Evolution of top defensemen on display in NHL playoffs

EDMONTON, Alberta — Victor Hedman put the Tampa Bay Lightning on his back and carried them to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015.

Five years later, the 6-foot-6 monster of a man can shoulder even more of a load.

Hedman is perhaps the best defenseman in the world and headlines an NHL playoffs showcasing the present and future stars at hockey’s most complicated position.

If the big Swede represents the pinnacle of blue line play, teammate Mikhail Sergachev, Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars and Shea Theodore of the Vegas Golden Knights show ascent to the summit, and others such as Colorado’s Cale Makar and Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes display the potential to make that climb.

Hedman has almost 800 games of experience, Klingberg over 400, Theodore over 300, Sergachev over 200 and Heiskanen over 100, while Makar and Hughes are still in double digits.

The path to the Stanley Cup this year looks like a road map in the evolution of a defenseman and how it sometimes takes hundreds of games to get it right.

”There’s a process to get to that point,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. ”There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s about knowing your opponents. It’s about the big thing about knowing how much time and space you have, because when players get in the league, everything is happening lightning fast.”

Hedman’s progression was slow from being thrown into the pros as the second pick in the 2009 draft through a few rocky adjustment years. It took until his fourth or fifth NHL season at age 23 or 24 to find his way on the ice.

That’s a common path being followed by Klingberg, Theodore and even Philadelphia’s Ivan Provorov, who was one of the Flyers’ best players through two rounds.

Heiskanen is ahead of that curve at 21 and leads not only the Stars but the entire playoffs in scoring while also providing a calming presence for a veteran team.

Rick Bowness, the oldest coach in the playoffs, has a strategy: ”When things aren’t going well, put Miro on the ice and he’ll settle it down.” After coaching now 42-year-old Zdeno Chara‘s first few NHL games and being behind Tampa Bay’s bench for Hedman’s emergence, that’s about as big an endorsement a hockey lifer can give a young defenseman.

”Miro, he’s different than those two, but he’s going to be just as dominant as those two,” Bowness said. ”We’re throwing him out there against the best players in the league at 21 years old, and it does take a little time. It took both Z and Victor a couple of years to get to where they were comfortable being a dominant player. Miro, he will get there. He’s just going to keep getting better, but it does take some time.”

Teammates laud Heiskanen for his humility and opponents see the smooth skating and rapid puck movement that sets the Finn apart. He credits being ahead of schedule on his development to playing professionally back home and representing Finland internationally in the world juniors and 2018 Olympics.

”There’s different situations I’ve been in, so it’s probably easier to play here now,” Heiskanen said.

Theodore learned – sometimes the hard way – in the Stanley Cup playoffs in his early 20s. He struggled when the Golden Knights got to the Cup Final two years ago and lost in five games, but now he’s among their best players.

Vegas forward Mark Stone, who played with two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson in Ottawa, thinks Theodore has reached that caliber of play.

”I’m just trying to do my job,” said Theodore, now 25. ”I’m trying to jump into the offense but at the same time not really give up anything defensively. I feel like when I can do that, I can be most effective out there.”

Peter DeBoer knows a thing or two about Norris-caliber defensemen after coaching Karlsson and Brent Burns in San Jose and believes the praise former Sharks captain Joe Pavelski heaps on Heiskanen. Sounds familiar to how he feels about his top guy.

”(Pavelski) says this kid’s a superstar, and you can see that on the ice and a lot like Shea Theodore on our end, you can see him growing and getting better every time he steps out there,” Vegas’ coach said. ”I think the philosophy behind that is it just takes longer for a defenseman to grow into themselves at this level, and you have to have some patience with them.”

Patience is being practiced with Hughes and Makar, who are finalists to be rookie of the year. Each one made mistakes leading to goals against earlier in these playoffs, and his coach put him right back on the ice next shift – often rewarded sooner or later by helping to produce a goal.

”You see his maturity level and his will to improve and get better,” veteran Colorado defenseman Ian Cole said of Makar. ”His ability to make a mistake or read the play and then learn from it almost immediately is pretty unparalleled. He very rarely makes the same mistake twice, which I think is a crucial first step to being a polished defenseman.”

Vancouver forward Jay Beagle knows those steps well after seeing Washington’s John Carlson develop from a rookie to a Norris finalist. He points out Hughes and Carlson are different but sees his 20-year-old Canucks teammate on the same trajectory.

”I almost saw that immediately,” Beagle said. ”It wasn’t one of those things where you kind of see over time. It was one of those things where a month in, you knew obviously that he was a special player. … It’s going to be real fun to see the way Huggy grows.”

