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BriseBois faces plenty of questions in replacing Yzerman as Lightning GM

Bombshell news dropped on Tuesday, as word surfaced that Steve Yzerman is transitioning to advisory role with the Tampa Bay Lightning, while Julien BriseBois gets a promotion to GM.

It’s all a lot to take in, and the hockey world is scrambling to find out what happens next with Stevie Y, and why Stevie Y is stepping down in the first place. Could Yzerman be coming back home to the Detroit Red Wings, or perhaps setting the stage to be build a potential Seattle expansion team?

Those questions – along with a simple “Wait, what?” – come to mind immediately following such news.

What about the Lightning’s side of the equation, though?

BriseBois (pictured to the right of Jacques Martin in this post’s main image) has been the subject of GM rumors for some time, so the 41-year-old carries some hype into his promotion. He’s undoubtedly ranked as a big part of the picture in Tampa Bay, including running an outstanding operation for their AHL affiliate the Syracuse Crunch.

Now it’s his chance to justify that hype, and while Yzerman’s done great work in locking up stars Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman to team-friendly extensions, BriseBois faces challenges in molding all of that promise into postseason glories.

Consider some of the key decisions BriseBois must make over the next couple of years:

The bill’s coming for Vasi

Andrei Vasilevskiy has two years remaining on a bargain $3.5 million cap hit. Soak that outstanding value in for a moment, as while his Vezina campaign fizzled as his energy waned in 2017-18, he was still a worthy finalist at a remarkably cheap rate.

Those savings won’t last forever, although note that the 24-year-old would once again be slated for RFA status. (Seriously, this team is a well-oiled machine for cap management.)

Can BriseBois leverage that last RFA year into savings, or the sort of term that would benefit Tampa Bay? Of all the decisions ahead, Vasilevskiy’s future is the most pivotal single scenario.

Court Karlsson?

Could he make a big splash by getting Erik Karlsson?

This would be tricky, yet it’s worth exploring, particularly if the Golden Knights relent in their pursuit of the star defenseman after landing Max Pacioretty.

Cap Friendly lists Tampa Bay’s cap space at just $2.646M, so a Karlsson trade might be easier around the trade deadline. And, really, such a move seems tough to imagine if the Senators truly require Bobby Ryan or Marian Gaborik to be a part of any package. Maybe the ship sailed once Tampa Bay committed to Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, along with Kucherov, anyway.

Still, it’s worth asking: would BriseBois pursue Karlsson – or perhaps some other splashy upgrade – with even more vigor than Yzerman did?

Young guns

Moving back to situations with brilliant young players, Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point are entering contract years.

Gourde (26, $1M cap hit in 2018-19) is slated to become a UFA, while Point (22, dirt-cheap rookie deal) would become an RFA. BriseBois must gauge how much additional leverage each forward might gain – or lose – by playing out their deals, and react accordingly. Would it save money to sign them soon, or would it be better to see where the cap comes in for 2019-20?

(For whatever it’s worth, Point mostly developed in the WHL before flourishing with the Lightning, while Gourde began his Crunch days in 2013-14.)

In defense

Whether he makes the unlikely move to land Karlsson or not, there are some decisions looming regarding the Lightning’s defense.

Granted, Stevie Y and BriseBois already did the heaviest lifting, as most NHL teams would practice dark arts to put together a trio like Hedman, McDonagh, and Sergachev, especially considering that the veterans are locked up long-term and Sergachev is still covered for two more seasons.

Still, this is a team with lofty ambitions, so surrounding that trio with other capable defensemen could be the difference between hoisting the Stanley Cup or looking back wistfully at near-misses.

Anton Stralman might be the odd man out among capable defenders, as his $4.5M cap hit expires after this season, and he’s arguably already showing signs of decline at 32. It’s likely a relief that Braydon Coburn (33, $3.7M) and Dan Girardi (34, $3M) will see their deals expire, too, but Tampa Bay could see a lot of experience evaporate in the near future.

