Victor Hedman

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Penguins want Letang to make calculated decisions to avoid taking unnecessary hits

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Kris Letang is one of the absolute best defensemen in the NHL. There are maybe only one or two defensemen in the league that can match his skating, he is a force offensively and he is a 25-minute per night player — being used in every situation — for the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.

When he is on the ice he is a total game-changer for the Pittsburgh Penguins and one of their most important cogs. When he was sidelined for the second half of last season and the entire postseason due to a back injury there was some very real and legitimate concern that it would negatively impact their chances of repeating. They ended up repeating anyway, but weren’t quite as dominant and played noticeably different than they did the year before with Letang in the lineup. His absence was still big.

The biggest drawback for him as a player is that he tends to miss a lot of games due to injury. Since the start of the 2011-12 season he has appeared in more than 51 games just two times in six seasons, and never played in more than 71 during that stretch.

Some of it has been bad luck (the health scare that sidelined him during the 2013-14 season) but some of it comes from his style of play. He is aggressive, he plays big minutes, and he is pretty fearless on the ice, doing everything he can to make every single play, even if it means taking a big hit. And he takes a ton of hits.

When it comes to the latter part, the Penguins are looking for him to use better judgement to avoid taking some of those hits.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said over the weekend, via Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that he would like to see Letang recognize when there isn’t a play to be made and not expose himself to a potentially dangerous hit.

Here is Sullivan, via the Post-Gazette:

“We would like him to recognize those situations when he might have to use the glass and make a simple play and not put himself in vulnerable situations,” Sullivan said. “He’s a courageous kid. He’s brave. That’s part of what makes him as good as he is. And there’s going to be opportunities where he’s going to have to take hits for us to make plays. We don’t want him to change that aspect of his game.”

The Penguins are not looking for Letang to play a more conservative game overall or take away his creativity, they just want him to take some steps to help preserve himself physically so he can remain on the ice.

Sullivan added that he thinks all of the time Letang spent in the press box this past season will give him a different vantage point on the game and help him recognize the situations where he could potentially avoid a hit.

Letang only appeared in 41 games for the Penguins during the 2016-17 season but still recorded 34 points. That point-per-game average was fourth among all defensemen that appeared in at least 40 games, putting him behind only Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman.

He has averaged 0.85 points per game since the start of the 2011-12 season, a mark that puts him behind only Karlsson among the league’s defensemen. When you combine that offensive ability with his play in his own zone and the way he can almost single handedly dictate the pace of the game when he is on the ice it should be clear why the Penguins want to do everything they can to protect him physically. He was arguably their best player during their 2016 Stanley Cup run.

He is quite simply a very rare and special player.

Looking to make the leap: Mikhail Sergachev

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This post is part of Lightning Day on PHT…

Mikhail Sergachev, the talented defenseman Tampa Bay acquired in the Jonathan Drouin trade with Montreal, is ready to play in the NHL.

But circumstances beyond his control might keep him back.

On talent alone, Sergachev should push for a roster spot. The 19-year-old wowed in a four-game cameo with the Habs last season, and was a dynamic offensive force in junior with OHL Windsor. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound rearguard put up 10 goals and 43 points in 50 games for the Spits and, in January, starred on the international scene by helping Russia capture bronze at the World Juniors.

Sergachev says he’s ready to make the next step.

“I’ve played a lot in juniors and I learned a lot in those years,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “And I feel like this is my time to play in the NHL and I’ll do my best and play my best to make the Lightning roster.”

But there are those aforementioned circumstances at play.

If Sergachev doesn’t play 40 games for Tampa Bay this season, then the Lightning will receive the Canadiens’ second-round pick in 2018, and the Canadiens will receive the Lightning’s sixth-round pick.

So in a roundabout way, there’s an incentive for the Lightning to return Sergachev to junior for another year. The Bolts would get a second-round pick for a sixth-round pick, and that’s a good trade.

There’s another factor to consider as well. The Lightning have Stanley Cup aspirations. As such, they’re not in a position to gift anyone a roster spot — especially if it costs them a second-round pick.

