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Time to be sellers? Lightning have some big decisions to make over next month

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This is not the position the Tampa Bay Lightning were supposed to be in this season.

After reaching the Stanley Cup Final two years ago, and then coming within a Game 7 (a one goal loss) of reaching them again, the Lightning entered this season as one of the top favorites to win the Stanley Cup. More than halfway through the season, and just one month away from the NHL trade deadline, the Lightning currently find themselves six points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 32 games to play. When it comes to overcoming that deficit, history is not on their side, especially with four teams sitting between them and a playoff spot (several of which have multiple games in hand on them). Basically, it’s crunch time for them.

Given that spot in the standings it creates quite a dilemma for general manager Steve Yzerman and how he should handle the NHL trade deadline.

This is still an extremely talented roster, one that has been one of the top three or four teams in the league over the past two seasons. For as disappointing as this injury-plagued, offensively starved season has been, this is still a team that should have a foundation in place to compete for a Stanley Cup again in the very near future.

But even if the Lightning are expected to get Steven Stamkos back in the lineup at some point before the end of this season, it still might end up being too little, too late to make any kind of a significant difference. The damage this season has already been done in the standings, so it is probably not a year in which Yzerman is going to be tempted to give up future assets to add something to a roster that is probably going to miss the playoffs anyway.

But would they be willing to become sellers if the team doesn’t close any ground in the playoff race over the next couple of weeks? Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times wrote this past week that the recent trade of defenseman Nikita Nesterov to the Montreal Canadiens could be just the start of their moves this season.

First, you have Ben Bishop, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, sitting out there as an obvious trade chip. He is having a down year (probably his worst since joining the Lightning organization) and they already have his long-term replacement (Andrei Vasilevskiy) in place and signed for the next few years on a very team and cap friendly contract. For as much as Bishop has struggled this season they almost certainly do not want to lose him for nothing after the season and you have to think he would be an immediate upgrade for somebody like, say, the St. Louis Blues, an otherwise good team that is getting crushing right now by its goaltending.

But once you get beyond him, the Lightning are looking at a potential salary cap crunch this offseason when Victor Hedman‘s new contract kicks in and Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov head into year two of their current deals.

At the moment Tampa Bay already has close to $60 million in salary cap space committed to just 13 players for next season (via CapFriendly). Without knowing exactly how much the salary cap is expected to rise that probably only leaves them with about $13-16 million (depending on what the salary cap looks like next season) to fill out the remainder of the roster.

The problem is they have three massive restricted free agents that will be in need of new contracts over the summer: Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat.

Even though Johnson and Palat have had down years offensively, they are all players that the Lightning would almost certainly love to keep, but they are also certain to get raises. If all three are re-signed that will take up a significant portion of their remaining cap space.

The Lightning are also going to have to do something to address what has been a season-long need on defense. Doing that, while also keeping the aforementioned trio of restricted free agents is going to be a tall task for Yzerman and his staff.

At some point, whether it is before the trade deadline or in the offseason the Lightning are going to have to part ways with somebody on the roster to make all of that happen.

Plenty of drama in 2018 NHL Draft starting with No. 3 pick

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The first two picks of the 2018 NHL Draft stuck to the script. Many expected that script to be flipped from the third selection and on, and NHL teams didn’t disappoint.

For a running tally of the first round picks, check PHT’s Draft Tracker.

Montreal Canadiens walk to the beat of their own drum

Time will tell if Jesperi Kotkaniemi ends up being a “reach” or not.

Some wonder about Kotkaniemi’s ceiling, but he’s a center who was rising up many mock drafts as Friday approached. This isn’t a wild reach, yet it’s a move that will inspire more than a little bit of debate.

And, yes, a lot of the doubt stems from the fact that Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin seems to be a magnet for debate.

Two other interesting picks

If you want to leave your head spinning, just go through every mock draft to see how wide the range of opinions have been about Brady Tkachuk. His potential as a prospect has been, at times, as controversial as the chirp-tastic forward likely will be on the ice.

(He’ll definitely chirp his brother Matthew Tkachuk, being that Brady went quite a bit earlier in his draft as No. 4 with Ottawa.)

