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Pressure is on for Lightning’s best team yet

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The Tampa Bay Lightning are in the difficult and often times unenviable position the Washington Capitals used to find themselves in.

An objectively outstanding team that is loaded with stars and wins a ton of regular season (and playoff) games but never really gets taken seriously as a great team because they are still lacking the one piece of hardware that great teams are ultimately measured by — the Stanley Cup.

If you are thinking about things rationally this should be a great position to be in because it means you are one of the elite teams in the league. It means you have a chance to compete for a championship every year and you know you are going to be right there in the spring as one of the last teams standing.

There should probably be 28 or 29 fanbases around the NHL that would have happily switched places with this team over the past four years.

But in sports we do not often to look at things rationally.

In sports we have a championship or bust mentality — especially with teams like this — and we tend to be harder on the great teams that get close and ultimately fall short than we are the teams that never get close to this level. It’s why Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals always took more heat and criticism for not winning a championship than some middle of the pack team that was never able to even consistently make the playoffs. It’s why Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau spent most of their time together in San Jose fighting off the choker and playoff underachiever label than being recognized as some of the best players of their generation.

It is the curse of expectation.

Because of that, until this group gets their names on the Stanley Cup there is always going to be that “yeah, but…” that follows them around.

Teams like this never really get the credit or recognition they deserve because one or two shots or games have gone against them at the worst possible time when all of the eye balls in the league are on them. It is almost as if everyone is waiting for them to fail instead of viewing them as one of the best teams of their era, which they absolutely are.

What has to make it all so frustrating for Lightning fans is just how close they have been with this current core. They have consistently been right on the threshold of a championship but always fallen just short while allowing a late postseason series lead to slip away. In 2015 they were up 2-1 in the Stanley Cup Final before losing three games in a row. The next year they had a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final, with Game 6 at home, before losing two in a row to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last season they again had a 3-2 series lead in the conference final against the Capitals only to get shutout in Games 6 and 7.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season the Lightning are in the top-three with the Penguins and Capitals when it comes to most regular season and postseason wins. The Penguins and Capitals have combined to win three of those four Stanley Cups. They have been the two obstacles standing in their way and keeping them from a championship.

All of that brings us to this year’s Lightning team, which just might be their best one yet.

Their 36 wins through their first 47 games are tied for the most of any team in the salary cap era, a mark that only the 2008-09 San Jose Sharks and 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks have matched. They are seven points better than they were at this same point last season when they ended the season with 113 points. They are currently on a 129-point pace this season, a mark that only three teams in NHL history have ever reached (the 1977-78 and 1978-79 Montreal Canadiens and the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings).

Their 191 goals are the second-most during that same era, trailing only the 199 the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators scored in their first 47 games. No other team ha scored more than 178 at this point in the season.

They have major award contenders at every position.

Nikita Kucherov is racing toward the Art Ross trophy and for the second year in a row will be in the MVP discussion. Victor Hedman is the reigning Norris Trophy winner and their starting goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy a year ago and currently possesses a better save percentage than he did a year ago.

This team is so great as currently constructed that the latter player missed a month of this season and they still went 12-3-0 during that stretch without him.

What makes the Lightning even better this season is the supporting cast around the four stars (Kucherov, Hedman, Vasilevskiy, and Steven Stamkos — don’t forget about him) is even better.

Brayden Point has taken a massive leap in his development this season and gone from being a good top-line player to one of the top scorers in the league. With him they now have three of the league’s top-17 scorers, including two of the top-seven.

The depth around them up front is so good that when none of the three are on the ice the Lightning still control more than 53 percent of the shot attempts, more than 54 percent of the scoring chances, and outscore teams by a 39-31 margin during 5-on-5 play (numbers via Natural Stat Trick).

In other words, they still play like a top-five team in the NHL when none of their three best forwards are on the ice. Comically good stuff. They were still very good without any of those three on the ice a year ago, but not quite this good.

They have a full season of Ryan McDonagh on the blue line who has been even better than he was a year ago in his limited time with the team. Along with him, Mikhail Sergachev is starting to emerge and they finally have a healthy Anton Stralman back after he missed a significant portion of the first half of the season.

[Related: Surging Sergachev helps already loaded Lightning]

While they are dominant at 5-on-5 as a team, they also boast the league’s best special teams with the No. 1 power play unit and the sixth-best penalty killing unit. In every phase, at every level, they are better than everybody else in the league.