A shrewd GM would use those expiring contracts to possibly get out of trouble, or grab some rentals. Getting rid of Ryan Callahan‘s contract would be huge, and it’s plausible that BriseBois would be far more interested in doing so than Yzerman, who seemed to love collecting former Rangers.

Beyond those older defensemen, BriseBois will need to ascertain the value of younger expiring contracts in Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin.

The coach?

Jon Cooper’s a great quote. He’s also enjoyed success just about everywhere he’s gone, hustling through some obscure coaching gigs to make his way to Tampa Bay. You could do a lot worse than sticking with him.

While BriseBois must respect Cooper – he briefly coached the Crunch – it’s possible that Cooper might not be “his guy.” Even if he is, if there’s a belief that Cooper is nearing his expiration date – as many believe just about every coach reaches at some point – then it’s a situation to watch.

The Lightning don’t operate in a pressure cooker of a hockey market, which might explain why they didn’t absorb too much criticism after falling short in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, not to mention missing the postseason altogether in 2016-17. Considering context, it’s totally reasonable for them not to draw much heat.

The heat could really rise if the Lightning don’t meet expectations this time around, particularly if it seems like Cooper commits Typical NHL Coach Sins like not trusting young players enough. You could argue that he should have given Sergachev a longer leash last season, among other situations, so it’s not totally out of the question.

***

If you were to poll NHL executives about “dream” GM jobs, the Lightning would almost certainly land in the top five. In plenty of cases, they’d probably rank first overall.

So, there are a lot of blessings that come with this, although the curse is that critics will be harsh if BriseBois stumbles now that he’s landed the top gig.

Fair or not, many will view him as a failure if this outstanding Lightning core fails to nab the franchise’s second Stanley Cup (and possible more). There are worse situations to be in, but that doesn’t mean this is necessarily an easy job.

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.

Three questions facing Washington Capitals

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.

1. How bad will the Stanley Cup hangover be?

Look, it’s probably silly to ask if there will be a hangover at all. I mean, have you seen what Alex Ovechkin‘s been up to?

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Я очень рад что привёз кубок Стэнли домой, в Москву, где его увидели тысячи людей на Воробьёвых горах, а так же мои близкие друзья, родные и самое главное моя семья! Хочу сказать огромное спасибо нашим незаменимым организаторам @svadberry @anna_gorod @goroddimka , всё было как всегда на высшем уровне, эти два вечера были не забываемы!!! Отдельное спасибо @renat_agzamov за совершенно уникальный торт! You r the best💪🏻И конечно же спасибо всем, кто был рядом в эти дни❤️… @orlov_09 @kuzy092 мужики мы чемпионы!!!! Thanks to all my team @capitals for the greatest time ever!!!✌🏻❤️

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After winning the Presidents’ Trophy for two straight seasons, the Capitals slipped a bit (by their regular-season standards) in “only” winning a division title. In hindsight, that was far from a setback – what with the whole “winning it all” thing – but perhaps it was a sign that Washington may no longer run roughshod over the regular season?

Again, it’s not the end of the world. Washington won its long-awaited Stanley Cup without home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, after all. Still, a slow start could make some dominoes fall in a negative way.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

New head coach Todd Reirden indicated that he’ll try to spare the Capitals in different ways as they try to repeat, but such measures could be sidetracked if a groggy start pushes Washington to the bubble.

A bad hangover might rob Washington of the underrated luxury of rest and/or make the path to repeat that much more treacherous.

Such thoughts bring us to another variable could factor into the Capitals’ chances of building a cushion:

2. Was Braden Holtby‘s tough regular season just an anomaly?

Fatigue was one of the concerns for workhorse goalie Braden Holtby, much like it seemed to be for Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy. Perhaps opening up about those challenges will keep the issue from cropping up again?

It’s a nice thought, and Holtby’s strong postseason silenced his critics, but goalies are an unpredictable lot, so who knows what kind of season he’ll experience? After all, Holtby seemed like as close to a guarantee of being elite (his previous three seasons featured a save percentage of .922 or higher, despite a Brodeurian workload), yet he suffered through a .907 save percentage in 2017-18.