Cooper sees a little bit of Hedman’s evolution in Sergachev, who was admittedly more of a raw prospect when he got to Tampa Bay. Sergachev is only 24 now, but as Cooper told him in a recent conversation at the end of practice, he’s no longer protecting him or afraid to

”You just watch the game slow down for them, and I’m watching it slow down for Sergy,” Cooper said. ”They want, want, want but you have to do what’s best for them. Sometimes you have to protect them from themselves. Me and Sergy were joking about it today where we wouldn’t put him out against certain matchups, and now we just throw him over the boards as much as possible.”

That’s happening more now with even seasoned coaches trusting young defensemen to play crucial roles. Eleven of the top 25 defensemen in total ice time this postseason are 25 or younger and show the direction hockey is going.

”It’s a faster game than it’s ever been, you need your D to be very mobile, skate it out, move it out, get out of your zone as quickly as you can,” Bowness said. ”Young kids coming into our league, they’re more composed and less intimidated by playing in our league.”

Lightning-Stars stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final

Leave a comment

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Wednesday’s Stanley Cup Final matchup between the Lightning and Stars. Pre-game coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Lightning-Stars stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Tampa scored three goals in the first 15:16 minutes of the game, including two on the power play, and held off a late push by Dallas to win 3-2 and even the Stanley Cup Final at one game apiece. Brayden Point opened the scoring by netting his 10th of the postseason and Ondrej Palat and Kevin Shattenkirk each scored to give the Lightning a three-goal lead they would not relinquish.

Since the beginning of their First Round series against Columbus, the Lightning are a perfect 5-0 following a loss this postseason. Tampa last lost consecutive games on March 8th and 10th – its final two games before the pause. Andrei Vasilevskiy has not lost consecutive starts since dropping three straight from Feb. 20-25.

After going 0/14 on the power play in their previous four games, the Lightning scored twice on the man-advantage in Game 2, with both tallies coming in the first period. Point and Palat scored power-play goals 2:59 apart in the first period in the win. Dallas took three penalties in the first 14 minutes of play and the Lightning were able to take control by scoring twice.

Tyler Seguin, who is making his third appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, has struggled mightily in the 2020 playoffs. The 28- year-old has gone 11 consecutive games without a goal and has just one assist over that span. His last goal came in Game 3 of the Second Round vs. Colorado.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Wednesday, September 23, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Stars stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (Series tied 1-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

How the Lightning built a dominant line at the trade deadline

Leave a comment

After their shockingly disappointing playoff loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets a year ago, it would have been easy for the Tampa Bay Lightning to conclude that they needed to do something drastic to a team that kept falling short in the most frustrating ways come playoff time.

They could have made a major trade.

They could have fired coach Jon Cooper.

Pretty much anything that would have sent a jolt through the team.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It also would have been completely reckless, because that is not at all what the Lightning needed.

Even with their late-round collapses (and one early round collapse) this has still been one of the league’s most successful franchises for six seasons. It is a team that is — and has been — loaded with All-Star talent at every level of the roster.

They didn’t need a massive shake-up. They needed a couple of tweaks. General manager Julian Brisebois and his staff were all smart enough to realize that. Some of those tweaks started in the offseason when they signed Kevin Shattenkirk and Patrick Maroon to cheap, one-year contracts to add some depth.

But those were nothing compared to the two trade deadline moves (Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow) that helped Tampa Bay build not only one of its most effective lines this postseason, but one of the most effective lines in the entire NHL.

It is one of the biggest reasons they are three wins away from a championship.

The Trades

It all started on February 16 when they sent a first-round draft pick (previously acquired from Vancouver for J.T Miller) and 2019 first-round pick Nolan Foote to the New Jersey Devils for Coleman.

A week later they sent their own 2020 first-round pick, as well as Anthony Greco (who had just been acquired a couple of days earlier) to the San Jose Sharks for Barclay Goodrow and a 2020 third-round pick.

It’s a lot to give up, no question. When the dust settled they sent what amounted to three first-round picks for the two forwards, neither of which would be what anyone considers to be a top-line player.

Coleman was the most notable of the two given his status as a 20-goal scorer in each of the past two seasons. Add in his defensive ability and cap-friendly contract ($1.8 million salary cap hit this season and next season) and he carries a ton of value. So it’s not a shock he carried a steep price in trade.

[Lightning vs. Stars: 2020 Stanley Cup Final schedule]

The price for Goodrow, however, was probably a little more eye-opening because you don’t usually see teams trade a first-round pick for a 27-year-old forward with a career high of 27 points.

He is not bringing you offense. What he does bring you is defense. A lot of it. Over the past two seasons Goodrow was one of the Sharks’ most impactful defensive forwards when it came to suppressing shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals and, yes, actual goals.

Also like Coleman he carries an extremely team-friendly salary cap number ($925,000 per season) through next season.

That means the Lightning added two outstanding defensive forwards, including one with 20-goal ability, for a combined salary cap hit of just $2.7 million through the end of next season.

