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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Devils rally from two goals down to beat Rangers 5-3

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK – Jack Hughes and Michael McLeod scored in the second period, Vitek Vanecek stopped 35 shots and the surging New Jersey Devils rallied from an early two-goal deficit to beat the New York Rangers 5-3 on Monday night.

Yegor Sharangovich had two goals and Tomas Tatar also scored to help the first-place Devils win their third straight since having their 13-game winning streak snapped last week. New Jersey has won 10 straight road games and has only one loss since starting the season 3-3-0.

The Rangers raced to a 2-0 lead just three minutes into the contest but the Devils scored twice to tie it later in the first period to tie it and then scored twice in the second period to take the lead.

“We stayed with our game. There was a calmness on the bench,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said of his team’s early deficit. “All I said on the bench was ‘let’s get the next goal and we’ll be back in the game.”‘

Vanecek improved to 11-2-0 as scattered chants of “Let’s Go Devils” were heard at Madison Square Garden.

The Devils have made the playoffs only once – in 2018 – since beating the Rangers in six games in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals.

“It was great to hear the fans here on our side,” Devils forward Miles Wood said. “We can’t thank them enough.”

Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Vincent Trocheck scored and Chris Kreider had two assists for the Rangers, who fell to 4-5-3 at home. Igor Shesterkin had 33 saves.

New York also lost its second straight at home in a disheartening fashion. The Rangers squandered a 3-0 third-period lead against Edmonton on Saturday to lose 4-3. Last season, they won 27 of 41 games at the Garden.

“When one thing goes wrong it starts to snowball on us,” Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren said. “We keep saying we have to play a full 60. You can’t keep talking about it, you have to go out and do it.”

Rangers coach Gerard Gallant credited the young and hungry Devils with playing a superior game.

“They put lots of offense at you, they play fast and they showed that,” Gallant said. “Tonight they were the better team.”

Tatar narrowed the deficit to 2-1 at 7:31 of the first with a nifty high backhand shot past Shesterkin for his sixth of the season. Jesper Bratt had an assist on the play, giving him a point in 18 for the Devils’ 23 games this season.

Sharangovich tied it with an unassisted goal with 6:35 left in the first.

Hughes put the Devils ahead at 5:44 of the second after he gained a stride on Lindgren before sliding the puck past Shesterkin for his 12th of the season and fourth in the last two games.

McLeod made it 4-2 at 9:40 with his third goal after Wood hit the crossbar behind Shesterkin.

“I have to play better,” said , who was also in goal for Saturday’s meltdown against Edmonton and has lost three of his last five games.

It was the fourth time in their last six games the Devils scored at least four times and New Jersey improved to 9-0-0 when the 21-year-old Hughes – the top overall pick by the Devils in the 2019 draft – has a goal.

Trocheck scored his eighth goal on the power play for the Rangers with 6:42 left in the third to pull within one, but Sharangovich added an empty-netter with 16 seconds remaining to seal the win.

The Devils improved a franchise-best 13-1-0 in November and an NHL-best 16-0-0 when leading after two periods.

“It’s fun playing here,” Hischier said. “It feels great to beat the Rangers,?

Panarin scored 1:20 into the game to end a personal 12-game goal-scoring drought with his sixth of the season and first since Oct. 30 at Arizona.

Zibanejad made it 2-0 at 3:01 with his team-best 11th of the season.

UP NEXT

Devils: Host Nashville on Thursday night.

Rangers: At Ottawa on Wednesday night.

Stamkos lifts Lightning past Sabres 6-5 in OT

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
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BUFFALO, N.Y. – Steven Stamkos scored his second goal of the game 2:44 into overtime to give the Tampa Bay Lightning a 6-5 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Monday night.

Brayden Point also had two goals, Brandon Hagel had a goal and an assist, and Corey Perry also scored for the Lightning, who rallied from two goals down in the third period to force overtime. Nikita Kucherov and Mikhail Sergachev each had three assists, and Stamkos added one for a three-point night.

Brian Elliott had 32 saves to get the win.

