Lightning vs. Stars: 2020 Stanley Cup Final preview

There is a strong argument to be made that the Tampa Bay Lightning have been the NHL’s best team for six years now.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season they have more regular season and playoff wins than any team in the league, scored more goals scored than any team in the league, have reached the Conference Finals four times, and are now in their second Stanley Cup Final since then.

The only thing they are missing to help cement their status as the league’s most dominant team? Actually winning the Stanley Cup with this core and this roster.

They have a chance to accomplish that starting on Saturday night when they play the Dallas Stars in Game 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream).

Given all of their success in recent years it is probably not a huge surprise to see them on this stage.

The Stars, though? They are a bit more unexpected, even though they were a Game 7 double overtime loss away from reaching the Western Conference Final a year ago. They started the season with a 1-7-1 record, went through an in-season coaching change, struggled to score goals, and were always overshadowed in the Western Conference by the likes of St. Louis, Colorado, and Vegas. Then they went and beat two of those three in the playoffs and punched their ticket to their first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years.

How do the two teams compare?

Let us take a look.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
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]

Offense

These two teams could not be more different in terms of playing style and offensive potential.

While the Stars briefly found an offensive surge in the First and Second Rounds against Calgary and Colorado, it is still a team that relies on defense and goaltending to win games. They showed they are capable of adapting and filling the net more often to win games, but that is not where their strength is. It’s not that they don’t have talent on the roster (they do), it’s just that they don’t really have many game-breakers at forward.

This is a team that has not ranked higher than 17th in goals scored since the 2015-16 season, while they have finished 28th and 29th the past two seasons.

Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is absolutely loaded up front, even if Steven Stamkos is not available.

Nikita Kucherov is as good as it gets offensively, while Brayden Point has emerged as a top-line center. Add in complementary pieces like Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Yanni Gourde, and the trade deadline acquisitions of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow and there are not really many weaknesses up front.

The Lightning have been the top goal-scoring team in the league in four of the past six seasons, including each of the past three seasons.

Advantage: Lightning

Defense

Their star power up front really overshadows the fact that the Lightning also have an outstanding blue line. Victor Hedman is a beast and arguably the most impactful player on the roster, while Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh, and Kevin Shattenkirk round out an extremely formidable top-four on defense.

The Lightning are not only one of the highest scoring teams in the league, they are also one of the best defensive teams.

Dallas, on the other hand, has quite literally been the toughest teams to score against for two years now.

Since the start of the 2018-19 season the Stars are allowing just 2.48 goals per game, which is the absolute lowest mark in the entire NHL, just narrowly ahead of the Boston Bruins (2.49) and New York Islanders (2.54). Those are the only three teams in the league that have allowed fewer than 2.65 goals per game over that stretch.

Is it a lot of that due to what has been an outstanding goalie duo? You bet it has been. But the fact the Stars also have two elite defenseman in Klingberg and Heiskanen plays a significant role in that as well.

Advantage: Stars

Goaltending

Andrei Vasilevskiiy has been a Vezina Trophy finalist three years in a row now and is clearly one of the league’s elite goalies.

Adding that to a team that has the best offense in the NHL and a stellar defense is almost unfair. But here we are.

On the Dallas side, Anton Khudobin has become one of the biggest stories of the playoffs for the way he stood on his head against the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final. That performance has put him in the Conn Smythe discussion, and a repeat of that against Tampa Bay in the Final might even make him a favorite.

The duo of Khudobin and Ben Bishop has been a massive part of the Stars’ goal prevention the past two years as they have formed one of the best tandems in the league. But Bishop’s health and status for the Stanley Cup Final is a bit of a mystery at this point, so the Lightning should still have the edge here.

Advantage: Lightning

Special Teams

There is actually not a lot separating these two units. The Lightning had the superior power play unit during the regular season, but Dallas still had a solid unit and it has excelled so far in the playoffs. That power play success was a big part of their goal-scoring surge earlier this postseason.

The two penalty killing units have been virtually identical in terms of their success rate during the regular season and playoffs, and that really should not be a huge surprise. Both teams have excellent defenses, good defensive forwards, and great goaltending. That is a pretty good combination to have.

