Kevin Shattenkirk

NHL Stanley Cup Eastern Conference round-robin preview

The NHL Stanley Cup round-robin begins August 2 as the Eastern Conference’s top four teams battle for First Round seeding. This week, PHT look at one question facing each of the top four seeds in the East and West.

Round-robin — TV schedule, start times, channels

Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers vs. Bruins, 3 p.m. ET – NBC
Monday, Aug. 3:
Capitals vs. Lightning, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5:
Lightning vs. Bruins, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6:
Capitals vs. Flyers, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Flyers vs. Lightning, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9:
Bruins vs. Capitals, TBD

Eastern Conference Round Robin preview: Questions facing Bruins, Capitals, Flyers, Lightning

Bruins: How will Pastrnak follow up career regular season?

David Pastrnak could have easily hit 50 goals and 100 points for the first time in his career if the pause hadn’t robbed him of 12 more games. He split the Rocket Richard Trophy with Alex Ovechkin and his next goal is to help the Bruins win a different kind of trophy a year after coming up one win short.

Pastrnak practiced with the full Bruins team Tuesday for the first time since Phase 3 began. Quarantine rules after arriving back in Boston from Europe prevented him from skating early on, and then he was deemed “unfit to participate” days later. Boston’s three round-robin games will be important for him to get the chemistry back with his linemates and settle him back into a goal-scoring groove.

The Bruins employ very good depth, one reason why they made it to the Stanley Cup Final last season. That depth helped them to the NHL’s best points percentage (.714) at the time of the pause. You still want your top players producing, and Pastrnak did that during the 2019 playoffs with 19 points in 24 games. Along with Brad Marchand, the duo will look to lead the offense yet again.

Capitals: What impact will Kovalchuk make?

After being acquired via a February trade, Ilya Kovalchuk only played seven times for the Capitals before the pause. He scored a goal and added three assists in limited time. The 37-year-old forward can become an unrestricted free agent in the off-season, so a big postseason could payoff with a nice (final?) contract.

Kovalchuk has featured mainly with Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin. But head coach Todd Reirden hasn’t been shy about powering up and putting him with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov to really put an opponent on their heels at 5-on-5. He can give the Capitals scoring depth and, if his play in Montreal is any indication, a bit of a spark once the First Round arrives. At even strength and on a second power play unit, the veteran was a low-risk gamble by GM Brian MacLellan that could pay off big time.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]

Flyers: Will Hart be the answer in net?

Since he made his NHL debut last season, a lot has been placed on Carter Hart‘s shoulders. He’s been dubbed the franchise goalie for a franchise that has a long history of that position being an Achilles’ heel. But in two seasons in Philadelphia the 21-year-old has played well. His .915 even strength save percentage since 2018-19 puts him top 10 among all netminders with at least 70 appearances.

The postseason is always a different animal, but the Flyers have exceeded many expectations in their first season under Alain Vigneault. Hart has handled the pressure of the position well and now he gets his first taste of NHL playoff hockey. He had some injury concerns during Phase 3, but said he feels fine now and the three round-robin games will be a good opportunity to get up to game speed.

Lightning: How will they handle the pressure to win?

Tampa was on pace for a third-straight 100-point campaign before the pause, cementing themselves as a Stanley Cup contender yet again. Last season’s 128-point campaign that put them as heavy favorites ended in a disastrous four-game sweep by the Blue Jackets. They responded with 92 points in 70 games in 2019-20 and the third-best points percentage in the NHL.

But as has been the case for several years now, the regular season is a warmup for the Lightning. It’s what they do in the postseason that will matter. GM Julien BriseBois bulked up, adding Pat Maroon, Blake Coleman, and Barclay Goodrow, while getting a bounce-back year from Kevin Shattenkirk and see Anthony Cirelli take big strides in his third season.

Does another playoff disappointment result in BriseBois, in his second full season as the team’s GM, making sweeping changes?

MORE:
NHL announces zero positive COVID-19 tests during second week of Phase 3
Power Rankings: Stanley Cup-less veterans to root for
A look at the Western Conference matchups
Previewing the Eastern Conference

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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: Fun ways the free agent frenzy could go

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With at least some of the NHL future getting less muddy, it sure looks like the next “Free Agent Frenzy” will take place on or around Nov. 1. Unfortunately, an expected flat $81.5M salary cap could make the NHL “Free Agent Frenzy” more of a flurry.

