Kevin Shattenkirk

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.

Salary cap economics squeezing out NHL’s middle class

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Stanley Cup-winning experience isn’t worth what it used to be. Neither is experience of any kind.

As NHL teams move toward paying their stars more money and relying on young players to fill the gaps, hockey’s middle class is being squeezed out. Veterans like 2018 Washington Capitals playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly are finding it increasingly difficult to land guaranteed contracts and are often forced to go to training camp on professional tryout agreements, which cover potential injuries at camp and not much else.

Hockey perhaps more than any other professional sport has put a premium on veteran players over the years. Guys who have been there before, have some grey in their beards and are valued at least as much for team chemistry in the locker room as they are for what they do on the ice.

Adding the salary cap in 2005 began the process of devaluing these so-called ”glue guys” because there is only so much money to go around. This year, that cap is $81.5 million for a team and there is no wiggle room – teams are not allowed to play if they are over the limit.

”It’s sad because these veteran players are monumental to the team,” St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Especially these guys that have won, too, like Devante Smith-Pelly. He’s been in every situation. He’s a guy that you’d want to have because he’s going to help and he’s been in these situations. When it comes around again, it’s not going to faze him.”

Smith-Pelly and Andrew MacDonald in Calgary, Troy Brouwer in Florida, Matt Read in Toronto and Drew Stafford in Minnesota are among the experienced NHL players on camp tryouts this year. Even more are settling for one-year, prove-it contracts like 2019 Cup winner Patrick Maroon (31 years old) and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (30) with Tampa Bay, Derick Brassard (31) with the New York Islanders, defenseman Ben Hutton (26) with Los Angeles and forward Riley Sheahan (27) with Edmonton.

Shattenkirk went from making $7 million last season with the Rangers to a one-year contract worth $1.75 million.

”There’s something for me to prove,” Shattenkirk said. ”I think I have a huge chip on my shoulder right now.”

This is all related to how the salary cap is managed.

Across the league, there are 32 players who chew up 10% or more of his team’s $81.5 million salary-cap space – with more potentially on the way when Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen and Winnipeg’s Patrick Laine sign deals. For example, Connor McDavid accounts for over 15% of Edmonton’s cap space.

It is a trend that shows the value of elite talent but it means there is less money to go around for complementary players who are not on entry-level contracts. A handful of players also have expressed concern that restricted free agents are making more out of their entry-level contracts than ever before, further scrambling available money for support players.

”Teams, they want to take a shot on a young guy that has got an upside they see,” O’Reilly said. ”It’s tough because there’s so many good players out there that aren’t getting jobs because of it.”

Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, 31, and Patrick Kane, 30, eat up almost 26% of the Blackhawks’ cap space. They combined to win the Stanley Cup three times, but their deals and rich ones given to defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook tend to be blamed for a lack of depth in Chicago, which has missed the playoffs the past two seasons.

Toews said he understands the economics of the league aren’t getting any easier for players as they get older.

”It’s tough,” Toews said. ”It just goes to show you can’t take anything for granted, even though you’ve been in the league or you’re a proven player at this level. You start getting into your 30s … you realize that the league’s only going to get younger, it’s only going to get stronger, it’s only going to get better.”

It’s not just older players, either. Smith-Pelly is 27, Joe Morrow is 26 and trying to make the Rangers and fellow defenseman Alex Petrovic is 27 as a long shot to get a contract with Boston.

Grinding forward Garnet Hathaway played the past two seasons on one-year deals in Calgary making under $1 million each year. He went into free agency a bit nervous but was able to land a four-year, $6 million contract and some security with the Capitals, who also signed Brendan Leipsic to a one-year deal and Richard Panik for four years after each player had bounced around the league.

”Contracts are hard to come by in this league,” Hathaway said. ”It’s such a competitive league. Guys I know personally that have gone through it, they’re some of the most competitive guys. It’s guys who have played in this league a long time and have great careers. You wish them the best of luck, but it’s competitive.”

PHT Morning Skate: Werenski’s blueprint; Female referees gaining experience

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta still wants to own an NHL team. (Sportsnet)

• The structure of Zach Werenski‘s new deal could be used as a blueprint for future RFA deals. (TSN)

• What does the Werenski contract mean for Bruins RFAs Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

Alex Galchenyuk is starting to build some chemistry with Evgeni Malkin. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

• It looks like Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger is planning to start the season with Rasmus Ristolainen. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• What will the Blues bottom-six forward group look like come the start of the regular season? (St. Louis Game-Time)

• Barrett Hayden might be the most important addition for the Coyotes this season. (Arizona Republic)

• Female officials are thrilled to get NHL experience. (NHL.com)

• The Nashville Predators will look to dethrone the St. Louis Blues. (Predlines)

• The Lightning could easily find a way to use Patrick Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk on their lethal power play. (Raw Charge)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Power Rankings: Eight NHL teams in danger of regressing this season

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A week ago we looked at the NHL teams that could be on the verge of a bounce back during the 2019-20 season.

This week the focus shifts to teams that could be on the verge of sliding in the opposite direction. Does that mean these teams will be bad or miss the playoffs? Not at all. It just means they may not be as good or go as far as they did a year ago.

Which teams seem to have the most potential to regress this season? To the rankings!