That is where the pressure for this team is going to come from.

They have been a “so close, but just short” team for four years now and the team they are putting on the ice this season is even better than any of those previous versions, and probably by a pretty significant amount.

Given that, and given how close they have been in recent years, there truly is going to be a “championship or bust” for this group.

If they finally break through and do it, no one will ever doubt them again and the reputation of the Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman core will forever be changed for the better.

If they fall short again, whether it is in the first round or the Cup Final, the doubt will only increase for a core that is mostly locked in place contractually for the foreseeable future. Whether it is fair or not, there is no margin for error this group. The expectation is definitely the Stanley Cup.

They once again have the team that just might be able to do it. They just need to … do it.

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.

PHT Power Rankings: NHL GM hot seat tiers

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The general manager is one of the most important individuals in an NHL front office.

They are the ones that decide the short-and long-term future of the team, pick the direction, implement the plan, and put the roster in place. While the coaches are always the ones that get put on the hot seat and are the first ones to fall on the sword when things go wrong, the general managers are the ones who ultimately impact what sort of team you are going to have every season. If your team is in a position where it is contemplating a coaching change or in the process of making a coaching change, it is a good bet that the general manager should probably be on the hot seat as well.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at all 31 NHL general managers and look at which ones are — or should be — on the hot seat, and which ones have the most time to continue building their teams.

To the rankings!

The hot seat

• Jim Benning, Vancouver Canucks. No GM is in the danger zone more than Benning and you don’t have to look far to figure out why. In his five years as the Canucks’ GM the team has made the playoffs once (his first year on the job), has missed the playoffs four years in a row, has been one of the least successful NHL teams during his watch, and is now saddled with several long-term contracts for veteran role players who are probably not going to be part of a championship core in Vancouver. Everything he has done the past two offseasons seems based on trying to sneak into the playoffs right now, and it is still probably not going to be enough. Not many general managers make it through five consecutive non-playoff seasons, and the Benning-era Canucks are going to need an incredible one-year turnaround to avoid such a streak.

• Jason Botterill, Buffalo Sabres. Given how little time he has had to work with in Buffalo this might be considered too high of a spot, but the pressure to put a winning team on the ice in Buffalo has to be immense right now. The Sabres have become the Eastern Conference version of the Edmonton Oilers, only worse when you consider the Oilers have actually made the playoffs (and won a round!) in the past eight years. The Sabres have had a really strong offseason on paper, so that is a positive heading into the season, but that is going to have to eventually translate into success on the ice.

• Pierre Dorion, Ottawa Senators. Dorion is in a no-win situation in Ottawa and it only seems to be a matter of when, and not if, the Senators are searching for a new general manager. The sad thing is it probably will not matter because the problems in Ottawa go way beyond whatever person is in the GM’s office trying to piece together a competitive team on a shoestring budget with a consistently bumbling owner.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Getting warmer

• Marc Bergevin, Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens entered the offseason with the salary cap space to make some kind of a big move, but so far the summer has been kind of a dud. As things sit in mid-July the Canadiens are returning mostly the same roster that has missed the playoffs two years in a row … minus one of its top scorers from a year ago in Andrew Shaw. The Sebastian Aho offer sheet was a great idea in theory, but in practice it was just a waste of time and a huge help to the Carolina Hurricanes.

• Stan Bowman, Chicago Blackhawks. Kind of hard to imagine Bowman getting fired given what he has accomplished in Chicago, but it is still very much a what have you done for me lately business. Business has been tough for the Blackhawks lately. They just fired a three-time Stanley Cup winning coach this past season, have missed the playoffs two years in a row, and Bowman’s offseason approach has him betting big on his core still being able to compete as constructed. If he is wrong, he is probably next in line for change.

[Related: Blackhawks shaping up to be NHL’s biggest wild card team]

• Brad Treliving, Calgary Flames. He hasn’t done a bad job in Calgary, but the Flames have made it out of the first round once in his tenure (his first year on the job) and his attempt to fix the team’s biggest Achilles heel this offseason (goalie) was to bring in Cam Talbot. Seems questionable!