Advantage: Push

Prediction

Lightning in six: I am not going to dismiss the Stars in this series. They have a goalie that is playing out of his mind, two No. 1 defensemen, a great top line, and improved forward depth from what we saw with them a year ago. They also just beat two of the best teams in the NHL (Colorado and Vegas) in back-to-back series by winning eight out of 12 games against them. They could absolutely do it again here. But Tampa Bay is going to be the best team they have faced and they have impact players at every level of the roster. They have been so close for so many years, this is going to be the year they win it all. Tampa Bay Lightning in six games is the pick here.

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.

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    Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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    FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

    General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

    The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    “I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

    Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

    The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

    “It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

    “We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”

    Training camps open around NHL after another short offseason

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    Training camps open around the NHL after another short offseason, a third in a row squeezed by the pandemic. That doesn’t bother Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon one bit.

    For one of hockey’s best players and his teammates, it’s already time to get back on the ice and defend their Stanley Cup title, less than three months since they knocked off the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

    “I still feel like I just was playing,” MacKinnon said. “I took two weeks off, and then I started skating again. It’s just fun. I enjoy it, and I like the short summer. It feels like the season’s just kind of rolling over again.”

    The NHL rolls into fall coming off an entertaining playoffs and final with the chance to finally get back on a normal schedule. That means full camps for teams that got new coaches and the benefits of a regular routine.

    That means a mere 88 days between Game 6 of the final and the first-on ice practice sessions.

    “We’re kind of used to it now,” Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said after he and the Lightning lost in the final for the first time in three consecutive trips. “It’s a little harder, of course, because you don’t have that much time to rest. It’s basically a few weeks and you have to get back at it. But, yeah, I can’t complain. You want your summers to be short every year.”

    It was a little longer for Connor McDavid and the Oilers after losing to Colorado in the West final. Despite the lack of downtime, McDavid “wouldn’t trade that in for anything” and aims to make it even further since Edmonton shored up its goaltending situation by adding Jack Campbell.

    A few spins of the goalie carousel ended with the Avalanche acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and Cup winner Darcy Kuemper landing with Washington. Joining new teammates, many of whom hoisted the Cup in 2018, Kuemper is not worried about less time off.

    “It was definitely a very unique summer,” Kuemper said. “With how short it was, you start getting back into the gym and you’re kind of a little bit worried that your training’s going to be so short. But you kind of felt like you weren’t getting back into shape. You were already there.”

    NEW COACHES

    The Oilers are one of several teams settling in for training camp under a new coach. Jay Woodcroft took over as interim coach in February but has the full-time job now.

    “Looking forward to a camp with him,” McDavid said. “He did a great job coming in during the middle of the season, but it’s never easy on a coach, for sure. I’m sure there’s things that he wanted to touch on that you wasn’t able to kind of in the middle of the year, so he’ll be able to to touch on all of it this year.”

    The same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver, 11 months since being put in charge of the Canucks. Philadelphia’s John Tortorella, Boston’s Jim Montgomery, Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy, Dallas’ Peter DeBoer, Florida’s Paul Maurice, Chicago’s Luke Richardson, Detroit’s Derek Lalonde and the New York Islanders’ Lane Lambert are all starting the job fresh.

    CAMP TRYOUTS

    Roughly 40 players are attending a camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to earn a contract for the season. James Neal has that opportunity with the Blue Jackets, and Derek Stepan returned to Carolina to seek a job with the Hurricanes.

    The most intriguing situation involves 37-year-old center Eric Staal, who agreed to the tryout with Florida the same time brother Marc signed a one-year contract. Younger brother Jordan was with Eric and Marc on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to witness the occasion.

    “They’re both just super pumped, as was I,” said Jordan Staal, who is the captain of the Hurricanes. “Eric is excited about the opportunity and Marc, as well. Really cool. Really cool thing.”

    EARLY START

    Before the puck drops on the NHL season in North America on Oct. 11, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks play twice in Prague on Oct. 7 and 8. And those are not exhibitions.

