Salary cap threatens Lightning depth, but Stanley Cup core should remain

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Before the Lightning completed their Stanley Cup repeat, we already heard about how next season’s team will be different. Jon Cooper described it as a “last day of school” feeling.

Between the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, an unforgiving (though not invincible) flat NHL salary cap, and important supporting cast members ready to hit free agency, the Lightning figure to look different when they try to strike thrice.

Simply put, we don’t know how different. (Especially since we’ve seen this movie before, and the Lightning wiggle out of salary cap traps like hockey Houdinis.)

But, even if the cuts end up hurting, it feels safe to pencil the Lightning in as a Stanley Cup contender in 2021-22. Just ask the Vegas oddsmakers.

There will be losses

If there’s an essential takeaway, it’s this.

Yes, the Lightning could take some serious hits from a depth perspective. At times, though, it might be wise to look at depth as a “luxury.” When it comes to the essentials of building a Stanley Cup contender, it still looks like the Lightning should check most of the boxes of that “blueprint.”

[More on who the Lightning could lose]

In the likely event that Blake Coleman signs somewhere else in free agency, that will sting. And, if I were running the Lightning, I’d sweat bullets hoping that Yanni Gourde doesn’t get snatched up in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft.

Consider how important Gourde, Coleman, Alex Killorn, and others were during the regular season by glancing at the Lightning’s leaders in expected goals above replacement (via Evolving Hockey):

Salary cap threatens Lightning depth, but Stanley Cup core should remain xGAR chart
Yes, Kucherov is not on this chart because he missed the regular season. You may have heard about that. (Chart via Evolving Hockey)

That could be painful, especially if things finally stop going the Lightning’s way. Yet, again, it must be said. If you rattled off the most important elements of a Stanley Cup contender, the Lightning would fit the bill.

They have that No. 1 center, and could remain strong down the middle overall

Maybe Brayden Point isn’t your prototypical top center because of his diminutive size. But he’s playoff proven, just 25, and forms a truly dynamic duo with Nikita Kucherov. And he’s not the only center of note.

The 2020-21 season wasn’t always kind to Anthony Cirelli after he previously broke through as a dark horse Selke candidate. But at 23, he’s the sort of center other teams would clamor for. (Though none were smart and/or brave enough to ink him to an offer sheet.)

Ideally, the Lightning could keep massively underrated Yanni Gourde, but it’s a strong group either way.

Their key pieces are in their primes

Truly, it’s difficult to believe that Nikita Kucherov topped all playoff scorers two years in a row, made everyone mad with an epic shirtless press conference, generated one of the best salary-cap era seasons with 128 points on his way to a Hart Trophy, already has 127 career playoff points, and yet is just 28 years old.

(Catches breath for a moment after listing Kucherov’s accomplishments.)

For all Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s accomplished, you’d think he would be older, too. Instead, he’s merely 26. Victor Hedman (30) and Steven Stamkos (31) are really the only main forces over 30.

Naturally, the wear-and-tear of two consecutive playoff runs (and other deep pushes) will carry costs. Still, the Lightning’s most important players feel like they have wider windows than that of, say, the Penguins, Capitals, or Bruins.

Elite defense, all-world goalie

There’s room to debate if Victor Hedman was Norris finalist material in 2020-21, but generally speaking, he still ranks among the elite. He’d be on the short list of defensemen you’d build a blueline around.

And behind Hedman, the Lightning boast almost certainly the best goalie in the world in Vasilevskiy. So, to summarize the bare Stanley Cup necessities, the Lightning boast:

  • A No.1 center, and the sort of No. 2 who can shut opponents down.
  • A top defenseman.
  • Gamebreaking scoring in Kucherov to go along with Point.
  • An all-world goalie.
  • Most of those players being in their prime.