But managing a flat salary cap — likely by shedding players they didn’t want to expel — is a job for overwhelmed GMs, particularly of big-market teams. For the rest of us, we can fill some time by daydreaming about different NHL free agent scenarios. (Some more realistic than others.)

Back in April, Adam Gretz ranked the top 20 (possible) NHL Free Agents. Being that Sean Leahy recently looked at the best destinations for assumed top 2020 NHL Draft pick Alexis Lafreniere, how about we combine those ideas?

In other words, what are the best destinations for some of the NHL’s top free agents? Actually, scratch that. Let’s go with the most fun NHL free agent situations. They occasionally might even make sense!

1. Avalanche go on one-year NHL Free Agent Frenzy with Alex Pietrangelo and Taylor Hall

(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

NHL fans have watched too many “super teams” form in the NBA. In some of those cases, said NBA stars flexed their leverage by agreeing to shorter deals. LeBron James left Cleveland after getting a hometown ring. Kawhi Leonard can eat apples elsewhere if the whole Clippers thing doesn’t work out.

In the case of this hypothetical scenario with the Avalanche, it would be more of an “everybody wins” scenario — except maybe Colorado’s competition. Consider these factors:

  • Pietrangelo would just block promising young defensemen like Bowen Byram working into the mix with Cale Makar if Pietrangelo signed a long-term deal. But if it was short? He buys Colorado time and can maybe hand down some life lessons to those kiddos.
  • Taylor Hall has suffered enough. Let’s get him on a good team, which Colorado … at least has a good chance of being for the foreseeable future. Right? Possibly?
  • Let’s be honest, with all of the financial turmoil going on, Pietrangelo and Hall might not enjoy much of a market. Truly, Pietrangelo might be better off taking a one-year deal to stay in St. Louis. But that’s not as fun (unless you’re a Blues fan).
  • The Avalanche figure to have a lot of money to burn, but I’m not sure that it would be wise to risk Hall and Pietrangelo hitting the aging curve. This scenario basically buys everyone some time for longer-term solutions, while taking a big swing at a 2020-21 Stanley Cup.

Now, some will point to that time the Avalanche brought in Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, and that was kind of a disaster.

To which I retort: we’d get to talk about that time the Avalanche brought in Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. Was it as much of a disaster as we thought? (Sounds like quality content either way.)

2. Buffy to Buffalo

Just imagine the bad puns and headlines that could come from Dustin Byfuglien reviving his career with the Buffalo Sabres.

As much as anything else, the Sabres and their fans need some joy. Adding a much-needed defenseman who’s as flat-out as unusual as Byfuglien would be pretty fun, if you ask me.

Could it be another disaster? Sure, but in that scenario, at least cruel people would have fun? I think it’s worth the risk. (<— Person not signing any of these checks.)

3. Hurricanes and Robin Lehner, an NHL Free Agency story of “Finally”

Despite putting up fantastic numbers for two seasons, Robin Lehner can’t seem to get the sort of stability he wants. Despite putting together deep and talented teams, the Hurricanes are always a few netminding meltdowns from throwing all of that shrewd team-building away.

Frankly, I was a little surprised the Hurricanes shrugged their shoulders at Lehner last summer. Sure, they’re analytics-leaning with Eric Tulsky calling a lot of shots (although I wonder if Don Waddell “went camping” by acquiring Brady Skjei and his not-particularly-fancy-stats?). But Lehner seemed like a buy-low candidate, particularly in signing a low-risk, one-year deal with the Blackhawks during the 2020 offseason.

Maybe it’s finally time for Carolina to take the plunge?

OK, so the smarter move might be to continue going shorter term. Perhaps Corey Crawford would take a shorter deal than what Lehner is clearly seeking. Jacob Markstrom might be the craftier addition, if the Canucks let him walk.

Lehner and the Hurricanes would rank as the more interesting story, though.

4. Can Braden Holtby halt the sinking of the Sharks?

(Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

Speaking of interesting narratives that might not be as wise as they look on paper, Holtby to the Sharks would be fascinating.

Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have been disastrous for the Sharks lately. Of course, there’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument, though, as the Sharks defense often hangs its goalies out to dry.

In Holtby, you have a Stanley Cup winner whose overall body of work is highly impressive. For a Sharks team tormented by playoff letdowns, Holtby’s postseason resume shines especially bright (Stanley Cup win, .928 save percentage over 89 career playoff games).

Yet, on the other hand, things have been bumpy for Holtby for some time. His game had already been slipping, but it really dipped badly in 2019-20 with a disturbing .897 save percentage. Holtby probably will demand a hefty contract thanks to his prior work, too.

So … there are a lot of red flags here. That said, the Sharks are pretty desperate. At minimum, it would be interesting to see if that gamble would pay off for San Jose.

Assorted fun NHL free agent scenarios of varying realism

  • As interesting as it would be for Joe Thornton to ship back up to Boston, I keep going back to Thornton with the Winnipeg Jets for some reason. The Jets would actually be a sensible landing spot for someone like Torey Krug, but Thornton chasing a Stanley Cup with the Jets just feels right.
  • The Maple Leafs are going to experience an agonizing cap squeeze. If Kevin Shattenkirk took another one-year, low-dollar deal, maybe Toronto would come calling? He’s the sort of double-edged sword defenseman who could help the Maple Leafs more than hurt them. But oh, how that hockey-crazed media and fan base will overreact to those mistakes …
  • The Blackhawks seem pretty deep in a “just try to outscore their problems” phase. Is there a better defenseman for that pursuit than Tyson Barrie? I mean, probably, but that could make for a white-knuckle ride.
  • Let’s get Evgenii Dadonov to a California team. With any luck, Dad would attend a Padres game.

MORE POWER RANKINGS:

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.

Byfuglien and other veteran NHL free agent defensemen with unclear futures

NHL free agent defensemen Dustin Byfuglien Andy Greene
Getty Images

After covering forwards and goalies, let’s close things out with a look at fringe veteran NHL free agent defensemen.

Before we start, note that this isn’t about top defensemen available. Alex Pietrangelo likely only stands on the fringe between a huge contract or just a very big contract. Also, the sheer glut of defensemen means a lot of borderline players will either be off this list, or merely mentioned in passing.

A lot of stuff to consider with Buff

Going to an earlier post, health questions limit Corey Crawford‘s earning potential. Those issues loom even larger for very large defenseman Dustin Byfuglien.

After missing the 2019-20 season, it’s unclear how close Byfuglien can be to full-strength. Most of all, Byfuglien must decide if he even wants to come back. And at what cost.

Being that Byfuglien turned 35 on March 27, he’d need a 35+ contract. That could be a Byfuglien-sized sticking point if the defenseman wants term in any deal.

All of that aside, even a compromised version of Byfuglien towers over many of the fringe options.

Other reasonably prominent fringe NHL free agent defensemen

Let’s go over a few of them, while Cap Friendly features a more expansive list that drives home the glut.

  • Mike Green — There were times when it felt like criticisms were way, way too harsh for Green. (Maybe it was fury at the fauxhawk?) The temperature’s changed in 2020, though. Most of the people who bashed Green have moved on to (insert latest offensive defenseman who might win a Norris). But there are just enough teams with nostalgia for Green that he might get a chance in his reduced, 34-year-old form. Consider the Oilers trading an actual draft pick for Green during the past deadline if you need evidence.

While Green’s defensive game slips with age, he also doesn’t provide that zip on offense, either.

It’s sadly not too surprising to see Green — and some other fringe veteran NHL free agent defensemen — at the bottom of the ranks of this GAR chart from Evolving Hockey:

worst GAR NHL free agent defensemen Evolving Hockey
via Evolving Hockey
  • While Green’s fellow 34-year-old defenseman Roman Polak plays a different style, he also finds himself in the dregs of that list. It’s even more common for some NHL GM to talk themselves into a hard-nosed Polak than it is for them to believe Green could rekindle his scoring touch, too. Both ideas seem ill-advised, although if you need to appease an old-school coach, maybe you throw them a bone by giving Polak a very cheap contract (that you can bury or get rid of)?
  • It was tough not to chuckle when the Islanders spent a second-round pick to acquire Andy Greene.

