Andrei Vasilevskiy

Previewing the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, and objectively, with far fewer former Rangers. It’s tough to shake the impression that the Lightning’s fixation on Rangers was an Yzerman thing, as Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, J.T. Miller, Ryan Callahan are all out.

Some losses hurt more than others, of course, and some change was inevitable. Really, the biggest omission would be Brayden Point if he misses any regular season games waiting for a new contract.

Also, the Lightning did mitigate some of their losses with another former Ranger: Kevin Shattenkirk. The Bolts lost some firepower this offseason, but still made savvy moves, especially if Curtis McElhinney continues to be a diamond in the rough as a strong veteran backup goalie.

Strengths: With Point, Kucherov, and Steven Stamkos, the Lightning deploy some of the most powerful offensive players in the NHL, and Victor Hedman provides elite offense from the backend. They’ve also done a marvelous job unearthing overlooked talents to buttress those more obvious stars, with Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph being the latest examples. It’s pretty easy to see why Miller was expendable, even beyond cap reasons.

The Lightning also figure to have a dependable, if not outright fantastic, goalie duo in Andrei Vasilevskiy and McElhinney.

Weaknesses: That said, there have been times when Vasilevskiy has been a bit overrated, although last season’s Vezina win was fair enough.

 

The Lightning remain a bit weak on the right side of their defense, and some would argue that this team is too small to stand up to the rigors of the playoffs. I’m more concerned with the former issue than the latter, personally speaking.

Generally, you have to strain a bit to emphasize the negative with this team, though.

[MORE: Cooper under pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Jon Cooper is one of the NHL’s brighter coaches, but he’s not perfect. Could he have settled the Lightning down during that sweep, particularly to maybe keep Kucherov from losing his cool and get suspended? Either way, expectations are high, and blame will skyrocket if the Lightning fall short again. Let’s put it at a seven.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Sergachev, Shattenkirk, and Point.

Remember when people constantly teased the Canadiens about the Sergachev – Jonathan Drouin trade? That mockery has died down as Sergachev’s been brought along slowly in Tampa Bay. Could this be a year of big progress for a defenseman with intriguing offensive skills?

Shattenkirk was a flop for the Rangers, but deserves something of a mulligan for at least 2017-18, when he clearly wasn’t healthy. If handled properly, he could be a budget boon for the Lightning; that said, his potential for defensive lapses could also make it awkward to hang with Cooper.

Whether Point enters the season with a contract or finds his negotiations linger into when the games count, there will be more eyes on him than ever.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and lofty expectations for a deep run.

Frankly, I’d argue that the Lightning should have been more aggressive in resting their stars when it was abundantly clear that they were about 20 steps ahead of everyone else. If they’re in a similar position in 2019-20, maybe they’ll try that out? For many, anything less than a Stanley Cup win will be perceived as a failure for the Lightning. Few teams carry such expectations, but then again, few teams are this loaded in an age of salary cap parity.

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

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.

Lightning still the team to beat in NHL’s Eastern Conference

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Getting swept in the first round wasn’t enough to knock the Tampa Bay Lightning off the mountaintop.

After finishing 21 points ahead of everyone else during the 2018-19 regular season, the Lightning are again Stanley Cup favorites and the team to beat in an ever-improving Eastern Conference. With a stacked roster that includes goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, the road to the final goes through Tampa Bay.

”They got a young goaltender who’s getting better and better every year (and) their D corps is pretty solid,” Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. ”Their forward group is so skilled and solid that I would still say it’s Tampa.”

That’s no knock on the Boston Bruins, who lost Game 7 of the Cup Final to St. Louis. Or the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who have plenty of Cup-winning experience. The Lightning performed some salary cap gymnastics, kept their core intact and aren’t shying away from the well-deserved hype.

”Expectations are high: Of course for everyone the main goal is to win the Cup,” Vasilevskiy said. ”We’re more mature now. We have more experience. … I think the last few seasons people (say), ‘Tampa will win the Cup 100 percent’ every time. That’s the expectation, but the reality is every team can win the Cup. We’re playing in the best league in the world, so anything can happen.”

With Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto and Florida, the Atlantic Division looks like murderer’s row. The Bruins got through only after coming back from a 3-2, first-round deficit against Toronto and aren’t feeling cocky.

”Our division’s been great the past couple years and there’s no end in sight there,” Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”We feel that we have to go through Toronto, we have to go through Tampa, we have to go through Florida and everybody.”

The Panthers signed two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and hired three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville to take the next step. Across the East in the Metropolitan Division, the improved New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are rejuvenated with some big additions.

