Blues sign Lehtera out of KHL: two years, $5.5 million

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The St. Louis Blues are getting caught up with an old acquaintance.

According to TSN’s Darren Dreger, the Blues have signed forward Jori Lehtera out of the KHL. He was a third-round pick by the Blues in 2008 but has spent the past four seasons in the KHL with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv and Novosibirsk Sibir. He also represented Finland at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Per Fox Sports’ Andy Strickland, it’s a two-year deal worth $5.5 million (a $2.25M annual cap hit).

Last season Novosibirsk, Lehtera had 12 goals and 44 points in 48 games. He’ll provide the Blues with depth at forward and will be playing in North America for the first time since the 2008-09 season.

WATCH LIVE: Stars host Lightning on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning and Stars meet for the second and final time this season as each club is coming off an extended break. Both Tampa Bay and Dallas enjoyed their bye weeks last week leading into All-Star Weekend. Tampa last played on Jan. 17 (a 7-1 at WPG), while Dallas last played on Jan. 18 (a 7-0 at MIN).

Both the Lightning and Stars enter the second half of the reg. season locked in tight division races. In the Atlantic, Tampa is second with 62 points, eight points behind the Bruins but with three games in hand. Behind the Lightning though are the Panthers (61 pts) and Maple Leafs (57 pts) – each within striking distance of Tampa’s spot. In the Central, Dallas is thirrd with 58 points, four points behind Avalanche in second and 10 points behind the Blues in 1sr . Below the Stars though, the Central is tight. Just seven points separate Dallas in third and Nashville in seventh. Fortunately for the Stars, they have games in hand on the three teams immediately behind them in the division.

Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was one of the two Lightning players in the All-Star Game this past weekend. The honor was well deserved as he leads the NHL with 24 wins to go along with a 2.54 GAA and .917 SV%. While he’s been great all year, the 25-year-old comes into Monday’s game as hot as any goalie in the NHL.

Dallas’ lone All-Star representative Tyler Seguin tallied a goal and assist in the Central Division’s loss in the All-Star Game. The Stars are hoping their top centerman will bring the scoring back home when they take the ice Monday. Seguin has zero goals in the last nine games. With 11 goals through 48 games, he is on pace to score just 18 goals this season, which would be his fewest in a non-shortened season since 2010-11, his rookie year.

The Stars average just 2.56 goals/game, which is tied for the fourth-fewest in the NHL. But they also allow just 2.46 goals/game, which is best in the league. Seguin maintains his lack of offensive output has to do with the team’s defensive frame of mind rather than a lack of production.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning at Dallas Stars
WHERE: American Airlines Center
WHEN: Monday, Jan. 27, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Stars stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Steven StamkosBrayden PointNikita Kucherov
Ondrej PalatAnthony CirelliTyler Johnson
Alex KillornCedric PaquettePatrick Maroon
Yanni GourdeMitchell StephensCarter Verhaeghe

Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Mikhail SergachevKevin Shattenkirk
Braydon CoburnJan Rutta

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

STARS
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Alexander Radulov
Denis GurianovJoe PavelskiRoope Hintz
Andrew CoglianoRadek FaksaBlake Comeau
Mattias JanmarkJason DickinsonCorey Perry

Esa LindellJohn Klingberg
Miro HeiskanenRoman Polak
Jamie Oleksiak – Stephen Johns

Starting goalie: Ben Bishop

Brendan Burke will handle play-by-play duties alongside analyst Pierre McGuire at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. Tonight’s studio coverage will be hosted by Liam McHugh with Anson Carter and Keith Jones.

Maple Leafs’ defense gets some help with Muzzin return

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Finally some good news for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defense.

The team announced on Monday that it has activated defenseman Jake Muzzin from injured reserve ahead of their game against the Nashville Predators.

Muzzin, 31, has not played since Dec. 27 due to a foot injury.

He is one of the Maple Leafs’ best defensive players, and it is not a coincidence that the team struggled in his absence, winning just four of the 10 games. When combined with the recent injury to Morgan Rielly it left the Maple Leafs without two of their top-three defensemen. That is going to be a problem for any team, but especially one that is already lacking defensively even when it is fully healthy.

Muzzin is one of the 10 players we identified as being able to play a big role in the second half playoff race.

His return comes at a pretty good time for a Maple Leafs team that still has a lot of work to do in the second half if it is going to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even with their improved play under new coach Sheldon Keefe (the league’s sixth-best record since Keefe took over) they still enter Monday’s game four points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They do have a little bit of an opportunity to make some noise over the next couple of weeks as only four of the next 11 games come against teams currently in a playoff position. One of those games is against the Florida Panthers, the team directly above them in the Atlantic Division standings.

The Maple Leafs acquired Muzzin exactly one year ago from the Los Angeles Kings. He is eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season, but said on Monday he would love to re-sign with the Maple Leafs.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Lightning have returned to being one of NHL’s most dominant teams

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For the first month-and-a-half of the 2019-20 NHL season something seemed to be off with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

They were a .500 team, they weren’t scoring goals the way they did a year ago, and they just looked … stale. Did the Columbus Blue Jackets break them in the playoffs? Did they finally tune out coach Jon Cooper, and would his job be in jeopardy? All things that seemed to be legitimate discussions around, say, the end of November.