“We got the breaks at the end to pull us back, some big-time players got us back into it,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said.

Tage Thompson had a goal and an assist, and Tyson Jost, Jeff Skinner, Jack Quinn and Dylan Cozens also scored for Buffalo. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen made 19 saves.

“You allow good players a little bit of extra time and a little bit of extra space, they’re going to make plays on you,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “We had hesitation in our game and it was only the last 10 minutes.”

In the extra period, Stamkos got the winner on a blast from the right circle for his 12th of the season.

“There’s going to be games where we don’t deserve the two points and tonight was probably one of those, but we’ve been on the other side of that too,” Stamkos said.

With the score tied at 3-3 to open the third period, the Sabres appeared to take control in the third with two goals for a 5-3 lead with a little more than 5 1/2 minutes remaining.

Cozens put Buffalo ahead at 9:37, ripping a shot from the right circle under the crossbar and beating Elliott on the glove side. Skinner made it 5-3 with 5:41 remaining, finishing from a tight angle after an odd-man rush was initially stopped.

However, the Lightning answered back with two goals 3 1/2 minutes apart.

Stamkos scored just 16 seconds after Skinner’s goal to get the Lightning within one. Hagel tied it with a power-play goal with 2:02 remaining. With Elliott pulled to create a 6-on-4 advantage, Kucherov’s shot from the right circle was deflected by Hagel past Luukkonen.

Point opened the scoring 7:54 into the game with a power-play goal from close range for his ninth.

Perry made it 2-0 with 3:12 left in the first off a cross-ice pass from Stamkos.

Thompson put Buffalo on the board with 2:06 left in the first, beating Elliott with some nifty stick-handling after forcing a turnover in front of the Tampa net.

Quinn evened it 59 seconds later, finishing a nice feed from JJ Peterka on a quick offensive rush.

Jost gave Buffalo a 3-2 lead midway through the second period, scoring his first goal with the Sabres after he was acquired off waivers from Minnesota on Nov. 19.

Point tied it 3-3 on the power play with 3:34 left in the second after getting a pass from Kucherov.

INJURY RETURNS

Each team had one player return from a recent injury. Sabres center Rasmus Asplund returned after missing two games with an upper-body injury. Tampa Bay forward Cole Koepke returned after missing three games with an upper-body injury.

UP NEXT

Lightning: At Boston on Tuesday night.

Sabres: At Detroit on Wednesday night.

Hughes has first NHL hat trick, Devils beat Capitals 5-1

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
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NEWARK, N.J. – Jack Hughes had his first career NHL hat trick, Vitek Vanecek made 38 saves against his former team and the New Jersey Devils beat the Washington Capitals 5-1 on Saturday for coach Lindy Ruff’s 800th victory.

“It’s exciting,” Hughes said. “Couple of two-goal games in my career, so nice to cap it off with the third one tonight.”

Ruff became the fifth NHL coach to reach the 800-victory mark. The former Buffalo player won 571 games with the Sabres from 1997-2011. He had 165 wins in five seasons with Dallas and has 64 in two-plus seasons with New Jersey.

“It means I’ve been around a long time,” Ruff cracked. “Great to win the game. Again, you got to do a lot of right things, have good teams, and the way our team is playing I have to give them a lot of credit for getting me there.”

The Atlantic Division-leading Devils have won two in a row after seeing their franchise-record 13-game winning streak snapped by Toronto.

Devils captain Nico Hischier and Fabian Zetterlund also scored.

John Carlson scored for Washington and Charlie Lindgren made 24 saves.

“Not scoring goals, not capitalizing on our chances,” Carlson said. “We’ve had our chances, especially today, but we only walked away with one goal. We could have had five or six. It’s just not going in right now.”

Vanecek, meanwhile, was hoping for the shutout against a familiar foe.

“That would have been nice, but that’s hockey,” Vanecek said, “For sure you’re trying, but not every time; the win is more important.”

Hischier opened up the scoring with his 10th goal of the season midway through the first period on a power play after Alexander Ovechkin was called for slashing.