”The Rangers signed elite winger Artemi Panarin, traded for top defender Jacob Trouba and drafted Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko, while the Devils got Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban and selected center Jack Hughes first overall.

OLD GUARD

Pittsburgh still has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Washington still has Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and yet each team has undergone a transformation since last lifting the Cup. The Penguins look closer to falling down the East standings at this point, and Crosby acknowledged there are some question marks.

”We’re a little bit younger, and in some ways we’re maybe a little bit older, too,” Pittsburgh’s captain said. ”We’re younger, so I think we’re going to be probably a quicker team, probably an energized team and we’ll have some guys that are pretty excited to be in the positions they’re in. We’ll have to see what we can do with that.”

The Capitals believe their championship window is still open.

”We expect to be amongst the league leaders in terms of wins and points,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”That’s the culture that we’ve established now and now we need to continue to build it.”

CHIP ON SHOULDER

Columbus will undoubtedly take a step back after losing Panarin and Bobrovsky and letting trade deadline pickups Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel walk in free agency. Much like the New York Islanders a year ago after losing John Tavares to Toronto in free agency, the Blue Jackets plan to use their personnel defections as a rallying point.

”There’s no secret losing those guys probably hurts a little bit, but we’re bringing back a lot of our core guys,” leading goal scorer Cam Atkinson said. ”We have to come in with a chip on our shoulder and prove a lot of people wrong, but I think that it should fuel your fire to prove people wrong.”

Columbus will rely heavily on goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

”The biggest question is goaltending,” Atkinson said. ”That’s going to be the biggest thing. The St. Louis Blues won with a rookie goaltender coming in in the middle of the season and look what happens to that team.”

The Islanders let starting goalie Robin Lehner depart in free agency and replaced him with Semyon Varlamov. Coach Barry Trotz’s structure remains, but no one’s going to underestimate them this time around.

LETDOWN BRUIN?

No team since Pittsburgh in 2009 has won the Cup after losing in the final the previous year. Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said the ”taste is still there” from the Game 7 defeat at home.

”It will probably always be there,” Krug said. ”It’s how you manage it individually to use it as motivation.”

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

It could be neck and neck between the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers for the final playoff spot. Carolina will need stable goaltending to duplicate a surprise run that ended in the East final. Philadelphia added coach Alain Vigneault, center Kevin Hayes and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, but remains a bit of a mystery amid inconsistent play.

The Buffalo Sabres will get a boost from new coach Ralph Krueger but more rebuilding is likely. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin wants the Sabres to ”trust the process,” which is ongoing not just in Buffalo but also Montreal and Detroit before those teams can target a postseason run. Ottawa’s long-term rebuild should set them up for a top draft pick.

NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: Commissioner for the day

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When NHL players descended on Chicago earlier this month for the annual Player Media Tour NBC Sports bestowed upon them the power of league commissioner for a day. Putting themselves in Gary Bettman’s shoes, we asked the players what changes they would make to the game on or off the ice. Escrow was an obvious choice, but we wanted the players to get a little more creative than that.

Changing overtime and the offside review were popular answers, but there were also some interesting ideas to come out of the exercise, like what Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews had to say.

Here’s what the players told us when we asked them, “You’re NHL Commissioner for the day. What change, on or off the ice, would you make and why?”

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “Get rid of the escrow. That’s an easy one. And get rid of the offside [review].”

P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devils: “I’d like to see less penalties. I’m a little bit biased, I like the older school game. When I sit back and watch the old NHL and watching guys like Pavel Bure and [Sergei] Fedorov still put up the numbers that they did with guys draped all over them, sometimes in the league we forget what those guys had to go through to earn the numbers and the seasons that they put together. I think sometimes we go a little bit too far this way. But nobody’s perfect. … Maybe just let the guys play a little bit more, let a little bit more stuff go. Every game there’s a controversy of some sort and it doesn’t need to be that way.”

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “I’m pretty happy for the refs to get a little bit more help, to be able to watch replays so it’s a fair game for everyone. After that, just make sure you have a good relationship with the players. I think that’s a big thing that they’re respectful from both sides and both parties. That’s something which I think we have with [the league].”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “I’d probably get rid of the trapezoid.”

Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues: “I would take away the offside challenge because now every time you score a goal you’re looking at the referee [waiting for a signal] and you jump on the bench still waiting, waiting. They can cancel it at any moment. That’s not good, especially in intense games. Sometimes you score a goal and [the team] challenges and there’s a TV timeout and it just kills the speed of the game and kills the momentum, too. I know it’s helping sometimes but I don’t think it’s supposed to be like this, when you score a goal and you’re still waiting for the ref to decide if it’s allowed or not. You can’t really get the full emotions of scoring a goal — especially if you get a 2-on-1, for example, and you have a pass from behind and you don’t know how your feet were [crossing the blue line]. I don’t think it makes sense.”

Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: “I always say, just because our travel has been so ridiculous these last bunch of years, I would change the schedule into little weekend series, similar to baseball. Let’s say you go to Winnipeg, you play them three times. You go to Dallas, you play them three times and you don’t go back there. We’ve had so many road trips going somewhere, coming back, going somewhere, coming back — just one game here, two games there, one game there. We’re always practicing, driving to the airport, flying. To me, that’s one of the things maybe other teams, at least in the East, don’t deal with as much as we do.”

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes: “As a centerman let the offensive center on a power play get to choose what circle he gets to take the draw on, and that’s after the team has already put their guys on the ice. Maybe you can catch more centerman on their off side.”

Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets: “I would change no offside, so no blue lines. I think that would make the game a lot more fun, especially if you’re an offensive guy. I think the fans would like that, maybe a lot more goals, open up the game a little bit more.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “I would probably [remove] the offside [review]. It slows the game down. It takes momentum away from the game. It’s a fast game and they’re trying to slow it down.”

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres: “I’d put more than just two games in Sweden. I would have probably around 20 games.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “The Olympics. For small countries like where I’m from, Denmark, it’d be an honor to play in the Olympics one day. We’ve never made it. I think we have a very good chance to make it next time and not being able to play in those [games] if we were to make it would not be fun.”

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning: “Smaller nets, bigger equipment for the goalies. Five-on-five overtime, six-on-six.”

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “I would change the dress code. It wouldn’t be no dress code, I think it would be more casual. You don’t have to wear a suit and tie every game, kind of like the NBA a little bit. Probably more like the NFL.”

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks: “[Auston Matthew’s] a stylish guy. Me, I’m not that stylish. I like wearing suits. [I’d like to see] for some of the guys to express more of their personality. You see the basketball guys walk in, some of them wear suits, some of them wear those fun outfits that really gets people talking. That might be a good thing to implement.”

Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings: “I would extend 3-on-3 overtime to 10 minutes.”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “Longer overtimes. I think 3-on-3 is super exciting, and shootouts are exciting, too, but 3-on-3 comes with so many opportunities and so many chances. I think if you extended it even a couple of minutes you’d have more games decided in OT rather than having it go to a shootout.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “I’d make the nets bigger so I can score more.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Most underrated player
2019-20 sleeper team
Change or keep current playoff format?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL Power Rankings: Biggest stories of the offseason

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With NHL training camps set to begin and the 2019-20 season just around the corner, this week’s NHL Power Rankings will be taking a look back at the biggest storylines of the offseason.

Offer sheets, restricted free agents, a Metropolitan Division arms race, the general manager and coaching carousel in full swing, and even a few oddities.

What were the biggest stories of the summer? To the rankings!

The big stories

1. The rise and fall of Paul Fenton. Simply the most stunning story of the offseason. After one mostly disastrous season in charge of the Minnesota Wild, Fenton was fired this offseason and replaced by Bill Guerin. It’s not just that he was fired after a year, but that the Wild waited until after the draft and free agency to make the move.

2. Sebastian Aho‘s offer sheet. It had been six years since a restricted free agent signed an offer sheet with another team, and it was starting to feel like it was never going to happen again. Then Aho and the Montreal Canadiens actually went through with the process. Only problem was the Canadiens made it a contract that was ridiculously easy for the Carolina Hurricanes to match.

3. Unsigned RFAs. With the start of training camp just days away almost all of the top RFAs remain unsigned. Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point, Kyle Connor, Charlie McAvoy, Ivan Provorov, Brock Boeser. It is unprecedented to have this many top-tier RFAs still unsigned this late in the summer. Many of these negotiations will continue throughout training camp and the preseason, but how many will spill over to the regular season?

4. Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s IIHF suspension. Three months after a social media video surfaced of Washington Capitals star Evgeny Kuznetsov in a room with white powder on a table, he was handed a four-year suspension by the IIHF due to a positive cocaine test in May. Kuznetsov voluntarily sought help through the NHL’s education and counseling program and is expected to meet with commissioner Gary Bettman before training camp.

5. Metropolitan Division madness. The Devils and Rangers re-ignited their rivalry with big offseasons that saw them land the top two picks in the draft and acquire some big name veterans, the Flyers overhauled their defense and gave Kevin Hayes a ton of money, the Blue Jackets lost several key players, the Penguins traded Phil Kessel and Olli Maatta, and the Hurricanes added to an already outstanding defense.