Again, Holtby was dazzling during that championship run, underscoring the notion that he probably deserves more consideration as the flat-out best goalie in the NHL.

While his odds for success are high, there are some potential stumbling blocks.

With Philipp Grubauer out of town, the Capitals face more uncertainty behind Holtby. How much might this team stumble if Holtby gets hurt or merely struggles to stop pucks? Will Pheonix Copley or someone else be able to hold down the fort or will the Caps need to roll the dice any time they turn to a backup?

The Capitals have more questions in net than they did coming into last season.

3. Will the veterans lose a step?

Washington’s core players are entering that window where every season is a battle with Father Time.

That’s not to say that the Capitals need to worry about the aging curve to the same degree as, say, the Ducks or Sharks. Still, declines can be pretty sharp at times in professional sports, and the Capitals boast a few candidates who could slip (even if just by small measures).

Alex Ovechkin is 32, and he’s already played in 1,003 regular-season games. Nicklas Backstrom is 30, while both T.J. Oshie and Matt Niskanen are 31. Even Lars Eller is 29.

Washington features some guys in the meat of their primes (Evgeny Kuznetsov is flying high and only 26), not to mention promising young players who might get more looks under Todd Reirden, particularly Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana.

It’s not necessarily a question of if the Capitals will be any good. Instead, the worry is that they might lose enough steps to fall behind the NHL’s best. It didn’t happen last season – clearly – but the Capitals face some real questions as they hope to repeat.

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.

Three questions facing Tampa Bay Lightning

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

1. Can the Lightning finally avoid the late-season fall-off that has been plaguing them?

There’s an old hockey commercial where Sidney Crosby jumps out of a picture where the Penguins had just lost the Stanley Cup to the Detroit Red Wings in 2008. Dejected, Crosby says, “I never want to be in this picture again,” and then jumps back into the shot.

While there isn’t a specific moment for Tampa Bay, but there’s certainly a big picture to gaze at. The Lightning need to have the same mindset as Sid did. They’ve been to the Cup Final once and the Eastern Conference Final three times in the past four seasons. They’ve held 3-2 series leads in two of the three conference finals and still have nothing to show for it. They’ve failed to score in Game 7s. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have turned into ghosts when need the most. Secondary scoring dried up. And their defense has failed at the wrong moment.

These seem like small revisions given how talented the team is, but nonetheless, they’re questions that need answers.

[2017-18 review | Under Pressure: Steve Yzerman | Breakthrough: Brayden Point]

2. Can the Lightning find a way to improve their penalty kill? 

They are a team with few glaring faults, but if one needs to be pipped for improvement, it’s the team’s penalty kill.

Sure, scoring a lot of goals can cover a multitude of sins, but in a critical Game 6 against the Capitals in the Eastern Conference Final, it was a power-play goal by T.J. Oshie that proved to be the first and final dagger as the Caps sent it to Game 7 in a shutout win.

Tampa’s penalty kill ranked 28th in the regular season at 76.1 percent and fell to 75 percent in the playoffs. In layman’s terms, if you could goad the Lightning to take four penalties a game, you were almost assured of scoring once. When games are as close as playoff contests can be, every advantage (and disadvantage in Tampa’s case) counts.

They have a solid defensive core, and having Ryan McDonagh for a full season should help improve their PK numbers.

Perhaps staying out of the box a little more could do wonders as well. The Lightning took the third most minor penalties last season and were the 10th highest team in terms of times shorthanded.

3. Will Andrei Vasilevskiy come into this season with more stamina? 

The words you never want to hear from your starting goalie around March when you’re a lock for the playoffs is, “I’m tired.”

Vasilevskiy did utter those words last season.

“Tiredness is something that I probably never faced before,” Vasilevskiy told the Tampa Bay Times. “I mean, 50-plus games. When you play in 20-plus games, it’s like you think, ‘Oh, I’m good, I can play 60-plus.’ But now when I’m on 50-plus, I’m like, ‘That’s tough.’

