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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

Three questions facing Los Angeles Kings

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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 Los Angeles Kings.

Want more on the Kings? Check these posts out:

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

 1. Can Jonathan Quick do it again?

After a tough 2016-17 campaign where he was limited to just 17 games played, Jonathan Quick produced a very nice 2017-18 season. It was one of the American netminder’s best in the NHL; while his 33-28-3 record didn’t blow anyone away, Quick generated a nice .921 save percentage.

Such work was especially notable because, after hogging the puck under Darryl Sutter, the Kings opened things up – by their standards – thus making life a little tougher on their goalies. They were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed (according to Natural Stat Trick), for instance. This isn’t to say that they turned into Swiss cheese, yet there was a give-and-take, and Quick handled the change well.

Can he do it again in 2018-19? And if he cannot – or if Quick gets hurt – will the Kings crumble?

For much of last season, the Kings enjoyed strong backup work from Darcy Kuemper, but the team traded him to Arizona before the deadline.

It’s plausible that there could be a bigger drop-off from Quick to everyone else, then.

If nothing else, though, the Kings have options behind him. Jack Campbell showed some of that first-round promise, albeit in a small sample size, so he might help here and there in a pinch. The Kings also brought back Peter Budaj. On one hand, the journeyman goalie is already 35. On the other, he’s not that far removed from success with Los Angeles, as he surprised with a .917 save percentage over 53 games in 2016-17.

2. Will veterans deliver or hit the wall?

Quick, 32, isn’t the only Kings player who’s accrued a lot of mileage, yet will be counted upon to carry them down the road in 2018-19.

Drew Doughty is still in his prime at 28, but any sign of decay would provide some concern with that eight-year, $88M extension not even kicking in until 2019-20.

Jeff Carter, Dion Phaneuf, and Dustin Brown are all 33. Anze Kopitar is 30, while we discussed the risk-reward scenario regarding 35-year-old addition Ilya Kovalchuk here. Alec Martinez is 31, and even Jake Muzzin could lose a step at 29.

The margin between victory and defeat can be pretty small in sports, so even moderate slippage can be a concern for the Kings.

3. More days of the new?

The Kings picked up the pace last season, and they also saw some young players emerge. Head coach John Stevens must continue to strive for the ideal balance between putting veterans in a position to continue to succeed, allowing young players to thrive, and adapting the team’s structure to be more modern than what was seen under Darryl Sutter.

(After all, it would be silly to throw out everything Sutter put in place, considering how effective the Kings previously were at hogging the puck.)

When it comes to seeing youthful talent ascend, some of that may come down to giving more ice time to someone like Adrian Kempe.

Training camp could also be crucial for the growth of Gabriel Vilardi, an intriguing forward who slipped – slightly – to the Kings at the 11th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.

“Gabe, he’s got a big presence out there,” Kings front office member Mike O’Connell said, via NHL.com’s Dan Greenspan. “He sees the ice really well. He finds his teammates. He’s going to be a tough guy to stop. He still has work to do, as most players do when they first start, but it looks good. It’s a good foundation. I think he should fit right in.”

If the Kings can integrate Vilardi into the lineup, then they may finally get some supporting scoring to go with what has frequently been a top-heavy offensive approach. An injection of young talent could go from a nice luxury to a bare necessity if question 2 doesn’t work out so well for the Kings, too.

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.

It’s Los Angeles Kings 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 Los Angeles Kings.

2017-18

45-29-8, 98 pts. (4th Pacific Division; 7th Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost 4-0 vs. Vegas Golden Knights, first round

IN:

Ilya Kovalchuk

OUT: 

Kevin Gravel
Torrey Mitchell
Tobias Rieder
Christian Folin

RE-SIGNED: 

Oscar Fantenberg
Drew Doughty

The Kings got off to a fantastic start, as they went 9-2-1 in the first month of the season. Unfortunately, they followed October up by going just 6-6-2 in November. In the end, the Kings managed to sneak into the playoffs via a Wild Card spot, but they were swept in a first-round series against the Golden Knights (the series was a lot closer than the end result would indicate).