That’s not really a knock against Greene, generally speaking. He has some value as a defense-first defensemen. Instead, it’s just that the Islanders felt the need merely to add more of the same.

This isolated impact chart from Hockey Viz reinforces those points well enough:

Andy Greene iso NHL free agent defensemen
via Hockey Viz

Regardless, if the Islanders are willing to spend a prominent pick on Greene, the 37-year-old will probably draw some attention. By the muted expectations of this quantity-over-quality group, you could do worse … if you don’t pledge much money or especially term.

(There’s an argument that Greene is viable enough not to be fringe. Still, his advanced age makes it seem reasonable to list him.)

  • If your team must have someone like Polak, how about Justin Braun? The 33-year-old doesn’t bring offensive value, but he’s more useful defensively.
  • My guess is that there will be at least some market for Ron Hainsey. At 39, it’s fair to wonder how much Hainsey has left in the tank. That’s also a fair question for most of the veteran NHL free agent defensemen we’re discussing.

Veteran free agent NHL defensemen lightning round

  • I usually cut these lists off at 30+, but Dmitry Kulikov and Zach Bogosian are two 29-year-old defensemen who’ve garnered more attention than I’d usually expect. Maybe they will again? Teams can get pretty desperate for defense.
  • I haven’t mentioned Kevin Shattenkirk until now because I feel like anyone who observed his work in 2019-20 would give him a low-risk contract. But just in case, the 31-year-old would be a standout if he’s “fringe” material.
  • There are plenty of defensemen who might retire as much for health reasons as a lack of interest. Factor in age, too, and you could mark that box for defensemen including Jonathan Ericsson, Jay Bouwmeester, Deryk Engelland, and maybe Andrej Sekera.
  • Again, there are quite a few middling options who may ride meager name recognition. Teams have regularly inflated the value of 33-year-old Michael Stone, for instance.
  • Are Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber still NHL defensemen? GMs will decide that too.

(In case you’re wondering, Zdeno Chara‘s calling his own shot, and expected to be back. So that’s why he didn’t get a mention only now.)

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.

Mikhail Sergachev thinks Lightning will find a way to work out his next contract

Tampa Bay Lightning Mikhail Sergachev contract salary cap
Getty Images

By just about any standard, it sure doesn’t look like it will be easy for the Lightning to sign pending RFA defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to a new contract. Sergachev told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen that he believes it will all work out, though.

“It’s a little different obviously right now, but I’m trying to leave it to my agent (Mark Gandler),” Sergachev said on Thursday, via Rosen. “He’s going to deal with it, I guess. But for me, I just want to continue the season, play and get better and see what happens. I feel like they’re going to work out something. I have a good agent.”

Here’s why this is an interesting situation to watch, considering Sergachev’s potential, and also the Lightning’s larger cap challenges.

What is the right contract?

Sergachev, 21, really earned more trust — and playing time — from the Lightning this season.

Sergachev’s ice time climbed from 15:22 per game in 2017-18 to 17:55 in 2018-19, and finally 20:22 on average this season. Despite the pause, Sergachev set career-highs in goals (10) and points (34).

The Lightning see improvements in his all-around play, too, as Victor Hedman noted to The Athletic’s Joe Smith in January (sub required).

“He’s evolved into a great two-way defenseman,” Hedman said. “ … He’s an unbelievable talent offensively, we all know that. But the shot blocks, the hits, the way he plays in his own end, it’s fun to watch.

“I’ve said this many times before, the sky is the limit for this guy. This is just the start.”

During certain stretches, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Lightning were holding Sergachev back a bit.

Such a thought makes you wonder if we haven’t really seen his offensive ceiling yet. On the other hand, theoretically, veteran defenseman Hedman and Ryan McDonagh could also insulate Sergachev defensively.

So what’s a fair contract for Sergachev? Again, it’s tough to tell.

Using Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool while adjusting for an $81.5M cap hit, the anticipated deal might be for eight years with a $6.5M cap hit. While Evolving Hockey’s model puts an eight-year deal at a 32-percent chance, other most likely outcomes sit at six years (25 percent) or a two-year bridge (13%).

