Alex Killorn

WATCH LIVE: Canadiens vs. Lightning on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

These Atlantic Division foes meet for the first of four times this season as the Canadiens continue with the third game of their four-game homestand. The Lightning, on the other hand, play away from home for the fifth time in six games this season.

One of the biggest questions for Tampa entering this season was when Brayden Point would re-sign. The 23-year-old is coming off a season in which he set career best marks in goals (41), assists (51) and points (92). On September 23, he signed a three-year contract to stay with the Lightning, the only team he’s played for as he begins his fourth season. Point missed the first three games this season while recovering from off-season hip surgery but made an immediate impact in his season debut, scoring twice against Toronto and adding an assist.

While the Canadiens, who are looking to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years (2017), are coming off an encouraging early-season win, the Lightning, after a record-setting regular season, have already lost as many games this season as they did the entire opening month of last season

Jonathan Drouin played a career-high 81 games last season (tied career high with 53 points). The 2013 third overall pick by Tampa has started this season by recording a point in every game for a total of six points in five games. If he adds to that in this game, he’ll be the fourth Canadiens player in the last 32 seasons to open the year with a point streak of six-plus games.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning at Montreal Canadiens
WHERE: Bell Centre
WHEN: Tuesday, Oct. 15, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Canadiens stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Steven Stamkos – Brayden Point – Nikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph
Ondrej PalatTyler JohnsonYanni Gourde
Patrick Maroon – Carter Verhaeghe – Luke Witkowski

Victor HedmanErik Cernak
Ryan McDonaghKevin Shattenkirk
Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

CANADIENS
Tomas TatarPhillip DanaultBrendan Gallagher
Artturi LehkonenMax DomiJordan Weal
Jonathan Drouin – Jesperi KotkaniemiJoel Armia
Paul ByronNate Thompson – Nick Suzuki

Victor MeteShea Weber
Brett KulakJeff Petry
Ben ChiarotChristian Folin

Starting goalie: Carey Price

MORE: Offseason work paying off for Canadiens’ Drouin

Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter. Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec.

What if the Lightning don’t win it all?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Three pressing questions for the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning.

1. What if they fall short again?

Looking at a season as a failure because it does not result in a championship is a foolish approach to take in sports. Even if you are the best team in the league on paper the odds of actually winning it all are overwhelmingly stacked against you. One team against the field is always a bet you are more than likely to lose.

But the 2018-19 Lightning season, for as great as it was, has to be looked at as at least some kind of a failure. Maybe not a total failure, but definitely a failure to some degree. Not because they didn’t win it all, but because of HOW they did not win it all — quietly bowing out in four games against the No. 8 seed. Also because after years of collapse and near-misses in the Eastern Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final (blowing two 3-2 series leads in the ECF, and a 2-1 series lead in the SCF) that was supposed to be the team to get it done. Then it did not even win a single playoff game.

Expectations will be through the roof again with this roster, and the pressure is only going to be mount because they have to show they are a championship team instead of a paper tiger. But what if they fall short again? It probably depends on how far they go. A Round 1 or 2 loss, especially one like this past season, means someone almost certainly gets fired — whether it is the coach  or the GM — or gets traded (break up the core?)

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. What will Brayden Point‘s new contract look like, and how will they make it work?

To answer the first part of that question, it will probably look significant. Point is one of them any unsigned restricted free agents on the open market and is coming off a monster season offensively that saw him establish himself as a key part of the Lightning’s core and one of the top offensive players in the league. He is only 23 years old, has improved every year he has been in the league, and is just now entering the prime of his career. He should easily get more than $7 or $8 million per year.

The problem for the Lighting is making that fit within the structure of the team, where Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Ryan McDonagh, Yanni Gourde, and Alex Killorn are all already signed to massive long-term deals. They have enough to sign Point for this season, but next season (when Vasilevskiy’s deal kicks in) it will get tight. Someone (Palat? Killorn?) will have to be on the move.

3. Will their offseason additions be enough to put them over the top?

Given the Lightning’s salary cap constraints they had to go bargain hunting this offseason and may have struck gold with Kevin Shattenkirk and Pat Maroon on one-year deals for under $3 million (combined). Shattenkirk will have far less pressure on him in Tampa Bay than he did in New York because he will not be counted on to be the top player on defense and they won’t need him to be a difference-maker. You also have to think he will have a chip on his shoulder have something to prove after a disappointing end with the Rangers.

As for Maroon, the size and intangible element he brings from a Stanley Cup winning team will almost certainly be dramatically overstated. Maybe it matters a little, but what is truly important is that he is an excellent depth player that will make their bottom-six better. They are not the big-name moves some other teams made, but the Lightning didn’t need impact. They just needed solid complementary pieces, and that may be just what they receive.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Lightning ‘optimistic’ in Point deal before training camp

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(UPDATE: The Lightning have freed up more room by sending Ryan Callahan’s cap hit to the Senators.)