• Jim Nill, Dallas Stars. The Stars’ incredible mid-season turnaround — produced almost entirely by the top five or six players on the roster — probably bought him some additional time and gave him at least another year to try and build something in Dallas. He made some big moves this summer by bringing in Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, but his entire tenure in Dallas has been highlight by big offseason moves and underwhelming results on the ice. That has to change.

• Dale Tallon, Florida Panthers. The Panthers have a lot of important ingredients in place, from a young core of impact players to a future Hall of Fame coach. At some point, though, you have to win. Or at least come close to winning. The Sergei Bobrovsky contract will probably be what makes or breaks this team and this era of Panthers hockey.

Still safe for now

• Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets are almost certainly going to take a step backward this season after going all in at the 2019 trade deadline. Ownership had to know that was a possibility, so it’s hard to imagine his seat being too hot when he probably wasn’t the only one involved in the decision to push all of the team’s chips to the center of the table. Kekalainen’s gamble gave the Blue Jackets some short-term success and he still has a solid core to work with, but he has a lot of work ahead of him.

• Kevin Cheveldayoff, Winnipeg Jets. Another season like the 2018-19 campaign could move Cheveldayoff into the hot seat category. He has been running the show in Winnipeg since the team arrived and after a lot of patience finally put a competitive team on the ice. Unfortunately for the Jets, things seem to have hit a plateau without yet reaching the next level. In typical Cheveldayoff fashion the team has been extremely quiet in the offseason but still has some major long-term contract situations to deal with. A lot of things can go wrong here in a very short period of time.

• John Chayka, Arizona Coyotes. This could have been a playoff team this past season with some better injury luck. He added to their forward depth over the summer with the additions of Phil Kessel and Carl Soderberg and there is some real cause for optimism in the desert.

• Rob Blake, Los Angeles Kings. Blake is in an interesting spot because he is still fairly new in the position and that should give him a bit of a leash. But he also has not really done anything to move the team in any meaningful direction. They are still in the same middle-ground they have been in between rebuilding and competing, and will still probably be one of the worst teams in the league this season.

• Bob Murray, Anaheim Ducks. Without making any additional comment on the job that he has done, his situation in Anaheim just seems to be bulletproof at this point.

• Jeff Gorton, New York Rangers. I see no reason to think his job is, or should be, in any immediate danger. The rebuild seems to be going well and he helped accelerate the process this offseason with some major impact additions. They may not be a playoff team this season, but they probably were not supposed to be at this point, either.

[Related: Devils, Rangers rivalry gets boost thanks to Hughes, Kaako]

• Paul Fenton, Minnesota Wild. Given how new he is to the position he should be lower on the list, but the manner in which he has overhauled the roster and the actual moves he has made to do it are kind of bizarre.

• Ray Shero, New Jersey Devils. Blockbuster Ray was back at it this offseason, getting P.K. Subban at nearly no cost to his current NHL roster or the long-term future. He has done a great job adding impact talent to a roster that badly needed it when he took over. Some of it was due to luck (like winning two draft lotteries), while some of it was due to shrewd and aggressive trading. Getting Taylor Hall signed will be important.

Ice cold seat and not going anywhere

• Jim Rutherford, Pittsburgh Penguins. He has not done a good job over the past few years, rapidly shifting the roster away from the recipe that made it a back-to-back Stanley Cup winning team. Bad contracts and a lack of direction have hurt both the long-term and short-term direction of the team, something that should put him way higher on the list. Despite that, he is going nowhere unless he wants to. He just received a contract extension, he was just announced as a Hall of Fame inductee, and he still has the clout of putting two banners in the rafters of the arena.

• David Poile, Nashville Predators. The longest-tenured general manager in the NHL and the only one the team has ever known. The Predators have some flaws, but they are still a contender. Tough to imagine a change happening here anytime soon.

• Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs. He has done a really good job navigating the salary cap situation (which was always overblown) while still addressing the teams biggest need (defense). His job security is rock solid — as it should be — but at some point this paper tiger he has helped assemble has to actually … you know … win.

• Don Waddell, Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes are coming off of an Eastern Conference playoff run and still probably have their best days ahead of them. Waddell is not going anywhere.

• Joe Sakic, Colorado Avalanche. Sakic is assembling a powerhouse in Colorado that not only has the ability to keep its young core in place, but can also easily add to it. The Avalanche have done just that this summer.

