Lightning talent pipeline will be put to test in next repeat attempt

Lightning
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No NHL team has been better than the Lightning over the past six years, and it does not really matter what metric you want to look at to evaluate them.

They have the most regular season wins. The most playoff wins. They have played in the Stanley Cup Semifinals/Conference Finals four different times and the Stanley Cup Final three times, winning two of them. They have been, and remain, the NHL’s standard for on-ice success.

Part of that is having a core of superstars in Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Players like that are always going to keep you in the conversation among Cup contenders. But the Lightning also have had a seemingly endless pipeline of talent that has kept the complementary positions fully stocked.

There always seems to be another player just waiting for an opportunity and a logjam of talent. The Lightning has been so good and so deep in recent years that a player like Carter Verhaeghe, now a top-line player in Florida, could never consistently crack their lineup. They just keep producing players (Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn, Yanni Gourde) from their farm system and making shrewd trades (Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Černák).

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

That pipeline is going to be put to the text next season after the salary cap, free agency, and the Seattle expansion draft took a significant chunk out of the Lightning lineup this offseason.

Their dynamite line of Coleman, Gourde, and Goodrow is completely gone, with Coleman (Calgary) and Goodrow (New York Rangers) leaving in free agency and Gourde going to Seattle via the expansion draft. That line was a spark plug for both Cup winning teams and helped make the Lightning one of the NHL’s deepest teams. They outscored teams by a 22-11 margin during the regular season the past two years while controlling possession and scoring chances, and were just as dominant come playoff time.

Along with their exits, the Lightning also finally traded Johnson in a cap-clearing move with the Blackhawks. While his play has declined the past couple of years he is still a 15-goal forward that came through for them in the playoffs.

That is also four significant players who need to be replaced.

In terms of outside additions the Lightning have been limited by the salary cap, resulting in the bargain signings of veterans Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. While both players can provide some value, they are probably not going to replace what went out the door in free agency this offseason.

For that, the Lightning might have to turn to the aforementioned pipeline of talent. There are definitely some intriguing in-house options. As there always seems to be.

At the top of that list will be Ross Colton, who just signed a two-year contract worth a little more than $1 million per season. After a couple of promising seasons in the AHL, Colton finally made his NHL debut at age 24 this past season and scored nine goals in 30 regular season games (a 25-goal pace over 82 games) and followed it up with a strong postseason performance where he added four goals, including a game-winner. He did all of that while playing just 10 minutes per game.

[Related: The riskiest (and safest) contracts signed this summer]

But he might not even be the most intriguing in-house option.

That might be 24-year-old forward Alex Barré-Boulet who has every ingredient to be Tampa Bay’s next hidden gem. He is skilled, undersized, and has absolutely dominated the AHL the past three seasons after posting huge offensive numbers in his junior career. He seems like a player that is just waiting for an opportunity and a chance to make an impact in the NHL. The Lightning re-signed him to a three-year contract this offseason that pays him under a million dollars per season. He appeared in 15 games a year ago, scoring three goals.

Then there is Mathieu Joseph, who has mostly been a role player for the past three seasons but should be ready to take on a bigger assignment this season. He has already scored at a 15-goal pace in two of the three years.

So while the Lightning has definitely lost a lot this offseason, they have proven time and time again that they always have another wave of players ready to step in and produce.

That will be put to the test this season, but the candidates are definitely there.

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    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports
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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced Wednesday.

    The Knights termed the procedure Tuesday 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 early Wednesday morning 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 later Wednesday 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

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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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

    Ilya Mikheyev
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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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.