At the present, they have roughly $5.5 million in salary cap space and a 40-goal, 90-point restricted free agent to sign, and the Tampa Bay Lightning are certain they’ll get him under contract before training camp begins.

Brayden Point is worth a whole heck of a lot of money and the Lightning don’t have that much to give at the moment, but general manager Julien BriseBois is optimistic nonetheless that a deal will be hatched before the middle of September.

“I fully expect to get it done before the start of training camp,” BriseBois said via NHL.com on Monday. “I don’t have a precise timeline. I feel very optimistic, but I don’t have any new information with regards to the Brayden Point contract.”

Easier said than done, as they say.

The Lightning have a nice cap crunch to deal with and a player of Point’s caliber, even if bridged, is worth more than what they currently have to spend (and they still need to pay Adam Erne, even if it’s around $1 million a season on his own bridge deal.)

But perceived worth and contract actuality are not one and the same. If this summer has taught us anything, it’s that very good players can sign on for very cheap deals. We see you, Kevin Labanc.

Of course, that’s a pretty extreme example of doing your team a solid. And Point isn’t the same player. He’s much better, so don’t expect that here.

Sure, there’s still a world where Point signs an uber-friendly bridge deal. But at $5.5 million? Probably not. Evolving Wild’s model has a two-year deal worth $1 million more than that. A three-year bridge? They have it pegged at over $7 million a season. He’s projected to get a five-year, $8 million contract using their formula. Even that might seem a little low for the 23-year-old.

Even in Florida, where there is no state income tax, Point will get more.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The Lightning do have some reprieve, however. Despite there being some work to do to get Point’s contract done, they can essentially double the money they have to work with by putting Ryan Callahan on long-term-injured reserve.

That makes the situation disappear, for the time being, as it frees up $5.8 million in the process and allowing the Lightning to exceed the cap limit by that much. They can sign Point to whatever term/money makes sense and still fit under the cap.

And if BriseBois’s optimism surprises you, it shouldn’t. If any team can figure out how to keep some very, very good players happy financially, short-term and long-term and under the cap ceiling while remaining competitive, it’s the Lightning — even without Steve Yzerman.

They did it with Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov and also with Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevsky, who became a very rich man on Monday.

“What I will say is there are all of these players that signed shorter deals coming out of their entry-level contracts who all ended up signing long-term deals and were able to stick with our organization, whether it’s Tyler Johnson or Ondrej Palat or Alex Killorn.” BriseBois said. “It’s worked out for all of them and it’s worked out for the organization. We’ve been able to keep a lot of great players in their prime.”

Next step: not getting swept up in the first round after a record regular season. And then sort out how you’re going to navigate the salary cap once again next offseason, where the Lightning already have $66.7 million committed to 13 players, and that doesn’t include whatever contract Point signs.

MORE: Jets, Lightning still face big RFA challenges

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jets, Lightning still have big RFA challenges to deal with

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This year’s restricted free agent market has been one of the most intriguing ones we have seen in years. Not only is it loaded with players that already among the league’s best, but we already saw an offer-sheet come in when the Montreal Canadiens attempted to snag Sebastien Aho away from the Carolina Hurricanes. It was an offer that was quickly matched by the Hurricanes. As things stand on Saturday, Aho is the only one of those top RFA’s that has a new contract while Mikko Rantanen, Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, Patrick Laine, Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski, Brock Boeser, and Kyle Connor (among others) all remain unsigned, and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future.

Some of these situations will easily get resolved. The Avalanche have more salary cap space than any team in the league and no other significant contracts to work out, so while Rantanen will get a huge pay raise, the Avalanche have more than enough space to work it out. The same is true in Columbus with Werenski where they still have more than $15 million in cap space after their free agent exodus.

Beyond them, most of the focus with the RFA market has been pointed in Toronto’s direction where the Maple Leafs have to re-sign Marner and (hopefully) avoid a repeat of last year’s William Nylander situation. But for as complicated as the Marner contract has been and still might be, the Maple Leafs still have more than $10 million in LTIR contracts to stash at the start of the season with David Clarkson and Nathan Horton.

It is going to be difficult, but it may not even be the most difficult one in the league.

Here are four teams that might have might even more headaches to deal with.

Winnipeg Jets

Good news: The Jets have more salary cap space ($17 million) than all but one team in the league, which would seem to put them in a really good position under the cap.

Bad news: As of Saturday they only have 17 players under contract for the 2019-20 season (no other team in the league has less than 19) and have two major RFA’s in need of new deals in Laine and Connor.

