Author: Ryan Dadoun

Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat

Tampa Bay Lightning ’15-16 Outlook


Tampa Bay’s mantra going into this summer might as well have been “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

It certainly seems that was Lightning GM Steve Yzerman’s philosophy as a trip to the Stanley Cup Final has led to a quiet offseason. At the same time, there is still the potential for organic, internal changes.

Forward Jonathan Drouin might find himself playing a bigger role next season after getting limited minutes in 2014-15 and barely participating in the playoffs. He has a ton of offensive upside as illustrated by his back-to-back 100-plus point seasons with the Halifax Mooseheads. If the 20-year-old forward can build off of his 32-point rookie campaign, then he will be complimenting an already deep offensive core.

At the same time, netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy’s rise last season has changed the dynamic of Tampa Bay’s goaltending. While Ben Bishop is still the team’s starter, Vasilevskiy should start pushing him for ice time. The potential is also there for a goaltending controversy should Bishop endure a sustained cold streak.

We might also see defenseman Slater Koekkoek earn a regular spot with the Lightning after playing in three contests with Tampa Bay in 2014-15. He was the 10th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and might become a significant threat with the puck and factor with the man advantage.

For the most part though, the status quo is expected to remain. Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and Jason Garrison should once again lead Tampa Bay’s blueline. Stamkos remains the centerpiece of the offense while the hope is that the Triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat has another strong campaign.

The Lightning got a lot out of that core last season, which has earned them another chance to pursue a championship together.

Lightning’s biggest question(s): Everything about Stamkos’ contract situation

Steven Stamkos

The Tampa Bay Lightning are successful because they have a deep and talented roster, but at the foundation of that is Steven Stamkos. He’s one of the best players in the league today, which makes the fact that he might actually enter the season without a contract a huge issue.

To say that his situation is the Lightning’s biggest question would be insufficient because there are multiple angles to consider. The most immediate is why he hasn’t already signed.

Extending Stamkos was Lightning GM Steve Yzerman’s clear top priority going into the summer. Stamkos’ agent Don Meehan did caution back in July that there wasn’t “any criteria on timing at this point,” but that was over a month ago. Now the question is if he’s going to enter training camp without a deal and if so, why. At that point it would become a big and constant distraction hanging over the Lightning and the longer he remained unsigned from there, scenarios that at one time were dismissed as implausible will start to look realistic.

For example, can Tampa Bay really afford to let a player of Stamkos’ caliber walk as an unrestricted free agent? If they don’t have a deal in place by the trade deadline, would the Lightning actually move him less than a year removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final? It might seem extreme, but that’s the direction the conservation heads in.

Of course, that’s only one scenario. Stamkos might still sign in August, killing that kind of speculation before it really takes off. However, even if there was a 100% guarantee that Stamkos would re-sign with the Lightning, this situation would still be their biggest question mark because there’s another factor in play: How much will he cost?

Stamkos has earned the right to become one of the league’s top paid players, if not the leader in that regard. However, the Lightning have a quite a few other noteworthy players that will need to be re-signed over the next couple of years, including Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Victor Hedman, and goaltenders Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy. The bigger Stamkos’ contract is, the harder it will be to keep that group intact.

In other words, even if Stamkos re-signing is very probable, if he decides to hold out for the most lucrative possible contract, then his decision could lead to the Lightning losing one or more other important pieces.

Under Pressure: Tyler Johnson

Tyler Johnson

Steven Stamkos might very well enter the season without a contract extension, but even if he has an off campaign, he’s likely in line for a huge payday thanks to his earned reputation and demand. But what would happen if Tyler Johnson, who had 72 points last season, regresses?

The difference between Stamkos and Johnson is that when Stamkos emerged as a superstar, it was in line with expectations, whereas Johnson has consistently had to defy them. Johnson stands at 5-foot-9 and his unimposing frame contributed to him never getting drafted while Stamkos was a first overall selection.

Johnson forced his way up the Lightning’s depth charts though by dominating in the minors and more recently leading the highly effective Triplets line with Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. At this point, Johnson’s made the Lightning look very good for signing him as an free agent prospect back in 2011. In May 2014, he inked a three-year, $10 million extension, which still looks like a big steal.

It’s clear that the 25-year-old forward is capable of producing regardless of his relatively small stature, but his rapid rise has set the bar higher than that. Johnson played like a star in 2014-15 and if he continues to perform at that level, then next summer there will be anticipation and speculation about the monster contract he might get, just as there is with Stamkos right now. He doesn’t have Stamkos’ same lengthy history of success though, so if Johnson struggles to live up to the high standard he set last season, then he’s less likely to get the benefit of the doubt. Consequently, regressing now might cost him millions in potential earnings.

That’s to say nothing of the fact that his decline would be a significant blow to the Lightning’s scoring depth, which was at the center of their success last season. Tampa Bay needs him to continue to be the next Martin St. Louis. And the thing about St. Louis is that once he broke out with his 70-point campaign in 2002-03, he consistently played like a star for the remainder of his tenure with the Lightning.

Ducks sign Hagelin to four-year deal


The Anaheim Ducks announced that they have signed Carl Hagelin to a four-year contract. The financial terms of the deal weren’t revealed by the team, but his new contract is worth $16 million, according to the Orange County Register’s Eric Stephens.

Hagelin, 26, was acquired by Anaheim from the New York Rangers in June along with the 59th (Julius Nattinen) and 179th (Garrett Metcalf) overall selections in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. In exchange the Rangers received Emerson Etem and the 41st overall pick (Ryan Gropp).

That move provided the Ducks with the type of speedy forward that Ducks GM Bob Murray craved.

“We can play with some speed now,” Murray said in June. “If you watched Tampa Bay and Chicago [in the Stanley Cup Final], that was pretty quick.

“You see who’s in the finals and you see how we got beat — the speed element of the game is getting bigger and bigger and bigger. So we have to move along with the times, and we got a guy that can really skate.”

Hagelin had 17 goals and 35 points in 82 contests last season. He was a restricted free agent coming off of a two-year, $4.5 million contract.

Gonchar returns to Penguins for pro tryout

Sergei Gonchar

With his career winding down, Sergei Gonchar is returning to Pittsburgh in the hopes of playing once more with the team he helped lead to a Stanley Cup championship.

The Penguins have announced that Gonchar will attend their training camp on a professional tryout contract.

Gonchar has recorded 220 goals and 811 points in 1,301 career games with the Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, Penguins, Ottawa Senators, Dallas Stars, and Montreal Canadiens. He’s reached the 50-point mark on nine separate occasions and has traditionally logged big minutes.

He’s 41-years-old now though and saw his role decline substantially with Montreal last season. He had a goal and 14 points in 48 contests and wasn’t used at all in the playoffs.

At this stage of his career, he might find it difficult to secure a job with the Penguins. Pittsburgh has six blueliners inked to one-way contracts, not including Olli Maatta. On top of that, defensemen Adam Clendening and Derrick Pouliot are expected to compete for roster spots during training camp.