Not so much today.

When the Lightning open the second half of the season on Monday night against the Dallas Stars, they will be doing so with one of the league’s best overall records and finally starting to -resemble the team that won 62 regular season games a year ago.

Just take a look at what they have done since the start of Dec. 1 and where their performance ranks among the rest of the league.

  • Record: 17-6-1, .729 points percentage (2nd in NHL)
  • 5-on-5 goal differential: plus-23 (1st in NHL)
  • Total goal differential: plus-28 (1st in NHL)
  • Goals per game: 3.55 (3rd in NHL)
  • Goals against per game: 2.39 (2nd in NHL)
  • Power play percentage: 24.3 (7th in NHL)
  • Penalty kill percentage: 88.9 (1st in NHL)
  • Shot attempt share (5-on-5): 55.9 percent (1st in NHL)
  • Scoring chance share (5-on-5): 60.6 percent (1st in NHL)
  • High-danger scoring chance share (5-on-5): 57.6 percent (1st in NHL)
  • Expected goals share (5-on-5): 58.2 percent (1st in NHL)

Completely dominant across the board.

The only team with a better points percentage during that stretch is the Pittsburgh Penguins, and they are not only first in several of those categories at 5-on-5, they are in first by a significant margin. Taking their scoring chance share of 60.6 percent, for example. The next closest team has a share of just 57.2 percent, while only three teams (Tampa Bay, Vegas, and Colorado) have a mark higher than 54 percent.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise

On paper this is still one of the best and deepest rosters in the league, and the “struggles” early in the year really come down to nothing more than a slow October to start the season. It’s not uncommon for a team to have a slow month over a 82-game season, but when that month just so happens to be the very first one it’s going to get a lot of attention. Especially when it is a Stanley Cup contender and reigning Presidents’ Trophy winning team.

Overall, the Lightning are doing everything you want to see from a championship caliber roster.

They can outscore almost anyone, they have outstanding special teams, and they are outshooting and outchancing teams at the type elite level that is usually reserved for Stanley Cup teams. They can do it all.

The other big factor is they have also had some of their best players start to really pick up their production, with none being more important than the recent improvement of starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. It wasn’t that he had a bad start to the season, but it wasn’t matching the bar he set for himself the past couple of years. But over his past 16 starts he has a 14-1-1 record with a .934 save percentage. The only goalies (minimum 10 appearances) with a better save percentage during that stretch is the Columbus duo of Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo.

When you combine that level of goaltending with the team-wide dominance shown above, that is a potential monster of a team.

Only one more thing to prove

For as good as this Lightning team is — and has been — there is always going to be that “yeah, but…” following them around.

That, of course, is winning the Stanley Cup.

Until they do that there is always going to be a segment of the hockey world that looks to downplay regular season success like this as almost meaningless. It is the same type of thing the Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues dealt with until they won it all over the past two years, and it is sort of what the Toronto Maple Leafs are currently dealing with.

But it is not like this Lightning team hasn’t had success in the postseason.

All anybody remembers at this point is the way they went out in Round 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, getting swept in four straight games to the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Yes, it was a shocking upset. One of the biggest in modern Stanley Cup playoff history, and it was worthy of every bit of criticism sent in the Lightning’s direction.

It was also the outlier for them.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season their 283 regular season wins are the second-most in the NHL, just three behind the Capitals’ 286 as of Monday.

Even with last year’s Round 1 sweep, the Lightning’s 36 playoff wins over that same stretch are second most in the league, behind only Pittsburgh and Washington (both tied for first at 39).

It’s not like they have been a team that’s lost in the first round every year, or failed to actually go on a deep run. They made a Stanley Cup Final. They lost a pair of Game 7s in the Eastern Conference Final to teams that went on to win the Stanley Cup. You can criticize the way they lost those series (losing a 2-1 series lead in the SCF; losing 3-2 series leads in both Conference Finals). At that point you’re talking razor thin margins between winning and losing. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way.

The only thing you can do is keep stockpiling good players, playing to their strengths, and hope some luck finally goes your way.

Two years ago it finally went the Capitals’ way.

Last year it worked for the Blues.

Maybe this is the year for the Lightning.

MORE: NHL Power Rankings: Stanley Cup contenders entering second half

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Bounce-back candidates for the second half

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Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I’d normally focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. For this week though, because we’re coming off the All-Star break, I’m doing something a little different. This week I’m highlighting 10 players who underperformed in the first half and should do better for the rest of the campaign.

Johnny Gaudreau, Flames – LW/RW: With 13 goals and 38 points in 50 contests, you can’t say that Gaudreau is having a bad season, but it is a significant step down from his previous two campaigns. The Flames as a whole have had a rough campaign offensively, going from the second best in 2018-19 to the 25th ranked offense this season. Part of Gaudreau’s problem though might be some rough puck luck. His shooting percentage is significantly off from his career average (9.2% in 2019-20 compared to 12.4% in his career), his PDO is the lowest it’s ever been, and his IPP is the lowest it’s been since the 2014-15 campaign.  Those can be taken as indicators that he’s been rewarded less than he should have been. All that has to be taken with a grain of salt, but even with that qualifier, Gaudreau is a top-tier player so it’s not a bad idea to put your faith in him.