Laine is already one of the NHL’s most lethal goal scorers and is coming off a 30-goal season that was universally considered to be a “down” year for him, while Connor has scored at least 30 goals himself two years in a row. There have only been 17 players to top the 30-goal mark in each of the past two seasons, and the Jets not only have two of them, but they are both in need of new contracts right now.

Unless one (or both) is willing to take a significant discount on their next deal the duo is likely to cost the Jets at least $14 million against the salary cap. Those two deals are going to eat up almost all of their remaining cap space while they still have to fill out a roster around them. Even with some free agent departures this summer the Jets are still in a position where they are going to have to do some juggling to keep their two best young players.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning already had one of the deepest forward groups in the league even before Brayden Point was one of the league’s big breakout stars during the 2018-19 season.

Now that he has joined their core of top-tier players, the time has come to pay him. The Lightning have roughly $5 million in salary cap space this summer, which will obviously not be enough to pay a 22-year-old winger coming off of a 40-goal, 90-point season whose best days are still ahead of him. They will be placing Ryan Callahan on LTIR, giving them another $5 million to work with and that will certainly help in the short-term. Point won’t be a $10 million player, but the Lightning also have an upcoming arbitration situation with Adam Erne and three more significant RFA’s next summer (starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, forward Anthony Cirelli, and defender Mikhail Sergachev). All of that is going to add up, and you have to wonder if it might make a forward like Alex Killorn (four more years at $4.45 million per season) expendable.

Vancouver Canucks

This is an underrated and overlooked nightmare situation. The Canucks three-highest paid players are Loui Eriksson, Tyler Myers, and a 33-year-old Alexander Edler (all making $6 million per year), while they also have around $14 million going to the quartet of Brandon Sutter, Tanner Pearson, Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle. A classic case of a bunch of small mistakes adding up to one big headache that hurts a team in trying to keep its stars. They only have $5 million in salary cap space to re-sign Boeser, their second best player and one of the best young snipers in the league. That is not enough. They need to move as many of the aforementioned contracts as they can, not only to help re-sign Boeser this summer, but to improve their long-term outlook as well.

Boston Bruins

The Bruins’ roster is almost entirely set for the 2019-20 season with two big exceptions: Defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. The Bruins have roughly $7 million in salary cap space to make it happen, but that is going to be tight. Like Werenski in Columbus, McAvoy has earned a substantial contract extension with his play. Carlo may not be a star, but he is a rock-solid defender that needs re-signed. Together, they might cost at least $10 million. Shedding one of David Backes, Charlie Coyle, Kevan Miller, or John Moore would help.

More NHL Offseason:
Bruins face salary cap juggling act with McAvoy, Carlo
Long-term contracts for depth players is usually losing move for NHL teams
Cap Crunch: Rangers, Penguins, Flames among teams that still need moves

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Signing depth players long-term is usually losing move for NHL teams

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The Nashville Predators’ decision to sign Colton Sissons to a seven-year contract earlier this week certainly raised a lot of eyebrows around the NHL.

As PHT’s James O’Brien argued immediately after the signing, the salary cap hit is pretty reasonable and it might even be a decent value right now.

But it’s the salary cap that puts every contract in the league under a microscope. Teams only have so much money to spend, and every dollar they spend on one player is a dollar they do not have to spend on another player. Every dollar counts, especially if you a contending team that is probably going to be spending close to the cap. Mistakes and misevaluations matter, and if you get caught with too many of them at once it can have a negative impact. Because of that, teams need to make sure they are using their limited amount of money in the most efficient way possible, properly prioritizing what matters and what doesn’t, and the players that are worth committing to.

Traditionally, teams have mostly avoided long-term commitments to players that are not top-line players. This is especially true among teams that win and go deep in the playoffs. I say “mostly avoided” because there have been several instances outside of Nashville where teams have given lengthy term to depth players. The New York Islanders signed forwards Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck to five-year deals, and third-pairing defender Scott Mayfield to a seven-year deal. The Detroit Red Wings have Justin Adbelkader and Darren Helm on five-plus year contracts. The Kings gave Kyle Clifford a five-year deal several years back. The Pittsburgh Penguins gave Brandon Tanev a six-year contract this summer to play in their bottom-six after giving Jack Johnson a five-year contract one year ago.

Those are just a few examples of players that are currently under contract.

The question, though, is why teams would ever want to do this.