6. Florida goes all in Bob. The worst kept secret at the start of the summer was Sergei Bobrovsky going to the Florida Panthers. He fills their biggest need and could be the piece they need to get back in the playoffs, especially after hiring Joel Quenneville as head coach in April.

7. The GM and coaching carousel. Decades after he revived the Red Wings as a player, Steve Yzerman returns to Detroit to try and do the same as the general manager. That paved the way for Ken Holland to leave Detroit to try and rebuild the charred remains of the Peter Chiarelli era in Edmonton. Behind the benches, six teams will have new coaches as Quenneville (Florida), Alain Vigneault (Philadelphia), Todd McLellan (Los Angeles), Ralph Krueger (Buffalo), D.J. Smith (Ottawa), Dave Tippett (Edmonton), and Dallas Eakins (Anaheim) get their chances. For many, it is a second (or third) chance behind an NHL bench.

8. Nashville’s big change. The Predators needed another game-breaking forward to help fix a dreadful power play that failed them all year. They hope to have found that in Matt Duchene. To make room for him they had to deal from their depth on defense and dump P.K. Subban‘s salary. Are they a better team with Duchene over Subban? David Poile is taking a big gamble that they are.

9. Ron Francis takes over Seattle. This is going to be a tough job, not only because he is starting an organization from scratch, but because expectations will be almost unreachable given what happened with the Vegas Golden Knights.

10. New rules. Video review is being expanded to cover major and match penalties, as well as goals scored as the result of a hand pass, high stick on the puck, or pucks that should have been whistled for being out of play. There are also some new player safety rules in place. Read all about them here.

The oddities

11. Robin Lehner‘s New York “Rangers” Masterton Trophy. Lehner won the 2018-19 Masterton Trophy, awarded annually to the player that shows perseverance and dedication to hockey, and gave an inspiring speech at the awards ceremony. When he actually received the physical trophy it had him playing for the New York Rangers. He played the 2018-19 season for the New York Islanders. Fans of those teams do not like being confused for the other.

12. NJ Devil goes through the glass. What was the mascot trying to accomplish? No one knows, but it spoiled a child’s birthday party by running through a giant glass window.

13. Connor McDavid‘s skate lace belt. Not really sure what else to say here, other than when you are the best in the world you can dress however you want.

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14. Phil Kessel’s one-room theatre. After putting his Pittsburgh home on the market, the Internet pounced on a random photo of what looked to be the loneliest movie theatre room in the world … a single desk chair in front of a big screen TV. Kessel said he never actually used the room, it had been empty, and his realtor thought they should put a chair in it to give the feel of a theatre. It was still fun while it lasted.

15. Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s reaction to Keenan Thompson’s Lightning joke. He did not find it amusing (Victor Hedman, however, cracked a smile).

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.

NHL expands reach into Russia with new streaming deal

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CHICAGO — Vladimir Tarasenko is thankful for the internet because it allows his grandfather back home in Russia to watch NHL games.

Starting this season, Tarasenko’s grandfather and the rest of Russia will be able to watch every single regular-season and playoff game. The NHL is expanding its reach into Russia with a new streaming agreement with Yandex that will more than triple the amount of games broadcast there.

”For most of the people who really love hockey, that’s huge,” said Tarasenko, who took the Stanley Cup home this summer after winning it with the St. Louis Blues. ”If you can see the best players in the world playing and not leave your house and watching the highlights and everything, for kids who really love hockey and enjoy it, this means a lot.”

The NHL and the Russian Federation have cooperated better in recent years than past decades. Down the road, the possibility exists that the NHL stages a game in Russia, and this broadcast agreement could be considered another step toward that.

”It’s a game-changer for us,” NHL executive vice president of international and media strategy David Proper said Wednesday. ”We’re more than dipping our toe into the market.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman said the agreement gives the league ”extraordinarily wide distribution to a hockey savvy market.” There have been internal discussions about playing an NHL game in Russia, though it’s not imminent.

”There are a variety of complicating factors, but at some point, with certain teams and certain players, I think it would be a lot of fun,” Bettman said. ”But there’s a long road between here and there.”

The NHL’s previous agreement called for 15 games a week to be broadcast in Russia. That gave a window into the league and its Russian stars such as Tarasenko, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Malkin, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy, but the long-term goal is to create not just more fans but another generation of players.

Citing agreements in other countries with established pro leagues, Proper said the NHL is not trying to cut into the KHL’s market, but rather help the Russian-based league with more exposure.

”If things go really well, it rises all boats because people become hockey fans,” Proper said. ”For the most part they’re not on at the same times as KHL games, so this gives us the opportunity to show how great Russian players are and maybe hopefully that in some way helps just the overall growth of hockey in the market.”