Right now, the club projects to ice a top-six defense of Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, Dan Girardi, Slater Koekkoek and Andrej Sustr. Jake Dotchin is firmly in that mix as well, and Ben Thomas — a key part of the Syracuse team that made the Calder Cup Final last year — could also push his way into the conversation.

Still, the allure of getting Sergachev into the lineup is high.

His puck moving skills and creativity would be a boon for the power play, especially on a back end that’s essentially carried by Hedman. To that point: Hedman led the team in PP assists last year, with 29. The next closest blueliner was Stralman, who had six.

In the end, this decision could come down to the preseason. If Sergachev plays like a guy Tampa has to keep in the lineup, the club will probably respond accordingly. And if not? Well, the consolation prize is a second-round pick, which isn’t too bad.

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.

Dan Girardi joins Lightning — two years, $6 million

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After having his contract bought out by the New York Rangers earlier this offseason veteran defenseman Dan Girardi has a new home.

He signed a two-year, $6 million contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday to join their blue line.

Once one of the NHL’s steadiest defensive defenseman, Girardi’s game has declined significantly in recent seasons and it finally reached a point in New York where his contract was not matching his play on the ice. So the two sides had to move in different directions. If the Lightning are able to shelter him in a more limited role they still might be able to get something useful out of him.

He appeared in 63 games for the Rangers this past season, scoring four goals and adding 11 assists while still playing close to 20 minutes per night.

With Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman playing the biggest minutes, the Lightning won’t need Girardi to be more than a bottom-pairing defender.

They needed to add some depth to their blue line (and still do — they only have five NHL defensemen under contract for this season) but whether or not Girardi can give them what they are looking for remains to be seen.

Connor McDavid captures the Hart Trophy (video)

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Only one player in the National Hockey League scored 100 points this season. That would be Connor McDavid.

He accomplished the feat at the age of 20.

On Wednesday, after such a terrific sophomore season in which he was fully healthy throughout, he was recognized with the Hart Trophy , given to the player deemed the most valuable to his team.

McDavid scored 30 goals, many in spectacular fashion, and 100 points to win the Art Ross, often showing a dominant display of speed and hands quick enough to keep up.

The Oilers made the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2006, making it to Game 7 of the second round against the Anaheim Ducks..

McDavid beats out Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, who has been perhaps the best player in the world over the last two years with Stanley Cups, Conn Smythe trophies and a Rocket Richard Trophy to show for it, and Columbus Blue Jackets Vezina-winning netminder Sergei Bobrovsky for the award.

McDavid also captured the Ted Lindsay Award earlier in the evening.

Here is the Hart Trophy voting:

Points: (1st-2nd-3rd-4th-5th)

1. Connor McDavid, EDM 1604 (147-17-3-0-0)
2. Sidney Crosby, PIT 1104 (14-119-19-11-3)
3. Sergei Bobrovsky, CBJ 469 (4-17-40-29-23)
4. Brent Burns, SJS 273 (1-3-25-29-30)
5. Erik Karlsson, OTT 258 (0-5-28-23-14)
6. Patrick Kane, CHI 206 (0-3-20-20-25)
7. Brad Marchand, BOS 184 (1-1-14-22-31)
8. Nikita Kucherov, TBL 119 (0-0-11-15-19)
9. Nicklas Backstrom, WSH 60 (0-0-3-11-12)
10. Braden Holtby, WSH 19 (0-0-2-3-0)
11. Auston Matthews, TOR 17 (0-0-2-1-4)
12. Alex Ovechkin, WSH 7 (0-1-0-0-0)
Ryan Suter, MIN 7 (0-1-0-0-0)
14. Victor Hedman, TBL 5 (0-0-0-1-2)
15. Devan Dubnyk, MIN 4 (0-0-0-1-1)
Vladimir Tarasenko, STL 4 (0-0-0-1-1)
17. Cam Atkinson, CBJ 1 (0-0-0-0-1)
Cam Talbot, EDM 1 (0-0-0-0-1)