Why Lightning repeat attempt gives Cooper ‘last day of school’ feelings

Whether the Lightning end their Stanley Cup repeat push with a sweep of the Canadiens in Game 4 on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC / Peacock), the series goes longer, or the Habs even make a miraculous comeback, the truth is that the Lightning will look different in 2021-22.

Between the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, players hitting 2021 NHL Free Agency, and additional flat salary cap challenges, the Lightning will say goodbye to some prominent players. Even if they somehow work LTIR and salary cap “loopholes” again.

It’s something that Lightning coach Jon Cooper mentioned during the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. Even the Lightning’s website posted a story with “enjoy this while it lasts” vibes.

“We don’t know what our team is going to look like next year and if we’re all going to be together again,” Cooper said, via Bryan Burns. “There’s some crazy circumstances that had to happen for this team to stay together. I know these guys understand that. They know that. And they’re well aware of what they can cement to themselves if they can somehow get one more win. It’s been unbelievable to be a part of.”

While Alice Cooper captured the joy of school being out for summer, Jon Cooper touched at the sadder side. Some friends never seeing each other again, or certainly not as often as every day.

Here’s why it feels like “the last day of school” for Jon Cooper and the 2020-21 Lightning.

To start, noteworthy players are hitting free agency

Cap Friendly currently estimates the Lightning’s 2021-22 cap expenses at about $86.57 million, with 19 roster spots covered. That would not account for whoever will back up Andrei Vasilevskiy next season. So, as it stands, the Lightning would a bit more than $5M over the $81.5M salary cap.

Naturally, they’ll need to do some moving and shaking (or, some will grumble, circumventing) to get at or under $81.5M. We’ll get to that in a minute.

At minimum, it’s difficult to imagine the following pending Lightning free agents returning:

  • Blake Coleman, 29, UFA: Part of the reason the Lightning paid a significant trade price for Coleman was that they’d get him not only for a run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, but also this 2021 Stanley Cup Final. And Coleman fetched an extremely team-friendly $1.8M. It wouldn’t be surprising to see some serious interest in a very nice supporting cast forward with at least one iconic playoff goal on his resume.
  • Some of that Kucherov/LTIR/salary cap angst came from the Lightning being able to squeeze David Savard under the cap. The 30-year-old could get a healthy upgrade from his $4.25M AAV.
  • Along similar lines to Coleman, the Lightning traded substantial assets for two cheap runs with Barclay Goodrow (28, $925K cap hit expiring).
  • There are veterans who may or may not be back on new contracts, from Curtis McElhinney to Luke Schenn.
  • Also, some interesting RFAs might be tricky. Maybe someone will view 24-year-olds Ross Colton and/or Alex Barre-Boulet as “the next Jonathan Marchessault/Carter Verhaeghe?” If the Lightning want to wiggle out of trouble, it might involve packaging their RFA rights. Those RFA rights definitely give the Lightning some leverage to keep one or both of Barre-Boulet/Colton, though.
Why Lightning repeat attempt gives Cooper 'last day of school' feelings team photo
Class photo equivalent? (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

Expansion Draft intrigue for Lightning, flat cap concerns

In mid-June, staffers at The Athletic identified Seattle Kraken expansion draft targets for all teams involved (sub required). Three Lightning players were tabbed:

  • Cal Foote, an intriguing 22-year-old defenseman who played 35 regular season games with the Lightning. He’s an RFA.
  • Alex Killorn, 31, carries a $4.45M AAV through 2022-23.
  • Yanni Gourde, 29, has a $5.17M AAV through 2024-25.

Those three players would sting in different ways. It’s also possible that the Kraken might value someone else, or may be willing to take a bribe from the Lightning to not select Gourde, or maybe to absorb a salary.

The Kraken selecting Killorn or Gourde would get the Lightning closer to that $81.5M threshold, although it obviously wouldn’t take care of all of their work.

Lightning challenges, core questions, and other salary cap concerns

Let’s zoom in a bit and consider a variety of hurdles for the Lightning.

  • They’ve sold off quite a bit of draft capital in landing Coleman, Goodrow, and Savard over the years.

2021: The Lightning traded away their first, second, and fourth-round picks. They own two extra seventh-rounders.

2022: Tampa Bay has its first-rounder, but not a second or third. (They also have their normal run from the fourth through the seventh round.)

So, that gives the Lightning a bit less ammunition to bribe the Kraken or a rebuilding team to ease some salary cap concerns.

For some players, a trade would be foolish. But it makes things a little trickier. Ideas about trading Stamkos floated around last offseason, but would Stamkos wave? Especially after he took what was viewed as a team-friendly contract instead of exploring free agency like John Tavares did?

Such clauses can make trades more challenging, and also sometimes present some expansion draft headaches.

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

  • Teams aren’t exactly eager to help the Lightning get under the salary cap.

Yes, there could be some real benefit to exploiting the Lightning’s cap crunch to improve your own team. Especially for rebuilders who can absorb some short-term pain for long-term gains.

But considering all of the LTIR/Kucherov salary cap angst from fans and executives, and the mere fact that the Lightning are one win away from repeating as Stanley Cup champions, teams might not be too interested in helping the Lightning. Even if maybe they should look at this as an opportunity.

All of that said, the Lightning keep pulling this off

So, yeah, it’s easy to see why Jon Cooper views this as “the last day of school.” Maybe this time, the Lightning will graduate to a class of salary cap challenges that finally give them a failing grade.

But if you know your recent salary cap history, you might find it hard to believe that the Lightning won’t just conjure more magic.

Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli should’ve been tougher to keep. Maybe they should have been offer sheet targets.

People understandably wondered if the Lightning could keep Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point over the years. In just about every case, the Lightning didn’t just pass those tests; they did so with flying colors. Credit winning and state tax breaks all you want, yet few front offices ace tests like this, especially so often.

(Every other GM should feel insulted by Brayden Point’s $6.75M AAV, even if it looms as a threat, being that it expires after next season.)

Chances are, the Lightning will feel some salary cap strain this offseason. If nothing else, they might not be as versatile after the smoke clears. Ponder this article that praises the combination of Gourde, Goodrow, and Coleman: a trio that could be cleared away thanks to the expansion draft and free agency.

But while the electrons might move out, the nucleus is likely to remain intact. Kucherov, Point, Hedman, and Vasilevskiy are all under contract for 2021-22.

If any team can pull this off — over and over again — it’s the Lightning. But it’s fair to expect fresh faces (or supporting actors taking more prominent roles) after this “last day of school.”

CANADIENS VS. LIGHTNING (TB leads series 3-0)

Game 1: Lightning 5, Canadiens 1
Game 2: Lightning 3, Canadiens 1
Game 3: Lightning 6, Canadiens 3
Game 4: Mon. July 5: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock) – livestream
*Game 5: Wed. July 7: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 6: Fri. July 9: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 7: Sun. July 11: Canadiens at Lightning, 7 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)

*if necessary

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.

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    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

    Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

    Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

    “It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

    Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

    Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

    “Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

    The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

    “I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

    Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

    Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

    “On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

    The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

    “It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

    It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

    “(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

    Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

    “It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

    NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

    UP NEXT

    Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

    Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.