Lightning have some concerns as playoffs approach

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The Tampa Bay Lightning have been the NHL’s elite team for the better part of the past eight seasons. Since the start of the 2014-15 season no team has won more regular season games (379) or playoff games (70, which is nearly double the next closest team), while they have reached at least the Conference Final in five of the previous seven seasons, including three Stanley Cup Finals.

This season they are chasing history in trying to become the first team since the early 1980s New York Islanders to win three consecutive Stanley Cups.

For much of the season they looked like a team that was perfectly capable of doing that, even after losing some key contributors to the past two championship teams (the entire third line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow; Tyler Johnson).

They even found a way to go all in at the trade deadline again by adding Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul to their forward group.

On paper they are still an imposing team that has the potential to go on a run and win it all once again. But there are some concerns starting to rise to the surface as the playoffs get close.

Let’s start with the fact that over the past month-and-a-half they are only 9-10-2 overall, with only one of those wins (a 4-3 overtime win against Carolina) coming against a playoff team. Even worse, since the start of March they are just 1-9-1 against other playoff teams, continuing what has been a season-long struggle against other contenders. They have only won 15 of their 37 games against playoff teams for the season, with only nine of those wins coming in regulation. That is significantly worse than their performance over the past two years against similar opponents.

So what is happening this season, and especially lately.

Andrei Vasilevskiy looks human instead of superhuman

You can talk about Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, or Victor Hedman all you want, but Vasilevskiy is the cog that makes this machine run. He is the best goalie in the world, and it is almost unfair to put a player like him behind a team like this. He would make any team a contender the second he shows up.

When he is at his best he makes the Lightning an absolute powerhouse.

He has been, for the most part, very good this season. But “very good” for Vasilevskiy is a step below what we are used to seeing from him. Since the start of January his performance has been even further below his normal level.

Since the start of the calendar year Vasillevskiy has managed only a .907 save percentage in his 35 appearances, which is very uncharacteristic for him. His all situations save percentage ranks 22nd in the league among the 38 goalies with at least 25 appearances during that stretch.

Part of it could be the normal volatility we see from goalies. They can run hot and cold for different stretches (or seasons) and nobody is immune to that.

It could also be the result of his workload over the past couple of years. Vasilevskiy has played a LOT of hockey since the start of the 2019-20 season, appearing in 201 regular season and playoff games. He also played every minute of Tampa Bay’s past two playoff runs, never getting a night off and never being removed early from a game. The next closest goalie in terms of workload over that stretch? Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyk who has appeared in 179 games. After that, it is Calgary’s Jacob Markstrom at 161 games. There is nobody even close to Vasilevskiy in terms of workload the past three seasons.

The Lightning have not really had a dependable backup to give Vasilevskiy much time off, and when combined with his overall brilliance it makes it difficult to take him out of the lineup. But eventually he needs a break, and we might be starting to see the impact of all of that playing time right now. Can he be expected to maintain his play over another extended playoff run without much of a break?

Brandon Hagel is not Blake Coleman

What really separated the Lightning from everybody else the past two years was having a third dominant line that could swing games in their favor. The trio of Coleman, Gourde, and Goodrow was — by far — the best third line in the league and posted truly dominant numbers together across the board. They outscored teams 37-20 (regular season and playoffs) and were close to 60 percent in their shares of shot attempts, expected goals, and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.

All three of those players left this offseason. Coleman to Calgary in free agency, Goodrow in a trade to the New York Rangers, and Gourde to Seattle in the expansion draft. That is a significant part of their team to replace, and while they have found some solid replacements (Corey Perry has been great; Ross Colton is very good) they have not really found a trio that can do what the previous line did.

When the Lightning acquired Hagel from Chicago at the trade deadline there was an obvious comparison to Coleman. Under contract for a couple years on a cheap deal, good goal numbers this season, and even a comparable trade price. If we are being honest, though, that is where the comparisons end. When the Lightning acquired Coleman he was a much more proven player, a better possession driver, and a superior defensive players. A lot of Hagel’s value in Chicago this season was tied to a (probably unsustainable) 22 percent shooting percentage. The risk for any acquiring team was what value he could provide when that shooting percentage leveled off.

So far Hagel is playing just around 12 minutes a game for the Lightning, scoring just three goals (one empty netter) with zero assists. Lately he has been playing on a line with Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn, a trio that looks good on paper and should be good in theory, but has not yet produced much in the way of meaningful results.

This is still a very deep group of forwards, but they have definitely lost over the past year and have not fully replaced it.

None of this is to say the Lightning are doomed in the playoffs or are going to be an easy out. Doubt them at your own peril. Their recent track record speaks for itself, and the talent level on this team is still among the best in the league. There is also nothing to say that Vasilevskiy can not get hot, or that everything starts to click for them again at any moment. But Vasilevskiy’s struggles, the downgrade on the third line, and the rise of several other teams in the Eastern Conference (Florida, for example) does make them look a little more questionable than they have been the past couple of years.

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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

    Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.