That fatigue ultimately cost him the Vezina.

His play down the stretch of the regular season dipped and he was rested. The rest did him good, as he was solid in the postseason, but the Lightning need him to be relatively fresh for the 60 or so starts he will make, or at least build in a bit more rest throughout the season.

On the other hand, Vasilevskiy was going through the throes of being a No. 1 for the first time in the NHL and still managed a .931 save percentage in five-on-five situations over the course of the season.

Endurance can be taught and managed. It’s scary to think what Vasilevskiy can do if there’s no fall off physically and mentally.


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

Under Pressure: Steve Yzerman

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Steve Yzerman seems to have every piece of the puzzle in place going forward.

A forward contingent that includes superstar names such as Stamkos and Kucherov, a rearguard that features a Norris winner in Victor Hedman and up-and-coming talent in Mikhail Sergachev, and a Vezina-calibre goaltender that would have stormed away with the award if not for a late-season hiccup due to fatigue.

The supporting cast around this core is almost unmatched, too. Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde and J.T. Miller are all solid pieces. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson (assuming he has a bounce-back season) are strong complements.

Ryan McDonagh is exactly what the Lightning needed on defense, and they locked him up long term after trading for him at the deadline.

Tampa’s farm system is filled with players both talented and allowed to mature in the minors.

The general manager of the Lightning has built one of the best teams in the NHL today and has seemingly figured out how to keep that going in the future, with his core locked up long term.

Building a great team is one thing. Keeping it great for an extended period of time is another. If the Lightning want to replicate the success of the Chicago Blackhawks, let’s say, it’s not the big name deals that turn into three Stanley Cups in six years, but the smaller ones that fill in the cracks.

Tampa has all sorts of money tied up in big name players. They sit just over $2.6 million below this year’s salary cap of $79.5 million.

They’re fine this season. It’s next year where things start to get interesting.

[2017-18 review | Breakthrough: Brayden Point | Three questions]

The team can shed roughly $10 million in Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi if they so choose. All three are set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season.

Nearly half of that money will go to Kucherov, whose annual average value is essentially doubling at the start of 2018-19 after signing a big-money extension earlier this summer.

Then Yzerman needs to find a way to re-sign Brayden Point, the team’s No. 2 center who, if he continues to improve, could become a point-per-game player this season. That kind of production commands big money, although a bridge deal could help lessen the blow for a couple years.

Yzerman will also have to sort out what to do with Yanni Gourde, a late-blooming rookie last season that put himself into the Calder conversation with 25 goals and 64 points. He’s getting paid a paltry $1 million for his services this season and will be in need of a nice raise come next summer as well, if not sooner given his UFA status next July.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, if he continues in the same vein as he is now, will need elite goaltender money in two years. Mikhail Sergachev, who is shaping up to be a franchise defenseman, will also need a significant pay raise in the same offseason that Vasilevkiy does. And there will be more, assuming a litany of talented prospects pan out as well.

“These guys are good players, really good players, and when you look around the League, they’re going to get paid a certain amount,” Yzerman said after the Kucherov extension. “We want to keep as many of our good players as we can. We’d like to keep everybody. Unfortunately, you can’t do that. But we’re trying to be as competitive as possible while trying to manage the salary cap.”

This is all heading toward some tough decisions for Yzerman. Can they afford Gourde after this year? Does a big name player with a big name contract need to be shipped at some point? Do they lose three depth defenseman with plenty of experience?

The cap is likely to increase, but so is the market value of the players Tampa must sign.

Yzerman’s biggest task now is managing the empire he’s created while he tries to win a Stanley Cup, if not two or three.

Their best window is now.