Like with forwards, defensive depth could take a hit, but the Lightning also go deeper than almost any other team there. Hedman may eventually pass the torch to Mikhail Sergachev. While the expansion draft and/or salary cap might complicate matters, there’s also Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak, and Cal Foote.

Salary cap threatens Lightning depth, but Stanley Cup core should remain 2020
(Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Bright people running the ship

Oh yeah, they also have Jon Cooper, the longest-tenured coach in the NHL. Frankly, GM Julien BriseBois probably deserves more credit than he gets, even acknowledging Steve Yzerman’s crucial work before him.

That’s where we get that “seen this movie before” feeling.

Would it be that shocking if the Lightning traded their way out of salary cap trouble? If they need to bribe the Seattle Kraken for expansion draft reasons, maybe the Lightning can minimize the damage. (Shudders to think about the outrage if, say, Alex Killorn’s broken fibula warrants a trip to LTIR.)

Even if NHL teams finally back the Lightning into a salary cap corner, they could just reload from within. Seriously: would you drop your jaw if the Lightning found more gems in, say, Ross Colton and/or Alex Barre-Boulet? Or maybe someone we haven’t even heard of yet?

At some point, these developments become less about good fortune and more about the Lightning simply knowing what they’re doing. The Lightning didn’t get here by mere luck and salary cap shenanigans.

Now, that doesn’t mean this will be “easy”

Granted, with less depth, the Lightning may no longer be quite the same matchup machine. Don’t forget that the Lightning began the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs on the road. If the Atlantic Division ends up as tough as it looks, it may be a challenging regular season.

(They also might be playing with fire by leaning on Vasilevskiy so much, who strained when he first became a top goalie. Could they somehow make all of this work and make time to find a reliable backup?)

You can boil this down to “wants vs. needs,” though. Potential losses might leave Tampa Bay less versatile going forward. They might not be able to get away with playing the entire regular season without Kucherov.

Ultimately, though, the Lightning still figure to have the most important pieces in place to contend for a Stanley Cup once again.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Rangers sign Filip Chytil to 4-year extension

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Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — The New York Rangers have signed forward Filip Chytil to a four-year contract extension worth $17.75 million, locking up another member of their core long term.

The team announced the deal Wednesday night. Chytil will count just under $4.44 million annually against the salary cap through the 2026-27 season.

Chytil, 23, is in the midst of a career year. He has set career highs with 22 goals, 20 assists and 42 points in 66 games for the playoff-bound Rangers.

The Czech native is the team’s sixth-leading scorer and ranks fourth on the roster in goals. The 2017 first-round pick has 144 points in 342 NHL regular-season and playoff games. He was set to be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer.

New York already had top center Mika Zibanejad signed through 2030, No. 1 defenseman Adam Fox through 2029, veteran Chris Kreider through 2027, winger Artemi Panarin through 2026 and reigning Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Igor Shesterkin through 2025.

General manager Chris Drury’s next order of business is an extension for 2020 top pick Alexis Lafrenière, who is only signed through the remainder of this season and can be a restricted free agent.

Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews returns to ice, hints at retirement

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CHICAGO — Longtime Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews returned to the ice but hinted his stellar NHL career could be winding down after 15 years.

Toews, 34, skated with teammates prior to Chicago’s game with the Dallas Stars. It was his first time practicing with them since a game in Edmonton on Jan. 28.

He made a statement through the team on Feb. 19 saying he would be stepping away because of the effects of Chronic Immune Response Syndrome and “long COVID.”

In meeting with reporters, Toews stopped short of saying he hoped to play in any of last-place Chicago’s nine remaining games. His eight-year, $84 million contract is set to expire at the end of the season.

Toews said he’s feeling stronger, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play again for the Blackhawks or another team.

“Both if I’m being fully honest,” Toews said. “I feel like I’ve said it already, that I’ve gotten to the point where my health is more important.

“When you’re young and you’re playing for a Stanley Cup and everyone’s playing through something, that means something and it’s worthwhile. But I’m at that point where it feels like more damage is being done than is a good thing.”