Individually, those have proven to be two very solid moves.

When put together around Yanni Gourde they have produced a game-changing line.

The Results

The Lightning’s best line this postseason has obviously been its top trio of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Ondrej Palat. They have dominated every phase of the game and two of them (Kucherov and Point) are contenders for the Conn Smythe Trophy.

But the Coleman-Goude-Goodrow line is not far behind them in terms of overall effectiveness, as the table below outlines.

All data via Natural Stat Trick.

(CF% = shot attempt percentage; xGF = expected goals for percentage; CA/60 = total shot attempts against per 60 minutes; xGA/60 = expected goals against per 60 minutes; GA/60 = goals against per 60 minutes).

The top line is dominating across the board, which is exactly what you expect with two All-Stars (including the reigning league MVP) playing next to each other.

But look at the second line. There is a decent gap in terms of possession (shot attempts) and scoring chances (expected goals), but they are shutting teams down at an elite level and have scored goals at a rate similar to the All-Star top line. Keep in mind, this is only 5-on-5 data and Kucherov-Point line has a ton of power play points together to drive the offense. But it is still impressive at how close they are in terms of overall effectiveness at even-strength.

As good as that top line is, it takes more than one great line to compete for a championship and ultimately win one.

Thanks to some shrewd moves at the deadline, as well as the scouting and player development system that produced Gourde as an undrafted free agent several years ago, the Lightning have given themselves a second great line to help drive their team.

It is all still in place for next season as well, and when Gourde’s contract is added in it still only costs them $7.8 million against the cap. Tough to beat that value, especially if it helps produce a championship.

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.

Sharks name Bob Boughner head coach, finalize coaching staff

Sharks coach
Getty
3 Comments

The San Jose Sharks finalized their coaching staff on Tuesday by announcing that Bob Boughner has officially been named the team’s head coach, removing the interim tag that he had in the second half of last season.

Boughner replaced Peter DeBoer as the team’s head coach in mid-December.

With Boughner behind the bench the Sharks finished the season with a 14-20-3 record.

They had been 15-16-2 with DeBoer.

Along with the official hiring of Boughner, the team also announced that it has added former AHL Chicago Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson as an associate head coach and long-term NHL forward John Madden as an assistant coach.

“Bob did a tremendous job last season, getting our group back to playing with an identity and structure that we need in order to be successful,” said general manager Doug Wilson in a statement released by the team. “We saw a marked improvement in our play in several key areas during the second half of the season, before losing some key players to injury.

“We’re also very pleased to add Rocky and John to our staff. Both come with a wealth of experience, both in playing the game and as teachers and leaders. With a healthy and motivated group of players, we are confident that this staff will do a terrific job leading our group in the coming years.”

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Sharks were one of the most disappointing teams in the league during the 2019-20 season, going from the Western Conference Final a year ago to the bottom of the NHL standings.

Making matters worse, they did not even have a lottery pick having traded it to the Ottawa Senators two years earlier for defenseman Erik Karlsson.

Injuries certainly played a role in their decline, but they also struggled to replace forwards Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi after they left in free agency, while also doing nothing to fix their goaltending issue.

There is still a lot of talent on the roster, but some of their core pieces are getting older. They also still have to address the goalie situation.

This is Bougher’s second head coaching job in the NHL. He was also the head coach of the Florida Panthers for two seasons.

He joined the Sharks as an assistant prior to the 2019-20 season.

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.

NHL schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Final

7 Comments

The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Saturday, Sept. 19 in the hub city of Edmonton. Now that we are through the conference finals, the full 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule has been announced.  

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round.  

Rogers Place in Edmonton will host 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final.  

Here is the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (Series tied 1-1)

Game 1: Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Game 2: Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

CONFERENCE FINAL RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Lightning beat Islanders (4-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Stars beat Golden Knights (4-1)

***

SECOND ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Lightning beat Bruins (4-1)
Islanders beat Flyers (4-3)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Canucks (4-3)
Stars beat Avalanche (4-3)

***

NHL QUALIFYING ROUND / ROUND-ROBIN RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Canadiens beat Penguins (3-1)
Hurricanes beat Rangers (3-0)
Islanders beat Panthers (3-1)
Blue Jackets beat Maple Leafs (3-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Blackhawks beat Oilers (3-1)
Coyotes beat Predators (3-1)
Canucks beat Wild (3-1)
Flames beat Jets (3-1)

***

FIRST ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Flyers beat Canadiens (4-2)
Lightning beat Blue Jackets (4-1)
Islanders beat Capitals (4-1)
Bruins beat Hurricanes (4-1)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Blackhawks (4-1)
Avalanche beat Coyotes (4-1)
Stars beat Flames (4-2)
Canucks beat Blues (4-2)