The answer is simple: By giving the player more term and more individual long-term security, it brings the salary cap hit down a little and helps the team in the short-term. But is that extra savings worth the long-term commitment to a player that may not retain their value over the duration of the contract?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

One thing that has stood out about recent Stanley Cup winners and contenders is that pretty much none of them have had long-term commitments (five years or more) to players that played regularly outside of their top-six forwards or top-four defenders. It is practically unheard of. Identifying consistent lines and who is a “depth” player is a mostly inexact science. Coaches change line combinations constantly over the course of a season and a player’s role within a team can be a very fluid situation. For this, I simply tried to use even-strength usage as a way to identify a player’s spot in the lineup.

The table below shows the past six Stanley Cup winners and the players they had signed to contracts of five years or more in the years they won the Stanley Cup. Players highlighted in yellow were signed for six years (or more) at the time of the championship. Take a look at the names and see if you can identify a trend … they are almost all top-line players.

The only players on that table that were not either a starting goalie, a top-six forward, or a top-four defender are Olli Maatta with Pittsburgh in 2016-17 (he was top-four in 2015-16) and Mike Richards with Los Angeles in 2013-14 (he signed that contract in Philadelphia when he was a first-line center, and was a second-line center upon his arrival in Los Angeles in 2011-12).

I also looked at every team that made at least the Conference Finals in those seasons and found only five instances where a depth player was signed for more than five years. And even they have some asterisks next to them because they were at least signed with the intention of being more significant parts of their team.

  • Alex Killorn, signed for seven years, was outside of Tampa Bay’s top-six during their 2017-18 Eastern Conference Final run, but was in its top-six during its runs in 2014-15 and 2015-16. When he was signed, the Lightning probably figured he was going to be more of a top-line player. He has since been surpassed by a wave of talent that came after him.
  • Ryan Callahan also played third/fourth-line minutes for the Lightning during the 2017-18 playoffs but, like Killorn, played bigger roles in 2014-15 and 2016-17.
  • The Sharks had defensemen Brenden Dillon signed for five years to play third-pairing minutes 2018-19 and 2015-16 during their postseason runs
  • John Moore and David Backes (both signed for five years) were depth players on the 2018-19 Bruins.

Pretty much all of the Conference Finalists, and especially the Stanley Cup Finalists, over the past six full seasons had long-term investments in their stars and filled out their depth with younger, entry-level players and short-term veterans.

They were not giving out term to non-core players.

The problem with giving out term to depth players is that they can tend to be replaceable talents that may not maintain their current value throughout the duration of that term. You run the risk of that player regressing and not having the roster flexibility to bring in a cheaper and/or better player. If a star player ages and declines, they are still probably going to be giving you a solid return on that investment. The depth player may not, if they are even able to justify a roster spot.

Let’s take Sissons as an example. Right now he is a fine NHL player. Solid defensively, can chip in some offense, and plays a tough and often times thankless role within the Predators lineup. At around $3 million per year he is a fine investment … for now. Between the 2000-01 and 2012-13 seasons there were 14 players that were at a similar point in their development: Players that had played at least 140 games during the ages 24 and 25 seasons and averaged between 0.30 and 0.40 points per game, exactly where Sissons is right now.

Only five of those 14 players played an additional seven seasons in the NHL.

In professional sports dollars, an extra million or two over a couple of years is nothing more than a drop in the bucket to teams. But when the teams are limited by their leagues in what they can spend on players, little mistakes can quickly add up to big mistakes. The Penguins, for example, are now on the hook for $7 million over the next four years for the Johnson-Tanev duo, which is an egregious use of salary space for a contender pressed against the cap that is trying to get another Stanley Cup out of its Hall of Fame core over the next few years.

It is not just good teams, either. The Vancouver Canucks have spent the past two offseasons throwing big-money at the bottom of their roster and will enter this season with $12 million in salary cap space going to Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, and Tyler Myers for multiple years. The result of that is a bad team that only has $5 million in salary cap space and still needs to sign restricted free agent Brock Boeser. They are now in a position where they have to play hardball with their second-best player to get him signed, or have to make a desperation trade to clear salary cap space. It’s a headache that would have been easily avoidable had they not overspent on the bottom of their lineup.

As much as teams want cost certainty with their players and trying to secure their long-term salary cap outlook, it just doesn’t seem to make much sense to commit so many years to a player that isn’t going to be an impact player or a part of your core. The value probably will not remain, and it is going to limit what you are able to do in the future. There is not a third-or fourth-line player in the league right now that is so good at what they do that it is worth committing to it for five, six, or seven years. Age will eventually catch up to those players, and when they decline it is going to hit them even harder than the decline of a star.

Commit to your stars long-term because they can not easily be replaced.

The players around them usually can be.

More NHL Free Agency:
Sissons, Predators agree to seven-year contract
Predators being bold with term, but is it smart?
NHL Free Agency: Most long-term contracts will end in trade or buyout

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.