The Senators have experienced a turbulent summer, to put things mildly, and Tkachuk stands as an interesting choice. On the bright side, he could be NHL-ready soon (maybe not right away like his brother, but who knows … especially with a modestly talented team like the Sens?). Still, some wonder if that brand name that comes with being Matthew’s brother and Keith’s son might have inflated his draft stock.

Arizona raised more than a few eyebrows when they selected Barrett Hayton, a center some expected to go in the teens.

Grabbing some really nice value

To wrap up the earliest picks, NHL teams took advantage of certain mild surprises to land some layups.

Filip Zadina was, at one point, the consensus third pick of the 2018 NHL Draft. At worst, the useful winger was expected to go fourth in Montreal went with a center, as they did. Instead, he fell to the Detroit Red Wings.

Instead of over-thinking things (the Red Wings haven’t been shy about stating their desire to improve on defense), Detroit took the “W,” whether you consider that “the win” or “a winger.” Detroit hasn’t always been keen to take the best player available, but they did it here.

The Vancouver Canucks also must have been delighted to see speedster Quinn Hughes fall to them at seventh overall. Many believe that he was the second-best defenseman available, and a true game-breaker (even if he’s on the small side).

Stay tuned for more analysis from the 2018 NHL Draft …

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

2018 NHL Draft Tracker

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Friday features the first 31 selections of the 2018 NHL Draft, with the rest rolling out on Saturday. Take a look at each pick, along with some trades and other notes.

[Before the selections started rolling in, the Capitals sent Brooks Orpik and Philipp Grubauer to the Avalanche for the 47th pick.]

Round 1

1. Buffalo Sabres – Rasmus Dahlin, Defenseman, Frolunda (Sweden)

“He is a terrific skater and stick handler who can rush the puck, or join the attack in a hurry. Impressive agility makes him a good one-on-one defender. He has fine passing ability, and although not a big-time bomber, he has an accurate shot from the point.” – Elite Prospects.

Dahlin is the most hyped defensive prospect in years, if not decades. Some say we haven’t seen this kind of excitement for a defenseman since Denis Potvin. Yeah.

2. Carolina Hurricanes – Andrei Svechnikov, Winger, Barrie (OHL)

“Svechnikov has size, speed and skill. He can play a power game or a finesse game, make plays or score goals any way they can be scored – off the rush, one timers from far out, getting his nose dirty in front of the net or off the cycle.” – Bob McKenzie, TSN.

3. Montreal Canadiens – Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Center, Assat (Finland)

“A smart forward with a dangerous shot, Kotkaniemi possesses a high hockey IQ and determination with the skills to back it up. Positions himself well and often seems to be a step ahead of plays.” -Matias Strozyk, Elite Prospects.

4. Ottawa Senators – Brady TkachukW, Boston University (NCAA)

“Tkachuk is a lot less refined and less polished than the other elite picks but the big raw-boned winger plays a hard driving, aggravating power and agitation game.” McKenzie, TSN.

5. Arizona Coyotes – Barrett Hayton, C, S.S. Marie (OHL)

“Very smart two-way centre who contributes in all areas of the game and has potential to be a very key player.” TSN.

6. Detroit Red Wings – Filip ZadinaW, Halifax (QMJHL)

“Filip Zadina is a dynamic offensive forward that plays a complete game. A deft and agile skater, he exhibits explosive mobility both up and down the ice. In all three zones, he proactively looks to create problems for the opposition.” – Curtis Joe, Elite Prospects.

7. Vancouver Canucks – Quinn Hughes, D, Michigan (NCAA)

“He plays a go-go-go offensive game, at times more like a rover than a defenceman. He’s fearless, not afraid to make high risk, high reward but also high danger plays.” TSN.

8. Chicago Blackhawks – Adam BoqvistD (Sweden)

“A dynamic offensive defenceman that can carry plays with the puck on his stick. A highly mobile and nimble skater that moves with fluidity, balance, and confidence. Utilizes an active stick and creates turnovers frequently. Could be more proactive in his own end …” Curtis Joe, Elite Prospects.

9. New York Rangers –  Vitali Kravtsov, W, Chelyabinsk (KHL)

“A big, skilled winger that can play up and down the lineup and provide scoring in a number of roles. He brings grit and physical size, but could be more assertive in throwing his weight around more.” Elite Prospects.

