now he’s tasked with taking the Bolts back to the dance.