Toews, the Blackhawks’ first-round draft pick (third overall) in 2006, joined the team in 2007 and was a pillar of Stanley Cup championship clubs in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

At the peak of his career, he was one of the NHL’s top two-way centers, winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 2013.

In 1,060 regular-season games, Toews has 371 goals and 509 assists. In 139 playoff games, he’s posted 45 goals and 74 assists, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2010.

Toews missed the entire 2020-21 season with Chronic Immune Response System, which caused debilitating inflammation and fatigue.

He appeared in 71 games in 2021-22, then started this season with renewed energy before slowing and eventually shutting himself down.

Entering this season, it looked as if Chicago might deal him, as it did fellow star Patrick Kane, before the March trade deadline. But Kane went to the New York Rangers and Toews to injured reserve.

Toews believed he was progressing before a relapse in January left him so sore and tired that he could barely “put on my skates or roll out of bed to come to the rink.”

Toews said his progress over the past month has been “pretty encouraging” and he’s delighted to be back among his teammates. He has no timetable beyond that.

“We’re just going to go day by day here,” Chicago coach Luke Richardson said. He deserves anything he wants to try to achieve here.”

Richardson hoped Toews “can take that next step later in the week and hopefully (he) gives us the green light to go in a game.”

But Toews emphasized his long-term health and ability to lead a “normal life” is most important. He wants to go out on a positive note and not hit the ice for a game playing through excessive pain and dysfunction.

“It’s definitely on my mind that this could be my last few weeks here as a Blackhawk in Chicago,” Toews said. “It’s definitely very important for me to go out there and enjoy the game and just kind of soak it in and just really appreciate everything I’ve been able to be part of here in Chicago.”

Budding Wild star Matt Boldy more willing to shoot, and it shows

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Boldy was unable to resist a smile in the aftermath of his second hat trick in five games for the Minnesota Wild, a young right wing and reluctant star trying to make sense of a remarkable hot streak.

Does the puck feel as if it’s automatically going in the net these days each time he shoots?

“Yeah, it does,” Boldy said in the locker room after leading the first-place Wild to a 5-1 win over Seattle. “My linemates are playing great. Hopefully you guys are giving them a lot of credit. You look at some of those goals – just putting it on a tee for me.”

This non-attention-seeker has found himself squarely in the NHL spotlight. Boldy has 11 goals in nine games since Wild superstar Kirill Kaprizov was sidelined with a lower-body injury to raise his goal total to 28, in part because he’s been more willing to shoot. With vision and stickhandling as strengths and the humility of being a second-year player, it’s easy to be in a pass-first mindset.

“Everybody kind of took turns talking to him. But it’s not that he didn’t want to. A lot of times a situation like that where a guy’s got that skillset, it’s a real unselfish quality, right?” coach Dean Evason said. “But I think he gets now that he helps the team a lot when he scores goals.”

The Wild were confident enough in Boldy’s scoring ability to commit a seven-year, $49 million contract extension to him earlier this winter, after all.

“I think I’ve always had that mentality, but sometimes you just get into spots and it comes off your stick good,” Boldy said. “When things are going well, the puck goes in the net.”’

The Wild are 6-1-2 without Kaprizov. Boldy is a big reason why.

“You go through the slumps, you learn what you need to do to score. I think he’s found a good way to be in the right spot and shoot the puck when he had a good opportunity,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said.

The Wild have only won one division title in 22 years, the five-team Northwest Division in 2007-08. They’re leading the eight-team Central Division with eight games to go, with both Colorado and Dallas too close for comfort. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2015.

With Kaprizov due back before the postseason and Boldy on this heater, a Wild team that ranks just 23rd in the league in goals per game (2.93) ought to have a better chance to advance. Eriksson Ek and Marcus Johansson have been ideal linemates for the Boston College product and Massachusetts native.