• Don Sweeney, Boston Bruins. Unless the bottom totally falls out on the Bruins this season or Sweeney does something incredibly dumb he should be safe for a long time. This is one of the best teams in the league and he was just named the NHL’s general manager of the year for the 2018-19 season.

• Brian MacLellan, Washington Capitals. The shine of the 2018 Stanley Cup has not gone away yet. That gives a general manager probably three or four years of added security.

• Lou Lamoriello, New York Islanders. Expectations for the Islanders are probably going to be way too high given what they did this past season and a step back should be expected. But when you are Lou Lamoriello, and your first year on the job was an unexpected and almost improbable success story, you can get comfortable in that office.

• Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks. He might be the best general manager in the NHL right now but will probably never get that recognition in the eyes of the majority of the hockey viewing public because he is still lacking a Stanley Cup in San Jose. Championship or not, he has done an amazing job.

• Doug Armstrong, St. Louis Blues. He hit a bunch of home runs over the past year and brought St. Louis its first Stanley Cup. What else do you have to say?

Not even worth discussing job security at the moment

• Chuck Fletcher, Philadelphia Flyers. Say this for Fletcher: He has given the Flyers’ front office exactly what it wanted in terms of roster moves. I just don’t know if they are any better because of it. With only one year on the job he is nowhere near the hot seat. Yet.

• Julien BriseBois, Tampa Bay Lightning. He inherited a great situation with the Lightning (a team he helped build as the assistant general manager) and should be in a pretty good position. Getting Brayden Point re-signed will be a big issue.

• Kelly McCrimmon, Vegas Golden Knights. The Golden Knights had a general manager change far sooner than anyone expected, but he was a top candidate for a lot of teams in need of a new GM this offseason and the Golden Knights did not want to let him get away. His first big test: Handling a salary cap crunch and the Nikita Gusev situation.

• Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers. Even though he has two of the best players in the league on his roster he still has what is probably the most difficult job in the league. He will get a few years to try and fix the unbelievable mess left behind.

• Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings. This will not be an easy rebuild, but it will be an extensive honeymoon period.

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.

Burakovsky gets one-year deal with Avalanche

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After acquiring his restricted free agents rights earlier this summer, the Colorado Avalanche have officially made Andre Burakovsky a part of their roster for the 2019-20 season.

The team announced on Monday that it has signed the forward to a one-year contract. Financial terms of the deal were not released by the team, but it will reportedly pay him $3.25 million for the season. The Avalanche acquired him from the Washington Capitals in exchange for Scott Kosmachuk and two draft picks.

A first-round pick by the Capitals in 2013, Burakovsky has flashed top-line potential in the NHL but has not always put it all together at the same time. He finished the 2018-19 season with 12 goals and 13 assists in 76 games.

Even though he has not quite blossomed into a consistent first-line player, he should still be a great depth addition to a lineup that has needed a secondary scoring boost over the past couple of seasons. Burakovsky, along with offseason additions of Nazem Kadri and Joonas Donskoi, should help make the Avalanche a strong contender in the Western Conference.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The most stunning aspect of the Avalanche’s roster is that they have one of the best young cores in thee league, have managed to add strong complementary pieces around that core, and after signing Burakovsky still have close to $20 million in salary cap space this offseason. The signing of Burakovsky finally lifted the Avalanche over the NHL’s salary floor for the upcoming season.

They still need to work out a long-term contract for restricted free agent Mikko Rantanen (and it will be a significant contract) but given their salary cap space it will not be an issue to fit him in.

Related: Avalanche buy low on Burakovsky from Capitals

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.

Convincing Hall to stay is a Devil of a task for New Jersey

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After the New Jersey Devils acquired P.K. Subban, Taylor Hall texted Ray Shero a green checkmark.

”Like, ‘Check that box off,”’ Shero said. ”I guess that’s good.”

The Devils have a much longer checklist to complete to convince Hall to re-sign and not leave as a free agent next summer. There is no rush from either side on negotiating an extension for the 2018 NHL MVP, and as much offseason work as Shero has done to improve the roster, the process will likely take into next season for Hall to see if New Jersey is actually a place he wants to be for the long term.