Potentially significant regression

1. Columbus Blue Jackets. They still have some great young players and a lot of reasons for optimism from a big picture outlook, but the short-term window looks questionable because they lost a lot from last year’s team, including their two best players, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky is the big departure that hurts because he was one of the best goalies in the league and they replacing him with two unknowns at the moment.

2. Winnipeg Jets. The Jets’ regression started last year as they were nowhere close to the team they were expected to be in the second half of the season. They are bringing back much of that same roster, minus a few players on defense (including the big loss, Jacob Trouba). Patrik Laine should be better and more productive than he was this past season, but their salary cap situation is about to get messy and this team still has some real flaws.

3. New York Islanders. This season will be a big test to find out how much of their turnaround was Barry Trotz magic, or unbelievable goaltending from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. The Islanders were not a great offensive team and did not really address that this offseason, while they may have taken a step back in goal with Semyon Varlamov replacing Lehner.

Potential for a noticeable regression 

4. Calgary Flames. The Flames were one of the biggest surprises in the NHL a year ago, climbing to the top of the Western Conference standings. A lot of things went right along the way to help them get there. But there are a lot of questions that need to be answered heading into this season. Will Elias Lindholm be a point per game player again? Does Mark Giordano, now age 36, have another Norris caliber year in him? Will the goaltending hold up? How much will they use Milan Lucic? This should still be a playoff team, but it is probably not the top seed in the Western Conference again.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins. The core is getting older and the supporting cast is not what it was a couple of years ago. The wild card here is Evgeni Malkin. If he is able to come back with a huge year it might be able to make up for some of the shortcomings elsewhere. The forwards are still good, but trading Phil Kessel for Alex Galchenyuk and signing Brandon Tanev may not be an upgrade. They have a great top pairing on defense but nothing but question marks behind them.

6. San Jose Sharks. It is actually a testament to how good this team was a year ago that it won as many games as it did and went as far as it did with the goaltending that it had. That same goaltending situation is still in place, but will the rest of the team be as good? Re-signing Erik Karlsson was a huge win during the offseason, but losing Joe Pavelski to the Dallas Stars could be significant.

Nowhere to go but down

7. Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning had a pretty good offseason, and even though they traded away J.T. Miller for salary cap reasons they still found some nice bargains in Kevin Shattenkirk and Pat Maroon that could be nice depth additions. But let’s be real here, they are probably not going to win 62 games and be a 128-point team again. Funny thing is, no one in Tampa Bay will care if they end up getting handed the Stanley Cup at the end of the playoffs.

8. St. Louis Blues. The exact opposite situation as the Lightning. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that the Blues end up having a significantly better regular season, especially if Jordan Binnington proves to be for real in net. But history has proven time and time again that winning the Stanley Cup two years in a row is a brutally difficult task and has only been done three times since 1990.

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.

Sergachev’s development huge X-factor for 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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Lightning.

One of the things that makes the Tampa Bay Lightning such a dangerous team is they not only have a collection of All-Stars, but also another wave of young talent coming behind them that serve as a perfect complement. You see it at forward with players like Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde, and Anthony Cirelli starting to emerge as impact players to go along with Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

The same thing is happening on the blue line where they have an all-world talent in Victor Hedman, and two really good veterans in Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk. But we know what they are capable of and what should be expected of them.

The most intriguing player on the defense this season might be third-year pro Mikhail Sergachev.

A top-10 pick by the Montreal Canadiens back in 2015, the Lightning acquired Sergachev in the Jonathan Drouin trade one year later and had huge expectations for him when he joined the organization. He has immense talent and potential, and has already shown flashes of becoming a cornerstone player.

He hasn’t yet been given a huge role (averaging just 15 minutes per game during his rookie season, then 17 minutes in year two) but has made the most of the minutes he has been given. Especially when it comes to driving the team’s offense. Over the past two years Sergachev has averaged 1.28 points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, a number that places him 10th among ALL defenders in the NHL, and tops among all defenders on the Lightning (yes, even ahead of Hedman and McDonagh).

Even more impressive is that he has averaged 0.60 primary assists per 60 minutes, a mark that has trailed only the San Jose Sharks Norris duo of Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

He has done all of that while also posting great possession numbers, helping the Lightning to outshoot and outchance their opponents when he is on the ice. In short, he has been wildly productive in his minutes and has already shown he can be an elite playmaker.

Has that production come in a sheltered role that includes limited minutes and is heavy on the offensive zone starts? Of course it has, but even with that there are not many defenders that are able to produce the way he has during their age 19 and 20 seasons in the league. Not many defenders at ANY age are capable of producing that well.

Does he still have some areas to improve defensively? For sure, after all, he is still only 21 years old and has played just two full years in the league. He is far from a finished product. But he has shown over the past two years that he is more than capable of handling the role he has been given in Tampa Bay and has definitely earned a bigger role and some tougher assignments this season.

The Lightning already have a really good defense thanks to Hedman, a strong No. 2 in McDonagh, and a nice bounce-back candidate in Shattenkirk. But they have another potential monster in Sergachev lurking below the surface that could be on the verge of joining Hedman as a superstar at the top of the lineup if he can put it all together in a more expanded role. If he does that this season, already loaded Lightning roster becomes even more intimidating.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

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.