Let’s zoom out, though, as the Lightning’s overall situation and history could factor into Sergachev’s individual value.

Can the Lightning pull off salary cap magic again with Sergachev, Cirelli, Cernak?

Time and time again, we’ve seen the Lightning pull off serious wizardry in tight cap situations. All of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman signed for less than market value.

Watching Alex Killorn zoom around Tampa Bay docks on his jet ski provides a reminder of why they took discounts, along with the “playing for a really good team in a state with tax breaks” factors.

Financial blowback from COVID-19 might make this offseason the trickiest one yet for Tampa Bay. After all, they were already anticipating some challenges if the cap went up to, say, $84.5M or so.

When rating all 31 NHL teams’ salary cap situations, The Athletic’s James Mirtle ranked Lightning dead last (sub required).

(You’d think it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to be compared to a “deep-fried pickle,” but alas.)

Via Cap Friendly, the Lightning already have $76.16M devoted to 15 players for 2020-21. That’s before you factor in new contracts for Sergachev, but also dark horse Selke candidate Anthony Cirelli, and useful defenseman Erik Cernak.

Going back to Evolving Hockey’s projection tool, hypothetical estimates combine the three at $14-$15M. Even Mirtle’s more generous estimate would tack on $11M.

(Frankly, if the Lightning signed Sergachev and Cirelli for $11M, let alone Cernak, they’d be getting great deals.)

But, yeah, we’ve seen players accept less than they might otherwise get with the Lightning. It wouldn’t be shocking to see this happen again, especially if Sergachev is OK betting on himself by taking a shorter “bridge” deal.

Even so, expect painful losses for the Lightning. It’s tough to imagine bargain bin free agent Kevin Shattenkirk squeezing in again, and you’d expect Tampa Bay to lose one or more of Tyler Johnson or Yanni Gourde.

Yes, there are worse problems to have … which is probably why Sergachev will just relax and do cat-centric exercises rather than worrying too much.

More on the Lightning:

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.

What is the Lightning’s long-term outlook?

Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning
Getty Images

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Lightning have been favorites to win the Stanley Cup for the past few seasons due to their cornerstone pieces at every level. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov lead the forward group and are the top two point scorers on the Bolts roster through the first 70 games. Victor Hedman is the most prominent name on a well-balanced blueline and Andrei Vasilevskiy was in the discussion for the Vezina Trophy.

In addition to the stellar building blocks, the Lightning also have secondary offensive firepower. Brayden Point is close to becoming a foundational player, if he is not there already. Alex Killorn was closing in on a 30-goal season, Anthony Cirelli, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde and others contribute in a meaningful way.

Tampa Bay also hasn’t seen the true impact of trade deadline acquisitions of Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman.

The Lightning have all the pieces needed to accomplish their goal of winning a championship but remain in limbo until society solves the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long-Term Needs

The wish list in Tampa Bay is quite short. The organization has accomplished a lot in recent years but still needs to get over the final hump and win a Stanley Cup. Ultimately, the Lightning’s regular season performance had little impact on the judgment of this team as long as they reached the postseason.

The long-term needs for the franchise are essentially the same as other teams that have a core in place and compete for a championship year in and year out. Find value in the NHL Draft process and continue to produce prospects that can contribute in one way or another to the varsity team. General manager Julien BriseBois also needs to manage the salary cap effectively and not fall into the trap of paying for past performances but rather remain focused on the future.

Long-Term Strengths

The best asset of the organization is their current core group of players. Hedman, Kucherov, Stamkos and Vasilevskiy are all locked up for the next several seasons. Point’s contract does not expire until the end of the 2021-22 season and is close to becoming an integral part of the team, if not already.

If the NHL season does not return, the Lightning will be one of the more fascinating teams to watch this upcoming offseason. Will they blow it up as if they didn’t achieve their goal? Does Jon Cooper remain coach? Or, do they take another shot at a championship next season and reevaluate at that time?

The pause in action created a murky situation for the future of several NHL teams and the Lightning are near the top of that list.

MORE ON THE LIGHTNING
• Looking at the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning
• Lightning biggest surprises and disappointments so far


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