Hughes wrapped the puck around goalie Lindgren’s right leg and the goal post to put the Devils up 2-0 5:59 into the second period. Hughes appeared to have lost his angle on the goal when he ripped a shot off Lindgren’s face mask and into the net midway through the period for his 10th goal of the season to give New Jersey a 3-0 lead.

The 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick added his third midway through the third period as hats rained down on the ice with New Jersey up 4-0.

“You want to continue to play the right way, but if an opportunity comes you want to definitely put it in the back of the net with authority,” Hughes said. “So tonight, I was able to cap it off and it was nice.”

Fabian Zetterlund capped the scoring for New Jersey late in the third period.

NOTES: The Devils improved to 16-0-0 this season when Hischier has a point. New Jersey’s Nathan Bastain (upper body) did not return after the first period. . Ovechkin is still nine goals away from 800 and 11 from passing Gordie Howe for second place on the NHL goals list.

UP NEXT

Capitals: At Vancouver.

Devils: At the New York Rangers.

Bruins set NHL record with 12 straight home wins to start season

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Boston Bruins set the NHL record for most home victories to start a season with their 12th straight, topping the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime with a power-play goal from David Pastrnak.

The Bruins broke the mark of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

“That felt awesome,” Bruins first-year coach Jim Montgomery said. “We talked about it after the second (period) going into the third. There’s been a lot of great teams in this league and you’re able to set a precedent, break a record. It’s pretty special and it doesn’t happen if those guys don’t believe in themselves like they do.”

Boston, which trailed 2-0 late in the second period, tied it with 9:33 left in regulation when David Krejci scored his second of the game on a shot from the right point.

“It’s never fun being down going into the third, you’re sitting in here (in the locker room) trying to figure it out,” Krejci said. “You want to come out and do the job, something special on the line. It’s hard to win in this league. To get 12 in a row at home is pretty special.”

In overtime, Carolina was playing shorthanded after being called for too many men on the ice when Pastrnak one-timed a pass from Brad Marchand inside the far post from above the left circle.

“It was a big win for us, obviously, coming from behind,” Pastrnak said.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Stefan Noesen each scored a power-play goal for Carolina, and Pyotr Kochetkov made 38 saves. The Hurricanes lost their fifth straight.

In a rematch of last spring’s opening-round playoff series that the Hurricanes won in seven games, Carolina shutout the NHL’s highest scoring team for nearly two periods and jumped ahead a pair of power-play goals in the opening period.

“We took too many penalties. That’s hurting us right now,” Kotaniemi said. “I think 5-on-5 we’re doing a really good job. We started good tonight and couldn’t keep that up.”

Boston’s tying goal was originally disallowed because of goaltender interference on Nick Foligno but overturned on a coach’s challenge after it was ruled that he was nudged into the crease by Carolina defenseman Brett Pesce.

Boston starting goaltender Linus Ullmark made 28 saves but had to leave with 13:03 left in the third period with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Teammate Connor Clifton had jumped on him to block a shot during a scramble. Jeremy Swayman made six stops in relief.

Carolina’s Noesen scored at 6:34 in to make it 1-0. And with five minutes left in the period, Kotkaniemi collected the puck near the side of the net after Seth Jarvis‘ shot bounced off the back glass and slipped it inside the post at 15:05.

Krejci scored for Boston with 31 seconds left in the second.

Boston came in with a league-high 82 goals in 20 games (4.10 per game), but it was held to relatively few chances despite getting a 5-on-3 power-play advantage early on.

TAKE NOTE

The Bruins honored captain Patrice Bergeron, who recorded his 1,000th career point when the team was on the road against Tampa Bay, with a message on the Jumbotron. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Bergeron became just the fourth Bruin to reach the mark, joining Hall of Famers Ray Bourque (1,506), Johnny Bucyk (1,339) and Phil Esposito (1,012).

UP NEXT

Hurricanes: Host the Calgary Flames.

Bruins: Host the Tampa Bay Lightning.