10. Edmonton Oilers – Evan BouchardD, London (OHL)

“A highly intelligent all-around defenceman that plays with poise and can shift the pace of play in a multitude of ways. Showcases smooth four-way skating ability and loves to get involved in all situations – especially when that situation happens to be an up-ice rush.” – Curtis Joe, Elite Prospects.

11. New York Islanders
12. New York Islanders (from Flames)
13. Dallas Stars
14. Philadelphia Flyers (from Blues)
15. Florida Panthers
16. Colorado Avalanche
17. New Jersey Devils
18. Columbus Blue Jackets
19. Philadelphia Flyers
20. Los Angeles Kings
21. San Jose Sharks
22. Ottawa Senators (from Penguins)
23. Anaheim Ducks
24. Minnesota Wild
25. Toronto Maple Leafs
26. New York Rangers (from Bruins)
27. Chicago Blackhawks (from Predators)
28. New York Rangers (from Lightning)
29. St. Louis Blues (from Jets)
30. Detroit Red Wings (from Golden Knights)
31. Washington Capitals

 

MORE:
• Rasmus Dahlin addition can be a franchise changer for Sabres
• NHL draft action likely to begin with Montreal at No. 3
• Noah Dobson and his unique road to the 2018 NHL Draft

Sabres pick Dahlin first, Hurricanes get Svechnikov second in NHL Draft

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No one reasonably expected the Buffalo Sabres to pass on Rasmus Dahlin for the first pick of the 2018 NHL Draft. The Carolina Hurricanes selecting Andrei Svechnikov second overall was very predictable, too, although some wondered if new management might set the stage for a swerve.

Nope.

The top two teams went with slam-dunk choices, so now the best defenseman (Dahlin) and best forward (Svechnikov) are off the board.

A generational defenseman?

Dahlin stands as the first Swedish player to be selected first overall since Mats Sundin. He’s the most hyped defensive prospect since at least Victor Hedman, while some argue that we haven’t seen this level of excitement for a blueliner since Denis Potvin. Yes, he’s a big deal.

The Sabres might have more big moves coming soon. There are some rumbling about Ryan O'Reilly being traded, while they opted not to qualify RFA goalie Robin Lehner.

Adding Dahlin to the mix – he’s likely to make an immediate jump into the NHL, and instantly become one of the best Buffallo blueliners – makes everything run more smoothly.

What the Hurricanes needed

For all the justifiable worries about Carolina’s goaltending, the Hurricanes struggled to score goals in 2017-18.

It’s unclear where exactly Svechnikov will fit into the lineup next season, but he’ll probably provide an upgrade right away. Barring surprises, the Russian winger should slide in somewhere in the team’s top three forward lines.

The floor is pretty high for Svechnikov. Ultimately, the biggest question is: “How high is his ceiling?”

More to come on both players …

Avalanche acquire Grubauer, Orpik as Capitals open cap space for Carlson

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The Colorado Avalanche kicked the 2018 NHL Draft off by making the first move of the weekend in acquiring Brooks Orpik and Philipp Grubauer from the Washington Capitals. The Stanley Cup champions received the 47th overall pick  in exchange.

“We would like to thank Brooks and Philipp for all of their contributions to our organization,” said Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. “Philipp has been a consummate professional and a great teammate and we wish him all the best. Brooks was a great leader and a tremendous role model for our young players in his four years with our organization. This was a difficult move, but the one we felt we needed to make in order to give some flexibility moving forward.”

The move is an eye to the future for the Avalanche. Starting goalie Semyon Varlamov only has one year remaining on his contract and Grubauer, who is set to become a restricted free agent on July 1, has been tabbed a future No. 1 in the NHL. He certainly had interest around the league with teams like the New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres in the market for a goalie.

As for the Capitals, including Orpik and his $5.5 million cap hit in the trade is a huge move toward attempting to re-sign defenseman John Carlson, who will earn a long-term, very rich contract from someone this summer. According to Cap Friendly, Washington now has a little over $21 million in cap space heading into July 1. Plenty of space to bring back Carlson and maybe even Michal Kempny.

The 37-year-old Orpik only has one year left on his deal and becomes one of two Avalanche defenseman over the age of 30. That is, if he remains in Colorado. According to Pierre LeBrun, GM Joe Sakic is looking to flip Orpik and if he can’t do that, a buyout will likely happen.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.