Los Angeles’ downfall in 2017-18, was that they simply couldn’t put the puck into their opponent’s net. Of all the teams that made the postseason, only Anaheim (235) scored less often than the Kings (239) during the regular season.

The team still got some positive performances from key figures like Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. Both players had bounce-back seasons in 2017-18. After scoring just 52 points in 2016-17, Kopitar put up an incredible 35 goals and 92 points in 82 games. He was incredible. As for Brown, he scored 28 goals and 61 points in 81 games, which is impressive when you consider that he put up just 27, 27, 28 and 36 points in his previous four seasons.

Drew Doughty remained as solid as he’s ever been. The veteran defenseman scored 10 goals and 60 points while playing in every game.

After Kopitar, Brown and Doughty, no other player on the team managed to surpass the 47-point mark, which is problematic considering the depth it takes to win on a regular basis in the NHL now. The Kings are hoping that adding Ilya Kovalchuk to the fold will give them another legitimate offensive threat. Keeping Jeff Carter healthy should also help them in the goal department.

The fact that starting goaltender Jonathan Quick was healthy last season also helped the Kings get back to respectability. Quick played in just 17 games during the previous season, but he managed to handle a 64-game workload last year. The 32-year-old was solid, and he helped the team give up the fewest amount of goals during the regular season (203).

The Kings were able to keep Vegas from scoring, but they simply couldn’t find the offensive production to match. They were able to sprinkle some youth into their lineup with Adrian Kempe, Alex Iaffalo and Mike Amadio, but the roster could stand to get a little bit younger in the coming years, too. They’ll need young guys to chip in offensively if they’re going to do some damage this season.

GM Rob Blake clearly believes this team is in win-now mode, which is why he brought Kovalchuk to California, but it appears as though the window is starting to close on them.

Prospect Pool

• Gabriel Vilardi, C, 18, Kingston Frontenacs – 2017 first-round pick

Vilardi missed the start of the OHL season because of an injury, but he accumulated an impressive 22 goals and 58 points in 32 games in his first year with the Frontenacs. He’s a big center with great vision and great all-around awareness. As his junior numbers indicate, he’s also capable of contributing offensively. The Kings could opt to send him back to junior to see what he’s capable of doing when he’s fully healthy, but he’s probably not that far away from making the leap to the NHL.

“He sees the ice really well. He finds his teammates,” Kings special advisor Mike O’Connell told NHL.com. He’s going to be a tough guy to stop. He still has work to do, as most players do when they first start, but it looks good. It’s a good foundation. I think he should fit right in.”

• Rasmus Kupari, C, 18, Karpat – 2018 first-round pick

Like Vilardi, Kupari gives the Kings another center that is capable of creating offense with his skill (he’s smaller than Vilardi). In his first introduction to pro hockey, the youngster scored six goals and 14 points in 39 games in Finland’s first division, which is a solid season given his age. Of all the prospects on this list, he’s probably the furthest one from contributing at the NHL level, but he’s talented enough that he could get there sooner than later.

• Kale Clague, D, 20, Moose Jaw Warriors – 2016 second-round pick

Clague has been a pleasant surprise since the Kings drafted him in 2016. Not only has he put up impressive numbers at the junior level, but he also managed to crack Team Canada’s roster at each of the last two World Junior Hockey Championship tournaments. He’s a smooth skater that can carry and distribute the puck around the ice. The 20-year-old is also capable of chipping in offensively, as he put up 11 goals and 71 points in 54 games with Brandon and Moose Jaw. He’ll now make the jump to the professional ranks this season.

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 Morning Skate: Hilary Knight signs in CWHL; John Carlson can break the bank

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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.

• Section 328 looks at the reasons why Ron Francis is no longer the general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes. (Section 328)

• It sounds like Barry Trotz will turn to Philipp Grubauer more often while Braden Holtby gets his game back on the rails. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Team USA star Hilary Knight will continue her career with the Montreal Canadiennes of the CWHL. (Montreal.thecwhl.com)

• The NHL and NHLPA are trying to get players to pay attention to life after hockey so that they can continue living comfortable lives. (ESPN)

• Expect Capitals blue liner John Carlson to hit the jackpot if he hits the market this summer. (Fan Rag Sports)

• The Tampa Bay Lightning will be getting Peter Budaj back soon. So how should they manage the three goalies on the NHL roster? (Raw Charge)

• Pension Plan Puppets looks at every transaction GM Lou Lamoriello has made since taking over with the Leafs. (Pension Plan Puppets).