Since the Wild entered the league in the 2000-01 season, only five NHL players have had more hat tricks at age 21 or younger than Boldy with three: Patrik Laine (eight), Marian Gaborik (five), Steven Stamkos (five), Alex DeBrincat (four) and Connor McDavid (four). Boldy turns 22 next week, so there’s still time for one or two more.

“He’s big. He controls the puck a lot. He’s got a good shot, good release. He’s smart. He switches it up. He’s got good moves on breakaways. He’s a total player,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Fun to watch him grow this year.”

Pezzetta scores shootout winner; Canadiens beat Sabres 4-3

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Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports

BUFFALO, N.Y. ⁠— Brendan Gallagher and the Montreal Canadiens rallied back to avoid playoff elimination with less than three weeks left in their season. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, are running out of chances to stay in the Eastern Conference wild-card hunt.

Gallagher forced overtime by scoring his 200th career goal, and Michael Pezzetta scored the decisive shootout goal in a 4-3 win over the Sabres on Monday night.

“It’s one of those things I think we earned that chance. We weren’t fantastic but we did enough on the road tonight to get a win,” Gallagher said. “Smiles all around.”

The Canadiens could laugh, especially after Pezzetta celebrated his goal by putting his stick between his legs and riding it like a wooden horse — much like former NHL tough guy Dave “Tiger” Williams did during his 14-year NHL career spanning the 1970s and 80s.

“I’m not sure we’ll see that again. One of a kind,” said Gallagher. “I’d be worried about falling over.”

Pezzetta scored by driving in from the right circle to beat Eric Comrie inside the far post. Buffalo’s Jack Quinn scored in the fourth shootout round, but was matched by Montreal’s Jesse Ylonen, whose shot from in tight managed to trickle in through Comrie.

Jordan Harris and Alex Belzile also scored for Montreal, and Jake Allen stopped 30 shots through overtime, while allowing one goal on six shootout attempts.

Montreal would have been eliminated from playoff contention for a second straight season – and two years removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final – with any type of loss.

The Sabres squandered a 3-2 third-period lead to drop to 3-6-3 in their past 12. Buffalo also blew a chance to move to within four points of idle Pittsburgh, which holds the eighth and final playoff spot.

“Just a little hesitation,” forward JJ Peterka said of the Sabres third-period lapse. “We didn’t play with much energy and we didn’t play that aggressive as we played the two periods before. I think that was the difference.”

Buffalo’s Lukas Rousek scored a goal and added an assist while filling in for leading scorer Tage Thompson, who did not play due to an upper body injury. Peterka and defenseman Riley Stillman also scored, and Comrie stopped 38 shots through overtime, and allowed two goals on six shootout attempts.

Montreal blew two one-goal leads to fall behind 3-2 on Stillman’s goal at the 8:31 mark of the second period.

Gallagher scored on the fly by using Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin as a screen to snap in a shot inside the far left post. With the goal, Gallagher tied Bobby Rousseau for 24th on the Canadiens career scoring list.

“I liked the way we corrected ourselves, it’s a sign of maturity, in the way we stayed on task,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said, in recalling how the Canadiens recently unraveled in an 8-4 loss two weeks ago to Colorado, which plays a similar up-tempo style as Buffalo.


The Sabres hosted their third Pride Night, with Russian D Ilya Lyubushkin electing not to participate in warmups by citing an anti-gay Kremlin law and fears of retribution at home in Moscow, where he has family and visits in the offseason. The remainder of the team wore dark blue jerseys with the Sabres logo on the front encircled by a rainbow-colored outline.

During the first intermission, the Sabres broadcast a video in which GM Kevyn Adams said: “This is about recognizing someone’s humanity and true identity. We know there are people out there struggling with who they are, and we want them to know that they have an ally in the Buffalo Sabres.”


Canadiens: At the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

Sabres: Host the New York Rangers on Friday night.