Lightning’s best chance for Stanley Cup is now, with or without Tavares

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Remember when the Washington Capitals viewed 2015-16 and 2016-17 as their “two-year window” to win a Stanley Cup, and then they ended up hoisting it one year after that window seemingly closed?

A similar situation may be brewing for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Now, it’s important to first clarify that Capitals GM Brian McLellan wasn’t saying that the Capitals would either win by 2016-17 or fall flat. Instead, he viewed those two years as Washington’s best opportunities. Considering the regular season splendors versus this past season’s moderate dip (before the unprecedented highs), it was easy to understand that logic.

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman hasn’t made a similar statement, but looking at their salary structure on Cap Friendly, it would be reasonable if he has thoughts along the same lines.

It’s a big reason why the Lightning rank as arguably the most logical destinations if Erik Karlsson and/or John Tavares decide to make a one-season stop somewhere, rather than signing on longer term at a destination. And it’s a situation that has to at least be in the back of Yzerman’s mind as free agency opens up on Sunday.

Consider some of the contracts that will expire after 2018-19, or soon after:

Yzerman authored one of the truly great summers of wizardry in 2016, avoiding losing Steven Stamkos yet landing him for a team-friendly $8.5 million cap hit, signing Victor Hedman to a bargain extension, and hammering RFA leverage with Kucherov. Landing three years of the elite winger’s services for $4.767M per season through 2018-19 was a gob-smacking steal then, and it only looks more incredible after campaigns of 85 and 100 points.

Another example of Stevie Y’s deftness comes in the fact that Kucherov will still be eligible for RFA – not UFA – status after next season, but you’d have to think that Kucherov would strike an enormously tougher bargain for his next deal.

Maybe management can try to point to Stamkos’ $8.5M as a “ceiling” for deals, or at least argue that Kucherov shouldn’t make much more than that. Such arguments may fall on deaf ears for a winger who was massively, almost insultingly underpaid for years, though.

One cannot help but wonder if the Lightning are watching Sergei Bobrovsky‘s situation nervously when it comes to their own Vezina-caliber goalie.

The comparison isn’t one-to-one (Bob could be a UFA without an extension, while Vasilevskiy would be an RFA), yet the Lightning must hope that few other goalies make anywhere near Carey Price‘s $10.5M cap hit once they’re able to negotiate with Vasilevskiy.

He’ll command a hefty raise. Much like with Kucherov, the Lightning just have to hope it’s not to a devastating level.

Do you think there’s a small part of Yzerman that’s glad that certain Lightning players fell short at the 2018 NHL Awards?

During a less robust season for rookies, Gourde would have been a Calder Trophy finalist, if not the winner. He scored 25 goals and 64 points in 2017-18. For context, consider that Auston Matthews only generated five more during his 2017 Calder season, and Gourde’s 64 slightly edges some other strong winning seasons including Nathan MacKinnon in 2013-14 and Jeff Skinner in 2010-11 (both scored 63 points).

Point, meanwhile, followed up a nice rookie season (18 goals and 40 points in 68 games) in 2016-17 by scoring 32 goals and 66 points in 2017-18.

If the Lightning couldn’t hammer out some proactive extensions – plausible if the players want to maximize value, or if Tampa Bay wants more cap ceiling clarity – there’d be few moments in recent history where other GMs would be more justified to break up the country club mentality and send some challenging offer sheets to the likes of Point, Gourde, and maybe even Kucherov.

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Naturally, it’s foolish to question Yzerman considering his history as a Salary Cap Houdini.

When asked about the Lightning seeking Tavares and how they’d make the cap crunch work, he likely shed some light on how this team expects to maneuver in the probable scenario where they don’t land the big fish.

“Well, we would have to make room,” Yzerman said simply enough early this week, via The Athletic’s Joe Smith. “If we brought in a significant salary, we would have to (make cap room).”

Again, Yzerman’s been able to move cap space and bad contracts before, and he’s likely to pull such slights of hand off again.

Even then, the Lightning will almost certainly need to lose some of the supporting cast members that play a part in making Tampa Bay not just dangerous, but also deep. As we saw with the Capitals, the best days might come when things are leaner, as long as they keep their core intact.

(And maybe they’ll just find more Points, Gourdes, and Tyler Johnsons and continue laughing at the rest of the league. That could happen too.)


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.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.