• The New York Islanders have been searching for a true number one goalie for a while, but how do their current netminders stack up? (Eyes on Isles)

• Tough news for the Rangers, as Chris Kreider was forced to leave last night’s game against Tampa Bay. (New York Post)

• The Florida Panthers still use some “tough guys” on their fourth line. Even though they’ve been rolling of late, you have to wonder if that’s the right strategy. (The Rat Trick)

• This Blues fan writes about how Brett Hull made him fall in love with the game of hockey. (St. Louis Game Time)

• TSN.ca’s Travis Yost takes a deeper look at Edmonton’s struggles when Connor McDavid isn’t on the ice. (TSN.ca)

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.

Under Pressure: Andrei Vasilevskiy

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This post is part of Lightning Day on PHT…

By all accounts, Tampa Bay had a pretty good summer.

Captain Steve Stamkos recovered from major knee surgery, and will start next season at full health. GM Steve Yzerman deftly maneuvered under the salary cap, locking in Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov to team-friendly deals. That gave the Bolts enough money to add some veteran presences in free agency — Dan Girardi and Chris Kunitz, specifically.

Add it all up, and you’ve got the blueprint for a bounce back after a disappointing ’16-17 campaign.

So long as Andrei Vasilevskiy holds up his end of the bargain, that is.

For the first time in his five years with the Lightning organization, Vasilevskiy will enter as the club’s unquestioned No. 1 netminder. It was the role Yzerman envisioned when he took Vasilevskiy with the 19th overall selection in 2012 and now, the plan has come to fruition.

There were just a few roadblocks along the way.

The biggest one, literally, was the emergence of Ben Bishop, who played like one of the NHL’s top-flight netminders over the last few years — and, in doing so, created a conundrum. The better Bishop played, the more valuable he was to the Lightning. The more valuable he was to the Lightning, the more he cost to keep. Yzerman could’ve mitigated that cost by signing Bishop long-term, but that would’ve stunted Vasilevskiy’s development.

Having two talented goalies is a good problem to have. But it’s still a problem.

This is how the Lightning ended up in the uncomfortable situation of last year. Bishop, fresh off being named a Vezina finalist (and nearly being traded to Calgary) slumped through a campaign riddled with contract uncertainty. At the same time, the Bolts made the push to get Vasilevskiy more minutes, and more exposure as a No. 1 goalie.

It was a tough season. Pegged by many as a potential Stanley Cup finalist, the Bolts missed the playoffs entirely — and it’s hard not to look at goaltending as a culprit. The Lightning finished with a .910 team save percentage, 16th in the league. Bishop dealt with injury problems and Vasilevskiy, as some expected, struggled adjusting to a heavier workload.

Then Bishop was traded. And things changed.

It’s hard to ignore the uptick in Vasilevsky’s numbers after Bishop landed in L.A. The 23-year-old went 12-4-2 with a 2.27 GAA and .929 save percentage in 18 starts following the trade, playing a huge role in Tampa’s late-season playoff surge. (It should be noted the goalie brought back in the trade, Peter Budaj, was a journeyman veteran in a clearly defined backup role. He was in no way pushing Vasilevskiy for starts, and the tandem worked so effectively the Bolts re-upped with Budaj in June.)

There’s clarity in goal for the Bolts now. And there’s also a clarity in vision for the upcoming campaign — get back into the playoffs, and make a run at unseating Pittsburgh as power team in the Eastern Conference.

This is where the pressure comes in for Vasilevskiy. He will, almost undoubtedly, have to start more than his career-high of 47 games. He’ll need to be more consistent than last year, when his monthly save percentages went .929, .944, .892, .896, .919, .922 and .936.

He’ll be asked to shoulder a bigger load than ever before, while still learning his craft. Remember, Vasilevskiy only turned 23 a few weeks ago. He was the sixth-youngest goalie to appear in at least one game last season.

Now he’s tasked with taking the Bolts back to the dance.