Brayden Point is Lightning’s latest steal

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Even though it has not yet resulted in a championship for this current core, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the NHL’s elite teams for more than four years now.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season only the Washington Capitals have won more regular season games, while they have reached the NHL’s final four in three of the past four seasons. The one year they didn’t reach that point (2016-17) injuries to several key players derailed their season and just barely kept them out of the playoffs. Sandwiched around that one tough-luck year was a trip to the Stanley Cup Final and a pair of Eastern Conference Final appearances that resulted in Game 7 losses to the eventual Stanley Cup champions (the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and Washington in 2018).

That success — and it is success — is no accident and is the result of an incredible front office that has consistently stacked the roster with top-tier offensive talent.

After their 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Sunday, they are once again near the top of the NHL standings and looking like they should be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender this spring.

Like most contending teams they had some good fortune when it came to being bad at just the right time to land a couple of franchise-changing talents at the top of the draft.

They selected Steven Stamkos No. 1 overall in 2008 and he has been everything they could have hoped for him to be as a front-line center and franchise player.

The very next year they picked Victor Hedman, one of the most complete and well-rounded defenders in the world, with the No. 2 overall pick.

But other than defender Slater Koekkoek and starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (selected 10th and 19th overall respectively in 2012) there is not another player on the current roster that the Lightning used one of their own first-round picks on. The rest of the roster has been assembled through blockbuster trades (Mikhail Sergachev — who was acquired for former third overall pick Jonathan DrouinJ.T. Miller, Ryan McDonagh, Ryan Callahan), free agent signings (Anton Stralman), or later round draft steals.

When it comes to the latter, they seem to have found another one in 22-year-old forward Brayden Point.

Point has been one of the Lightning’s best players this season and after another three-point effort in Sunday’s win is now up to 31 points in 24 games this season.

Following a breakout performance in 2017-18 that saw him finish with 32 goals and 66 total points he is looking like he is on track to smash both numbers. In his past six games alone he has eight goals and 12 total points. That run includes five multi-point games, including that incredible performance in Pittsburgh when he scored three power play goals in only 91 seconds of game-time.

[Related: Brayden Point scores hat trick in 91 seconds]

The Lightning found him in the third-round of the 2014 draft after 78 other players had been picked. Of all the players taken in that draft class, only seven of them have collected more points than he has, while only one of those players (Nashville Predators forward Viktor Arvidsson) was taken outside of the first-round. If you go as far as the top-18 point producers from that draft class only three of them were selected after the 25th overall pick.

For the Lightning to get a legitimate top-line player in the third-round in that class is a tremendous find.

It is also not the first time they have done it over the past few years in building this current roster.

Let’s just look at the rest of their core.

  • Nikita Kucherov was a second-round draft pick, No. 58 overall, in 2011 and is one of only two players from that class to have already topped the 350-point mark for his career. Gabriel Landeskog, the No. 2 overall pick, is the other. He and Kucherov are separated by the slimmest of margins for the top spot from that class when it comes to point production, while Kucherov is one of just four players in the top-15 that year to be taken after the first round. One of those four players is…
  • Ondrej Palat, who is the ninth-leading scorer from that class. The Lightning found him in the seventh-round with the 208th overall selection. That is two of the top-10 scorers in one draft class going to one team, and that team did not use a first-round pick on either one of them.
  • The Lightning signed Tyler Johnson as an undrafted free agent in March, 2011. Of all the players taken in the 2010 draft class (where he should have been selected), Johnson’s 277 points would place him ninth among that group. All eight players ahead of him were first-round draft picks, while only two of them (Vladimir Tarasenko at 16th overall, and Evgeny Kuznetsov at 26th overall) were taken after the 15th pick.
  • Yanni Gourde, after finishing sixth in the Calder Trophy voting a year ago, is nearly a point-per-game player through the first quarter of his second season and has already shown enough to convince the team to give him a long-term contract extension.

Including Point, that is five pretty significant players that have all outperformed their draft positions. That is exactly what should pop in your mind when you hear someone referred to as a “steal.”

This kind of analysis can be difficult because there are always a ton of variables as to why a prospect succeeds (or, as the case may be, does not succeed). Maybe it is getting picked in the right environment, or going to the right team, or just getting the right opportunity with the right linemates. Or maybe it is sometimes just a little bit of dumb luck.

There is also a sort of chicken-or-egg element to all of this where you have to consider how much of it is player scouting, and how much of it is player development.

For example, if a team like Tampa knew how good some of these prospects were going to turn out to be, they probably would have taken them sooner in the draft. In other words, if the Lightning knew Nikita Kucherov was going to be — arguably — the best player from his draft class, they probably would have taken him with the 27th pick instead of Vladislav Namestnikov and not given every other team in the league an opportunity to take him instead. And it’s not that Namestnikov turned out to be a bad player, he just hasn’t been Kucherov. They took three other player in that class before Palat. Like everyone else, they completely passed on Johnson and Gourde in their draft years.

So development and coaching (and luck) is also a factor.

But there is one common trait that all of these players share that point to smart drafting by the Lightning.

They are all smaller forwards (or at least what would be considered “undersized), and they were all wildly productive in their pre-NHL careers compared to the rest of their peers in their respective draft years.

Johnson, Gourde, and Point are all among the smallest players in the league, while Kucherov (listed at 5-11, 178) and Palat (5-11, 180) aren’t exactly mountains out there on the ice.

And what about the production? After being a better than point-per-game player for his first three years in the Western Hockey League, Johnson ended up finishing second in scoring in 2010-11 (one point off the lead) and was the league’s leading goal-scorer the year the Lightning signed him.

Gourde won the QMJHL scoring title (by 23 points!) the year before he signed with the Lightning.

Point was a top-15 scorer in the WHL in his draft year when he slid to the third-round.

The Lightning have made a habit of doing this over the years, and it’s not just with these players that have stuck and become key parts of their team. Jonathan Marchessault, now one of the league’s best forwards, spent some time in the Tampa organization with some modest success before blossoming in Florida and Vegas.

Cory Conacher gave the Lightning some strong play during the 2012-13 season before he was later flipped to the Ottawa Senators in a trade for Ben Bishop, who would go on to be an excellent starting goalie for several years in Tampa.

In the end there are a lot of factors that worked out here for the Lightning to be able to assemble all of this talent. They have probably been a little fortunate to have some of these players fall into their laps when they did. But they also clearly targeted the right traits (production, skill), found players that were overlooked by other teams for what were probably the wrong reasons, and then put them in great situations where they could succeed in the NHL.

The result is one heck of a team that is a Stanley Cup contender every single season.

Now they just have to get a little bit of luck on their side when it comes to the playoffs to actually get this core its championship.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

Andrei Kuzmenko
Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

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DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

UP NEXT

Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

He found a little of both.

The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

“I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

“It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

“That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

“We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

“It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

UP NEXT

Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.