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

It’s Tampa Bay Lightning day at PHT

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

2017-18
54-23-5, 113 pts. (1st in the Atlantic Division, 1st in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in seven games to the Washington Capitals, Eastern Conference Final

IN
Andy Andreoff

OUT
Chris Kunitz
Matthew Peca
Andrej Sustr
Peter Budaj

RE-SIGNED
J.T. Miller
Nikita Kucherov
Cedric Paquette
Ryan McDonagh
Louis Domingue
Adam Erne
Slater Koekkoek

– – –

For a good stretch last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning legitimately had the forerunner in the Hart, Vezina and Norris races.

They were also the favourites to win the Stanley Cup.

In the end, they wound up with Norris going to the Victor Hedman, and arguments can still be made that Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy should have won the Hart and Vezina, respectively.

But there was no Cup-hoisting in Florida.

It’s plain to see that the Lightning were a juggernaut last season, at least until they weren’t.

Fatigue and a subsequent drop in performance ended up costing Vasilevskiy the Vezina. The disappearance of goal scoring — from the team that score the most goals in the regular season — in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final would up costing the Lightning a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.

Judging by how the regular season went, the disappointment of being up 3-2 needing just a win to head to the Cup Final seems like a failure despite all the successes.

Kucherov hit 100 points. Stamkos came back after playing in just 17 games in 2016-17 and was a point-per-game player once again.

Second-year forward Brayden Point took a big step in his game, hitting the 30-goal plateau and rummaging up 66 points — and another 16 in 17 playoff games to boot — as he continues his ascent to stardom.

[Breakthrough: Brayden Point | Under Pressure: Steve Yzerman | Three questions]

Hedman was, well, Hedman, racking up 17 goals and 63 points, rookie Yanni Gourde put himself into the Calder conversation with 25 goals in 64 games and the deal that sent Jonathan Drouin to Montreal in exchange for Mikhail Sergachev looked like a masterstroke by general manager Steve Yzerman after the latter had 40 points in his rookie season.

One of the deepest teams in the NHL also found a way to add better depth when they exchanged Vladislav Namestnikov, a prospect and two picks for Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller.

But losing when on the cusp of the Cup Final… that lingers as much as it stings.

The Lightning may not have won it all this year, but my goodness do they have a team set up for several runs at Lord Stanley. They will also be a case-study in how a team handles giving monster contracts to several players and still is able to building a winner around that, but the talent they have under long-term contracts is a bit silly. Keeping McDonagh and Miller on extensions is big, and they’ve even been linked in the Erik Karlsson sweepstakes.

Perhaps that would put them over the top.

They’ve reached the conference final in three of the past four seasons — and the Stanley Cup Final once — but just can’t get it done. Their two biggest names have failed to show up in those big games, too.

Maybe they can take a cue from the Capitals from this season, of how to exercise those past demons.

Prospect Pool

Boris Katchouk, LW, 20, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) – 2016 second-round pick

The Tampa Bay Lightning have another prospect in the system that’s dominating the Ontario Hockey League as a junior player. Given some of the talent on the big club that has done the same, this bodes well. Katchouk had 42 goals and 85 points in 58 games this season with the Greyhounds. He was solid with Team Canada at the world juniors as well, scoring three goals and six points as Canada won gold. The Lightning have the luxury of sending Katchouk to the American Hockey League next season to continue his progression.

Cal Foote, D, 19, Kelowna (WHL) – 2017 first-round pick

Foote had 19 goals and 70 points in 60 games last season with the Rockets, scoring 13 more goals than in his sophomore season. Like Katchouk, Foote featured at the world juniors, adding three assists for Team Canada in seven games and then got a chance to play in the AHL to cap off his season, scoring once in six games. Like Katchouk, Foote will head to Syracuse next season to hone his game at the professional level.

Taylor Raddysh, RW, 20, Erie/Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) – 2016 second-round pick

Syracuse is getting a big influx of top-end junior hockey talent this season, and Raddysh can be counted among those joining the ranks. Like Katchouk (teammates after a mid-season trade) and Foote, Raddysh will be afforded time to grow as a professional amongst men. He was also on Team Canada, also won gold at the world juniors and also lit up the OHL with 33 goals and 83 points in 58 games.

Tampa’s farm system is incredibly stacked.


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