    “We still play two important games,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who is a native of Prague. “It’s not just preseason where you coming here to warm up.”

    Colorado and Columbus will also play two games in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4-5 as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

    And just as the league gets used to a regular schedule, work is ongoing between the league and NHL Players’ Association to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, which is popular among players even if it knocks the calendar off kilter again.

    “I think they missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game that’s really going to be missed,” McDavid said. “We need to figure out a way to get an international tournament in as quickly as possible.”

    Matthew Tkachuk, Panthers ready for 1st training camp together

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    CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Aleksander Barkov was sound asleep at his home in Finland when the trade that brought Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers was finalized, which isn’t surprising considering it was around 4 a.m. in that part of the world.

    He woke up and read texts from friends reacting to the deal.

    And it wasn’t too long before he got a message from Tkachuk.

    “The first message was `(expletive) right’ and how he was excited to come to Florida,” Barkov, the Panthers’ captain, said at Florida’s media day. “`Let’s take this next step, let’s be a winning team for many years to come.’ That’s who he is. He wants to win. He wants to bring that character to this organization. And I think he’s done some damage already.”

    With that, Barkov was sold.

    And after a few weeks of informally skating with one another, the Panthers start the process of officially seeing what they have in Tkachuk when the team’s training camp – the first under new coach Paul Maurice – opens.

    “We’ve basically had everybody here for a few weeks,” Tkachuk said. “I feel like I’ve been in training camp for a couple of weeks. So today doesn’t feel that new to me. I’ve gotten to know everybody … so let’s get these games going. I’m sick and tired of just practicing and working. I want to start playing some games. I think everybody feels the same way.”

    Maurice was hired over the summer as well, inheriting a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and went to the second round of the playoffs — the first series win for Florida since the run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

    He’s as eager as the players are for the first formal practice, calling it “our first Christmas.”

    “The house is bought. Most of the boxes are unpacked,” Maurice said. “I’ve got two kids that kind of came with me; one’s in Coral Gables, one’s in Estero. Their places are unpacked. They’re out of our house. Once you get down here, for me, you spend most of your days at the rink. So, experiencing all of South Florida, we haven’t gotten to that yet.”

    As part of the deal that went down on July 22, the 24-year-old Tkachuk signed a eight-year, $76 million contract. That’s not the only big cost that the Panthers had to agree to while executing the trade; they also sent Jonathan Huberdeau, the franchise’s all-time scoring leader, and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a left wing who had career bests of 42 goals, 62 assists and 104 points last season.

    “I wish all the best to Huby and Weegs,” Barkov said. “They’re great. Everyone loved them. Only good things to say about them. It happens, and for sure, it was best for the team and organization to do this. We move on, and we’ll get ready for a new season.”

    BOBROVSKY’S SUMMER

    Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is Russian, still makes his home in St. Petersburg, and went there for the bulk of his offseason.

    He said it was not logistically difficult to travel there (or return to the U.S.) this summer, even as the war that started when Russia invaded Ukraine continues. Bobrovsky said last season that he was not trying to focus on anything but hockey, and when asked if it was difficult to be back in Russia as war continues he kept the same approach.

    “I had a good summer,” Bobrovsky said. “I saw friends, I saw family. It’s all been fine. I don’t want to talk about what’s going on. I’m not involved in that stuff.”

    CAMP ROSTER

    Florida is opening camp with 56 players – 31 forwards, 19 defensemen and six goalies. That group includes brothers Eric Staal and Marc Staal; Marc Staal signed as a free agent in July; Eric Staal is with Florida on a tryout contract.

    Coyotes sign Barrett Hayton right before training camp

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    SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes signed forward Barrett Hayton to a two-year contract right before the start of training camp.

    Terms of the deal were not released.

    The 22-year-old Hayton was a restricted free agent and not initially listed on Arizona’s roster for camp.

    Hayton had 10 goals and 14 assists in 60 games with the Coyotes last season, all career highs.

    Arizona drafted the Peterborough, Ontario native with the fifth overall pick of the 2018 NHL draft. He has 13 goals and 18 assists in 94 career games with the Coyotes.