NHL on NBC: Lightning should already be mulling rest vs. rust (and playoff positioning)

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NBC’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings. Lightning-Red Wings stream coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

In a parity-packed NHL, few teams enjoy the luxury of mulling over the “rest vs. rust” conundrum. For some time now, the Lightning have been one of those teams with a playoff ticket punched earlier than just about everyone else, so it’s really never too early to at least mull over such decisions. In facing a Red Wings team pondering an even-more-far-flung future, this is actually a great opportunity for the Lightning to strategically rest key players.

If history repeats itself, they might not be all that interested in resting the likes of Andrei Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, and other key veterans, though.

Let’s unpack a variety of factors that the Lightning should at least consider, particularly on games like Sunday’s match with the Red Wings: back-to-back sets with limited playoff implications.

Changing stakes in the Central Division?

Before Aaron Ekblad‘s stomach-churning March 28 injury, the Lightning had more than just pride driving them to win the Central Division. Falling into the No. 2 vs. No. 3 series meant facing either a loaded Hurricanes team, or a rising Panthers team that probably doesn’t deserve the skepticism it receives.

While the Panthers have the sort of talent and coaching that could keep them viable, Ekblad’s injury does make the Cats a bit less ferocious.

By no means should the Lightning totally relax. But could it make the drive to win the Central Division a bit less desperate? The Lightning are probably too proud for such thoughts — at least to air them publicly. It’s still a new factor that’s at least worth mentioning.

(Again, none of this should take away from the Panthers entirely. Credit them for taking care of business after seeing Ekblad go down with an injury that you seriously shouldn’t watch if you aren’t required to.)

Now, with that esoteric bit out of the way, here’s more on the rest vs. rust conundrum.

Lightning might have mixed feelings about rest vs. rust based on recent playoff experiences

During the Lightning’s historic 2018-19 regular season, they clinched the Presidents’ Trophy weeks before the season was over. It was obvious far before that, but they had home-ice advantage locked up with nine games remaining.

Yet, even in late March, Jon Cooper shrugged off the idea of resting players, as the Hockey News’ Ken Campbell noted.

“There’s integrity in the game and I 100 percent believe that comes into play,” Cooper said in March 2019. “I know we’ve put ourselves in a position where you don’t have to care, but I don’t think you can switch it on and off. And people say, ‘Why don’t you rest guys?’ But resting might be instead of playing 26 minutes, you play 18 minutes. To me, if you start sitting guys out, you’re telling your guys, ‘This player means more to the team than another guy,’ and I don’t ever want to do that. Nobody’s above our team.”

[RED WINGS- LIGHTNING COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12 P.M. ET – NBC]

Now, the “playing 18 minutes instead of 26” bit seems promising … but even then, it’s unclear if that was really Cooper’s M.O.

Victor Hedman is the go-to example there. While he didn’t even play eight minutes during the Lightning’s season-closer, Hedman’s ice time ranged from 25:42 to as much as 28:35 during the Lightning’s last four games (March 20-25, 2019) before they ended the season.

It’s hard not to think of that usage when you recall that Hedman was far from 100-percent when the Lightning suffered that humiliating first-round sweep against the Blue Jackets. Hedman only played in two of those playoff games, and didn’t look like himself. We’re talking “David Savard looking like a silky scorer” Hedman not looking himself.

Of course, Cooper might point out that the Lightning won their last Stanley Cup despite Steven Stamkos barely playing. Add a dash of hindsight-based narratives about that Blue Jackets sweep being necessary, and boom, maybe the Lightning don’t revisit the “rest vs. rust” debate.

But they should at least think long and hard about it.

(After all, if they’re so concerned about hurting players’ feelings, would they have put Tyler Johnson on waivers? Seemed a little, you know, cold and business-like.)

The Vasilevskiy example

Truly, it’s been remarkable to see Andrei Vasilevskiy grow from a goalie possibly propped up a bit to one who outright belongs among the elite. So maybe he’s totally attuned to life as one of the NHL’s true workhorses, which he’s absolutely been for some time.

It might be worth recalling that Vasilevskiy once spoke of being worn out by the workload of a No. 1 goalie.

“Tiredness is something that I probably never faced before,” Vasilevskiy told Joe Smith in March 2018. “I mean, 50-plus games. When you play in 20-plus games, it’s like you think, ‘Oh, I’m good, I can play 60-plus.’ But now when I’m on 50-plus, I’m like, ‘That’s tough.’”

Again, the Lightning could offer the rebuttal that Vasilevskiy has adjusted. And with backup Curtis McElhinney at age 37 and with a poor .882 save percentage, they might not feel like they have much of a choice.

That’s where that rest vs. rust debate expands into sacrificing some of the present in hopes of giving yourself a best chance for future playoff success, however.

Players the Lightning may want to rest (vs. Red Wings, and others)

Here are a few players the Lightning might want to rest, who might benefit, and why.

  • Victor Hedman: It may be hard to believe, but Hedman’s already 30. Sunday’s Red Wings – Lightning game would be his 800th regular-season contest. He’s averaging 25:31 TOI per game, three-plus minutes more than any other TBL skater.

The Lightning may also want to give Ryan McDonagh, 31, the occasional breather. Tampa Bay’s finally unleashing Mikhail Sergachev (22:11 TOI average), but hey, why not see how he deals with even more minutes? Granted, this would be easier with a healthy Erik Cernak. Then again, who knows what will happen during what the Lightning hope would be another long playoff run?

  • Andrei Vasilevskiy: Again, he’s acknowledged fatigue before. He’s been a workhorse this season. While he’s chasing another Vezina Trophy, the Lightning can probably thread the needle between his individual aims and getting rest. (That might require either eating some losses, or getting a goalie via trades or waivers, though.)
  • Steven Stamkos: Another player who’s 30, and might prompt you to meme about your age.

One player’s rest is another player’s audition

One could also counter many potential Cooper arguments.

If Cooper’s worried about favoritism (*snickers*), they can rotate multiple players. From Alex Killorn (31) to Ondrej Palat (29), there are plenty of players who might benefit from some R&R (aka jet ski time).

Beyond that, there’s something to be said for “gathering intel.” If Hedman, Vasilevskiy, or others get hurt or hit a cold streak, don’t you want to know who might step up? Maybe you’d find a Plan C or D to go with that Plan B.

In the past, Cooper and the Lightning chose to shake off rust instead of getting that rest. And that was a case where it made even more sense than now, when the Lightning are by no means guaranteed home-ice advantage.

The Lightning are generally a smart team — maybe the brightest in the NHL — so they should at least be thinking long and hard about these questions. Yes, even now.

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.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

“Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

“Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

“Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

“Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

“We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

“They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.