Phil Kessel, Coyotes – RW: The Coyotes added Kessel in the hopes that he would provide them with the one thing they sorely lacked last season: goals. So far that hasn’t quite worked out. Arizona has been a better team offensively this season than they were in 2018-19, but it’s still their main weakness and rather than lead the charge, Kessel has been a decent, but not great top-six forward. Kessel has 11 goals and 31 points in 51 contests after recording 61 goals and 174 points in 164 contests in his previous two seasons with Pittsburgh. Kessel might have needed some time to adjust to his new environment though and he has been doing better lately with seven goals and 17 points in his last 23 contests as well as three goals and 10 points in his last 10 games. The stage seems to be set for him to have a better second half.

Jake Gardiner, Hurricanes – D: Gardiner typically produced solid numbers offensively with the Maple Leafs, but he also was logging over 20 minutes of ice time with them each season. By contrast, he has three goals and 13 points in 50 games while averaging just 16:29 minutes in Carolina. With Dougie Hamilton sidelined indefinitely though, the Hurricanes might need to lean on Gardiner significantly more. He’s averaged 20:22 minutes in the three games since Hamilton’s injury and if that continues then he should have a much stronger second half.

Pekka Rinne, Predators – G: If the season ended today, this would arguably be the worst campaign of Rinne’s career. He has a 16-10-3 record, 2.95 GAA, and .899 save percentage in 29 starts. That save percentage would be the worst he’s ever endured and his GAA is only topped by the 3.80 GAA he had over two games back in 2005-06. Just two years removed from his Vezina win, it’d be quite the collapse. He’s largely been dragged down from one prolonged bad stretch though. From Oct. 31-Dec. 21, he had a 3.91 GAA and .864 save percentage in 12 starts. Before that he was having a terrific season and since he’s bounced back somewhat with a 2.86 GAA and .907 save percentage in nine games. This is probably going to go down as a season where Rinne declined meaningfully, but his second half should still be an improvement on his first.

John Klingberg, Stars – D: Klingberg had two goals and 19 points in 37 games going into the All-Star break. That’s not terrible, but if the season ended today, his points-per-game pace would be the lowest of his career. He’s thawing out though with nine assists in his last nine games. Given his track record, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to believe that he can do better going forward.

Jack Hughes, Devils – C: The first overall pick in the 2019 draft hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm. He has six goals and 17 points in 40 contests so far, which means there hasn’t been much reason to own Hughes if you’re in a standard fantasy league. That being said, the more NHL experience he gets, the better he should be. The fact that the Devils are out of the playoff hunt might also strangely work in his favor. The Devils have already traded Taylor Hall and they will likely attempt to continue selling, which may lead to the team handing Hughes more ice time to compensate. There’s also more incentive for them to give their young players plenty of ice time if their focus is on the future and not the 2019-20 campaign.

Sidney Crosby, Penguins – C: This one is a bit of a cheat. I’ve been avoiding highlighting players who spent most of the first half on the sidelines, but in terms of players who missed time in the first half, Crosby is among those who should have the biggest impact in the second. When he’s been healthy this season, Crosby has been his usual dominant self with eight goals and 25 points in 22 contests. As long as he can stay off the sidelines for the rest of the campaign, he should be among the league scoring leaders from the All-Star break onwards.

Gabriel Landeskog, Avalanche – C/LW: Landeskog set a career-high last season with 75 points in 73 games, but he’s had a quiet first half with 13 goals and 21 points in 33 contests. Part of the problem was a lower-body injury that cost him 16 games, but of course that doesn’t explain away his decline in points-per-game. He has a 42.9 IPP, which is very low and might indicate that he’s endured some unusually bad luck. That might be part of the reason for his underwhelming first half and if that’s the case, we might see a better return out of him after the All-Star break.

Jordan Eberle, Islanders – RW: In early January, Eberle described himself as a second-half player and so far he’s backed that assertion up with four goals and seven points in his last eight games. That’s in stark contrast to his three goals and 17 points in 31 contests from Oct. 4-Jan. 6. Eberle has been hit-and-miss in recent years, so it’s entirely possible that his recent run is simply a hot streak, but he underperformed thus far relative to what we’ve seen out of him for most of his career, so it’s not out of the question that he will be better in the second half of the season compared to the first.

Braden Holtby, Capitals – G: Holtby can become an unrestricted free agent this summer and his is not the sort of season he’d like to have in his contract year. While he has a great 18-9-4 record behind the amazing Capitals, his GAA and save percentage leave a lot to be desired at 3.09 and .897 respectively. He’s certainly had some good stretches this season though and perhaps the break came at an ideal time for him because it gives him an opportunity for him to step back from his recent struggles. He’s allowed at least three goals in each of his last seven games, which has dragged down his numbers. The time to reflect might be just what he needed and with his contract expiring, he’s not short on motivation to bounce back.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.