”You want to play on the best team possible, and I’ve played nine seasons in the NHL and only won one playoff game,” Hall said. ”You want to be on a team that’s not only a playoff contender but a Stanley Cup contender every year because I only have so many more years left in this league and so many more chances to win a Stanley Cup. It hasn’t even come close yet. I kind of want to make up for lost time, but at the same time want to be smart with everything that’s going on.”

New Jersey traded for a top-pairing defenseman in Subban, won the draft lottery to select center Jack Hughes first overall and signed winger Wayne Simmonds .

”This is a team that’s (trending) up, getting better and better,” Simmonds said. ”They’ve added some pieces including myself this offseason. Obviously P.K. and Jack Hughes. There’s a lot of young talent. Definitely really excited to be part of it.”

After a disappointing season – Hall missed half of it with a knee injury and New Jersey finished third to last in the league – Shero understood the All-Star winger wanted more talent around him.

”Obviously some of the things that we’ve done prove that we want to improve the hockey team not just for Taylor Hall but for our team,” Shero said. ”My job is to obviously build the best team I can for the short and long term and also when it comes to dealing with players and relationships to sit down with them and explain to them as to what we’re doing and I want them to be aware of it.”

Shero asked Hall what he thought of Subban before making the move to get the 2013 Norris Trophy winner and got a resounding vote of confidence. Even before New Jersey signed Simmonds, Hall gave the Devils’ upgrades a thumbs up.

”I’ve always liked it in New Jersey. That’s never changed,” Hall said. ”I think it adds to the talent level, the skill level of our team, and as a player in the offseason that’s what you want to see. It’s exciting. We’re going to have more than a couple new faces next year. It’s important that we have a good start and all that stuff. Just injecting some new blood into the team is going to be really good.”

No single player is more important to the Devils’ success than Hall, who carried them into the playoffs two seasons ago with 93 points and whose injury derailed any hopes of contending in 2018-19. The 27-year-old who spent his first six NHL seasons in Edmonton doesn’t want to commit until he thinks the mix in New Jersey could be enough to win a championship.

Maybe that’s why Hall talked well before the start of the regular season about the Devils getting off to a hot start. Winning on the ice is more important than winning the offseason when it comes to Hall’s future.

”It’s a big decision for Taylor,” Shero said. ”It’s a big decision for the team here. Both sides need the information to have a real fruitful dialogue that’s meaningful, and that’s been the relationship we’ve had with Taylor since Day One, so that hasn’t changed.”

Subban said the Devils ”have to get (Hall) signed” because he’s a go-to player. Based on the $81.5 million, seven-year contract the cross-river rival New York Rangers just gave winger Artemi Panarin, it’s realistically to think Hall could command $10 million or more a season no matter where he signs.

In-depth negotiations are yet to come, even though money shouldn’t be an impediment to the Devils locking up Hall for the remainder of his prime and more.

”We’re both on the same page and both groups have been on the same page,” Shero said. ”I don’t have the crystal ball as to when or how or what the story will be, but I think we’ll know it when we get to it.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Suspended Voynov signs with KHL team

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MOSCOW (AP) — Former Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov signed a one-year deal in the Kontinental Hockey League on Monday as he sits out the final months of his NHL suspension.

He is joining Russian KHL club Avangard Omsk after sitting out all of last season. His NHL suspension, imposed after the league determined he committed acts of domestic violence, will end midway through the season.

Voynov was suspended indefinitely in October 2014 after being arrested and accused of abusing his wife. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor, left the United States to go back to Russia and last year had the conviction dismissed by a judge in Los Angeles. His most recent suspension was imposed in April after he applied for reinstatement.

Voynov won an Olympic gold medal at the tournament last year which didn’t have NHL players. He didn’t play any pro hockey last season as he focused on his NHL appeals process.

”Experience, skill, reliability, scoring. That’s how Vyacheslav Voynov is known to all hockey fans,” said Avangard president Maxim Sushinsky, using Voynov’s full first name. ”In our case you can add Voynov’s huge motivation to prove to everyone and most of all to himself that he can reach the very highest targets with a top club.”

Avangard didn’t comment on Voynov’s NHL situation.

Voynov won the Stanley Cup with Los Angeles in 2012 and 2014. Los Angeles still holds Voynov’s NHL rights, but has said it won’t sign a new contract with him.

Voynov previously played three KHL seasons with SKA St. Petersburg between 2015 and 2018, lifting the KHL’s Gagarin Cup in 2017.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports