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How Lightning keep coming up just short

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Let’s have a discussion about the Tampa Bay Lightning, shall we?

On one hand, they have recently been one of the NHL’s most successful teams.

They have reached at least the Eastern Conference Final in three of the past four seasons, and that includes a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. The one year they did not reach the conference final during this run they missed the playoffs by a single point in a year where they were decimated by injuries, including a crushing one to their top player — Steven Stamkos — that sidelined him for almost all of the season.

By any definition this is a wildly successful organization.

They are well run by a smart, innovative front office that has exploited a lot of areas where other teams have had blind spots (the Lightning do not shy away from undersized forwards; they are not afraid to draft players from Russia).

They have one of the best coaches in the NHL in Jon Cooper, who has won at every single level, winning championships in the USHL and AHL, and then coaching in a Cup Final.

They have great players all over the lineup including two of the top forwards in the league (Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov), an elite No. 1 defenseman (Victor Hedman), and a Vezina Trophy finalist (Andrei Vasilevskiy).

They have a steady pipeline of young talent that keeps coming through the system to give them a deep, talented roster.

They are not afraid to go all in and make a big move to add to their roster at the deadline.

They win a lot of games and go deep in the playoffs. There is a lot to be said for all of this.

Yet, even with all of that it still kind of feels like it has all been a somewhat disappointing run because they keep coming up just a little bit short.

Maybe “disappointing” is too strong of a word because it is damn hard to keep consistently reaching the final four every year. As I wrote a few days ago when talking about the Capitals having to once again face their postseason demons, sports is ultimately a story of failure. Championships are hard to come by and even getting within a stone’s throw of one is an incredible challenge. It is not necessarily a failure to lose in the Cup Final or lose in the conference final ever year.

But it still feels like there has been a big opportunity missed here to get a championship.

What makes it seem like such a big missed opportunity for the Lightning is the way they keep falling short in these situations, completely falling apart and going out with a whimper when they seem to be in control of a series.

Let’s start with this year’s loss in the Eastern Conference Final to the Capitals.

After falling into an 0-2 series hole by dropping the first two games on home ice, the Lightning roared back with three consecutive wins to seemingly take control of the series, sitting just one win shy of going back to the Final.

They not only failed to get that one win, they failed to score a goal in the two games that followed, losing by a combined score of 7-0. In the process they were completely outplayed, outclassed, and thoroughly dominated by the Capitals in pretty much every phase of the game. Prior to that meltdown the Lightning were 11-4 in this year’s playoffs (8-2 in the first two rounds, including a rather convincing thumping of a really good Boston Bruins team) after finishing the regular season as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. To call it an underwhelming exit based on everything that preceded it would be an understatement.

If that script sounds familiar it’s probably because it is nearly identical to what happened to them in 2016. After winning back-to-back games to take a 3-2 series lead against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Lightning returned home for Game 6 with a chance to clinch what would have been a second consecutive trip to the Cup Final. Instead, they came out on home ice and completely laid an egg, falling behind 3-0 through two periods and putting themselves in a hole they could not dig out of. They were outscored 7-3 in the final two games of that series.

In the 2015 Cup Final, the Lightning won two of the first three games against the Chicago Blackhawks. They then proceeded to score just two goals for the remainder of the series, dropping three games in a row to lose the series.

The common denominator in all of those late series collapses is an offense that just completely vanishes with the season and series on the line. When that happens the focus always shifts to the team’s top players, and in this case that would be Stamkos and Kucherov.

Let’s start with Stamkos, who has now played in six career Game 7s and, well, the numbers are not kind.

Harsh … but fair.

Things are not much better for Kucherov who has zero points and only seven shots on goal in four career Game 7s.

I am not a fan of making big picture judgements about players based on individual games or even individual playoff series’ because there is a lot of times a lot of noise and randomness there, and it’s not like these two players haven’t performed at other times in the playoffs. All playoff games are big games. All playoff games are pressure situations.

Among active players that have appeared in at least 50 playoff career playoff games Kucherov has the second-highest goals per game average in the league, trailing only some guy named Ovechkin.

Stamkos’ overall playoff production drops a bit from his normal regular season numbers, but it is not a huge drop and he is still very productive overall.

But you can not hide from those numbers in Game 7s. They are rough, and if you extend it to potential elimination games (games where either the Lightning are facing elimination or can knock out an opponent) he has just five goals in 20 such games. When the team not only doesn’t win, but also bows out the way they have those numbers are going to be talked about.

The frustrating thing about this there really isn’t anything the Lightning can do about it.

At least, there is nothing they should do about it. This isn’t a situation that calls for drastic changes. This isn’t something that requires an overhaul of the team or its core or the way it operates or the way it plays. The worst thing they can do is overreact and conclude that they are doing something wrong. It is obvious the team is good. The team has shown it is capable of going deep in the playoffs and making a serious run at a championship. When you get to Game 7 of the Conference Final or five or six games deep into the Stanley Cup Final you are often times literally just a single shot, call, or bounce away.

Sometimes it goes your way. Sometimes it does not.

If there is a lesson to be learned here it should be taken from the Capitals themselves because for years they were the team sitting in the Lightning’s current position (only not quite as good because they were not even going as deep in the playoffs as the Lightning have) of consistently coming up just short in every painful way imaginable no matter how great the team was. The parallels are striking, right down to having one of this generations top goal-scorers. At times the Capitals made some philosophical mistakes in the way they played, and maybe a coaching blunder or two (hello Dale Hunter and Adam Oates era), but they stuck with their superstars. They stuck with the players that kept getting them close and believed that eventually things would go their way.

They finally are going their way.

Until that happens for the Lightning, though, they are going to be stuck facing criticism for not being able to get the job done and missing a big opportunity.

The Capitals are in the process of rewriting their story.

Now the Lightning have replaced them in the “you were so close, how did you lose this?” discussion.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

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.

2018 NHL Draft Tracker

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Once you moved beyond the premium picks, the 2018 NHL Draft became “The Year of the Mobile Defensemen.” Almost half of the first round featured defensive picks, most of whom fit the mold of the modern, attacking NHL.

The draft began with two predictable top picks, and then the drama escalated once the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators came into the mix. Maybe hockey fans should just get used to that, as those franchises stir things up more than any others?

Early on, it seems like the Red Wings and Islanders rank among the biggest winners once you push beyond the slam-dunk picks. Time, of course, will tell if that’s even remotely accurate.

Check out the first round results below, along with some early analysis. The remainder of the 2018 NHL Draft takes place early on Saturday.

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 Tkachuk, W, 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 Zadina, W, 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 Boqvist, D (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 Bouchard, D, 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 – Oliver Wahlstrom, W, NTDP

“Offensively, he might be described as uncontainable: the confidence he has in his individual puck skill, paired with a high level of thinking, makes him a difficult cog to take out of alignment. He is able to create opportunities for himself, as well as teammates, out of nothing; this, in turn, translates to energy on the ice and in the building as a whole.” – Curtis Joe, Elite Prospects.

12. New York Islanders (from Flames) – Noah Dobson, D, Acadie-Bathurst (QMJHL)

“Dobson is a strong skater with a high degree of creativity, vision and offensive prowess. Scouts feel we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg here.” – Bob McKenzie, TSN.

13. Dallas Stars – Ty Dellandrea, C, Flint (OHL)

“Very strong two-way centre who plays all situations and can contribute offensively and defensively. Terrific improvement.” TSN.

14. Philadelphia Flyers (from Blues) – Joel Farabee, W, NTDP

“Plays all situations in the game with full understanding and has the skills to contribute offensively.” Craig Button, TSN.

15. Florida Panthers – Grigori Denisenko, (Russia)

“Highly skilled, very dynamic offensive player who is a very dangerous player and capable of quick strike scoring.” Craig Button, TSN.

16. Colorado Avalanche – Martin Kaut, W, Parduice (Czech Extraliga)

“All the skill to be a top six winger who is capable of scoring and being a playmaker.” Craig Button, TSN.

17. New Jersey Devils – Ty Smith, D, Spokane (WHL)

“Elite skating defender whose upside is not far off from the top defenders in the 2018 class.” ISS Hockey.

18. Columbus Blue Jackets – Liam Foudy, C, London (WHL)

“Great speed that creates opportunities for his team and makes life uncomfortable for opponents. Catalyst type player.” Craig Button, TSN.

19. Philadelphia Flyers – Jay O’Brien, C, Thayer (USHS)

“Smart with a quick mind and very good hands where he can make a play or finish a play. Improvement as good as any player.” Craig Button, TSN.

20. Los Angeles Kings – Rasmus Kupari, C, Karpat (Finland)

“Slick Finnish forward, very dangerous with the puck on his stick, always a threat offensively.” – ISS Hockey.

21. San Jose Sharks – Ryan Merkley, D, Guelph (OHL)

“There is chatter that he’s a bad teammate/uncoachable. He’s also one of the most purely gifted playmaking defencemen not named Rasmus Dahlin that we’ve seen in recent years. None of Timothy Liljegren, Erik Brannstrom or even Cale Makar had his kind of creativity in 2017. Nor did Olli Juolevi, Mikhail Sergachev or Charlie McAvoy in 2016.” – Scott Wheeler, The Athletic (paywall).

22. New York Rangers (from Ottawa Senators, previously from Penguins) – K’Andre Miller, D, Wisconsin (NCAA)

The Rangers traded up to make this choice.

“Strong skating, puck carrying defenceman who can quickly get the play moving forward. Athletic with excellent potential.” Craig Button, TSN.

23. Anaheim Ducks – Isac Lundestrom, (Sweden)

“Very versatile and can adapt to different positions and play in different slots in the lineup. Very smart with good skill.” Craig Button, TSN.

24. Minnesota Wild – Filip Johansson, D (Sweden)

Some believe Paul Fenton made a reach with his first pick as Wild GM.

25. St. Louis Blues (from Toronto Maple Leafs) – Dominik Bokk, W (Sweden)

“A hungry scorer who likes to shoot the puck and gets himself into scoring spots and has a very good shot.” Craig Button, TSN.

26. Ottawa Senators (from New York Rangers, previously from Bruins) – Jacob Bernard-Docker, D, North Dakota (NCAA)

“Steady presence, never gets burned, headed the NCAA route out of the AJHL,” – Scott Wheeler.

27. Chicago Blackhawks (from Predators) – Nicolas Beaudin, DDrummondville (QMJHL)

“Nicolas Beaudin is a diminutive yet cunning defenceman that is able to use his size to his advantage. His mobility is all but elite at this point; he primarily uses his speed to open up passing and shooting lanes in the offensive zone.” Curtis Joe, Elite Prospects.

28. New York Rangers (from Lightning) – Nils Lundkvist, (Sweden)

“Acquitted himself very well in the Swedish top league as a 17-year old. Smart and knows how to take advantage of his skills.” Craig Button, TSN.

29. Toronto Maple Leafs (from St. Louis Blues, previously from Jets) – Rasmus Sandin, D, S.S. Marie (OHL)

“Not big in stature but he plays a strong game in all areas. Skates, thinks, makes plays with puck and competes.” Craig Button, TSN.

30. Detroit Red Wings (from Golden Knights) – Joe Veleno, C, Drummondville (QMJHL)

Veleno dropped in the first round after being one of the few players (along with the likes of John Tavares and Connor McDavid) of being granted “exceptional player” status.

“The fleet-footed center is unselfish and will primarily look to make a play at top speed; however, when the chance arises to put it in the pot himself, he will capitalize. He sees the ice well and is rarely caught out of position. His defensive game is refined and he actively pursues puck control.” Curtis Joe, Elite Prospects.

31. Washington Capitals – Alexander Alexeyev, D, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)

“He’s a mobile puckmover in the mold of the modern NHL defenders.” Mike Vogl, Washington Capitals website.

Red Wings pick Filip Zadina has a message to teams that passed on him

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DALLAS — Call it swagger or confidence, Filip Zadina has it and he has a message for the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Arizona Coyotes, the three teams that passed him over before he went to the Detroit Red Wings sixth overall in the 2018 NHL Draft.

“I’m telling my agent if they will pass on me, I will fill their net with the puck,” Zadina said. “Yeah, it’s just I want to prove [to] them that they have done, like, bad decision. But I’m so glad that I am in Detroit right now, so I just want to prove to Detroit that they have got a pretty good decision.”

Zadina, who led the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads in goals with 44 goals and recorded 82 points, saw heavy speculation linking him to Montreal at No. 3 and Ottawa at No. 4, but the Canadiens decided on Finnish center Jesperi Kotkaniemi and the Senators took winger Brady Tkachuk from Boston University. The Coyotes selected center Barrett Hayton out of Sault Ste. Marie.

“It’s going to be good games for me and I’m excited for it, sure,” Zadina said about facing those teams in the future.

Zadina will have every opportunity to make the Red Wings next season given the state of the franchise. Two playoff-less seasons has the franchise in rebuilding mode and allowing him to develop immediately at the NHL level could go a long way to seeing him become an integral part of a turnaround.

“A deft and agile skater, he exhibits explosive mobility both up and down the ice,” according to Elite Prospects, Zadina is eager to prove his worth to Red Wings fans and hopes his play can one day equal that of Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lighting, whom he models his game after.

Despite some nerves, Zadina wasn’t too disappointed with ending up No. 6 overall. He’s just pleased his team is the Red Wings.

“I don’t want to call it that I fall to sixth. It’s a draft and I am in Detroit, so I don’t care what position I’m in,” he said. “I’m a Detroit player. I just want to prove to Detroit that they have done a pretty good decision, so I’m just glad that I could be here.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Islanders stay put, land Wahlstrom, Dobson with back-to-back picks

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DALLAS — It’s been quite few weeks for the New York Islanders organization. After hiring Lou Lamoriello as their new president and general manager and then snatching up Barry Trotz to replace Doug Weight as head coach, they scored big in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft.

Sitting at picks No. 11 and 12, the Islanders were able to select forward Oliver Wahlstrom and defenseman Noah Dobson.

“All we can say is we’re glad where they were when we picked, so we feel very good about it,” said Lamoriello. “You never know when it comes to drafts, everybody has a little different focus, but these were two players we had very high.”

“It’s a dream come true. To be in New York, that city’s awesome and the organization is a powerhouse organization throughout the years. I couldn’t be more happy,” said Wahlstrom, who spent the last two seasons with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.

Wahlstrom, who was a viral star as a 9-year-old, scored 48 goals and recorded 94 points this season. There’s no question about his offensive ability (“Scoring goals is my specialty”). It’s his play away from the puck that he feels he needs to improve, along with consistency. Currently committed to Boston College, he says he’ll make a decision at the end of the summer.

“If I have to develop for one year, Boston College is a great spot for me to develop as a person,” he said.

Also offensively-minded is Dobson, who helped the Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the QMJHL win the Memorial Cup in May. Modeling his game after Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues, he’s a good puck moving defenseman that is confident on the rush.

His abilities mesh with where the NHL is going.

“The NHL is a fast game now and you’ve got have D that are able to get the pucks up to the forwards and let them do their thing,” said Dobson. “I think it says a lot. Obviously there’s a lot of great defensemen in this draft. The game’s becoming a fast game so you’ve got to be able to move the puck quick and get the puck up ice.”

Dobson said he wants to use the summer to get stronger and increase his chances of making the team out of training camp in September.

As a 15-year-old, Dobson left his home in Prince Edward Island to spend a year with the Red Bull Salzburg academy. There hs impressed against older competition and furthered his development in a professional setting.

“I think that year at Red Bull showed him how hard he had to work to get to where he wanted to be,” said former NHLer Brian Savage, who served as a Red Bull scout.

Both players were tabbed to go a little higher than they did in many mock drafts, but as Wahlstrom noted, it doesn’t matter where you’re selected.

“You always want to be the best and picked as high as possible,” he said. “But it’s the draft and you get picked and then after that you have to focus on what you do to make the team.”

MORE:
Oliver Wahlstrom goes from viral stardom to NHL top prospect
Noah Dobson and his unique road to the 2018 NHL Draft

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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.

Coyotes go retro, Hurricanes get new look with third jerseys

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Before the start of the first round of the 2018 NHL draft on Friday night the Arizona Coyotes and Carolina Hurricanes revealed their new third jerseys for the upcoming season.

With all due respect to the Hurricanes, the Coyotes kind of stole the show on this one by announcing that they will be bringing back the Kachina jerseys the team wore during the early seasons in the desert.

“We’re thrilled to make our black Kachina jersey the official third jersey of the Arizona Coyotes,” said Coyotes’ Owner Andrew Barroway in a team statement. “These are iconic jerseys that are beloved by our fans and players. We’re excited to have our players wear these great jerseys 14 times this season and hope that our fans will enjoy wearing these classic jerseys for many years to come.”

Here they are all in of their glory.

The Coyotes wore those jerseys on the road between 1996 and 2003 before bringing them back for one game in 2015 for a throwback night.

The Coyotes also included this note in their announcement.

In August of 2016, in a fan poll conducted by Arizona Sports 98.7 FM (which received over 35,000 votes), the Coyotes black Kachina jersey was voted as the best jersey in Valley sports history over 47 other team jerseys.

So, yeah, they are popular among Coyotes fans.

As for the Hurricanes, here is what they introduced for their new third jersey this upcoming season.

They went with the all black jersey/pant combo with red trim, and a new secondary logo.

Sharp look on the color scheme, and that is definitely a different look on the front.

Your thoughts on these new threads?

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.