Ryan Callahan

Kakko’s debut a big — and rare — night for Rangers

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It is the start of a new era for the New York Rangers on Thursday night as they unveil their new roster that was strengthened over the summer with the additions of veterans Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba, as well as the drafting of Kaapo Kakko.

Those additions have rapidly accelerated the team’s rebuild and definitely increased the excitement around the team. It might be dangerous for expectations to get too high right away, because even with the improvements it is still a very flawed roster with its share of weaknesses. But the entertainment level is going to skyrocket and there is at least a bright light at the end of the tunnel.

Out of all of the new additions, Kakko’s debut should be the most anticipated in New York because this is the type of player Rangers fans haven’t really had the opportunity to experience in a long time.

If ever.

For as exciting as the Panarin signing may have been, that sort of thing is nothing new for Rangers fans. Big free agent signings and big name acquisitions are what this team does and has always done for decades. It is their brand. Big names, big money, bright lights. If there is a big-name player available on the open market or for trade, it is a good bet the Rangers are going to at least have a seat at the table when it comes to trying to acquire them.

That strategy has not always worked, but it is what they do.

Kakko, though, is a very different type of player.

If this rebuild is going to work, he is going to have to be one of the biggest players at the center of it. A young, mega-talented player with superstar potential that was drafted by the team. This is the type of player — if all goes according to plan — championship teams need. And it is the type of player that does not come through Madison Square Garden very often.

Think about it: Who was the last big-time prospect to make their debut for the Rangers with this much fanfare and this sort of potential?

They have had a lot good young players come through their system over the years with varying degrees of success. Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Ryan McDonagh all come to mind. They were all, in their own way, excellent players that had a lot of success in New York. But none of them brought the type of potential and excitement that a player like Kakko does.

They had some highly touted prospects that ended up being, for lack of a better word, flops (Michael Del Zotto, Pavel Brendl, Jamie Lundmark, Dan Blackburn, etc.) but not even they carried those kinds of expectations.

They didn’t have superstar, franchise-shifting potential.

First, the Rangers are almost never in a position to get such a player in the draft. Those players typically go within the first couple of picks and the Rangers have, historically, never really been in that spot.

When they selected Kakko No. 2 overall this year it marked just the third time in franchise history they used a top-two pick in draft, and the first time since 1966 when they selected defender Brad Park.

It was the first time they picked in the top-five since 1999 when they selected Brendl with the fourth overall pick, and it was only their sixth top-five pick ever.

The Rangers also haven’t really introduced a lot of young players to their lineup over the years and expected them to play major roles. Since the start of the 1990 season they have only had 11 different players make their NHL debut between the ages of 18 and 20 and go on to play a full season with the team.

You probably have to go back to Alexei Kovalev’s debut during the 1992-93 season to find a rookie debut that came with this much excitement in New York, with maybe an argument to be made for Henrik Lundqvist in 2005-06, but even that comes with the benefit of extreme hindsight and knowing what type of player Lundqvist turned into. Remember, when he made his debut he was already 23 years old and opened his rookie season as the backup to veteran Kevin Weekes.

Given their lack of depth down the middle and on defense, as well as the age of Lundqvist and the uncertainty behind him at the position, this is probably going to be another tough year for the Rangers. But it is still going to be a team worth watching every night and one that has a chance to build something special beyond this season.

The presence of Kakko in the organization is a big reason why all of that excitement now exists.

MORE:
• 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.

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.

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Lightning.

2018-19
62-16-4, 128 points (1st in the Atlantic Division, 1st in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Eliminated in four games in Round 1 by the Columbus Blue Jackets.

IN
Curtis McElhinney
Luke Schenn
Luke Witkowski
Scott Wedgewood
Gemel Smith
Mike Condon
Kevin Shattenkirk
Patrick Maroon

OUT
Dan Girardi
Anton Stralman
J.T. Miller
Ryan Callahan

RE-SIGNED
Jan Ruuta
Brayden Coburn
Danick Martel
Cedric Paquette
Andrei Vasilevskiy

2018-19 Summary

What a season it was for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Not only were they the top team in the NHL when the regular season came to an end, they managed to win the Presidents’ Trophy by an incredible 21 points. The Bolts were that loaded with talent.

The Lightning had three players in the top 12 in league scoring. Hart Trophy and Art Ross Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov led the way with 128 points (that was 12 points more than Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid, who finished second), Steven Stamkos was ninth with 98 points and Brayden Point was 12th with 92 points.

As you’d imagine, the Lightning were the only team in the league to surpass the 300-goal mark in 2018-19 (they had 325) and only four teams gave up fewer goals than Tampa’s 222. Are you getting an appreciation for how good they were?

Let’s keep going.

They also had the best power play in the NHL at 28.2 percent and the best penalty kill 85 percent. Anybody who follows hockey would tell you that the Lightning were head-and-shoulders above the rest last season.

So when the playoffs started, no one expected them to flame out in Round 1. After all, they had clinched top spot in the league easily, they had the best roster, and their opponent, the Columbus Blue Jackets, only clinched a playoff spot on the second-to-last day of the regular season. But hockey is a funny game. Not only did they lose to Columbus in Round 1, they failed to win a game in the series.

“We have the structure in place to be successful,” Stamkos said in April, per NHL.com. “We’ve had some really good playoff runs in the past. We had a really good regular season and it didn’t translate into playoff success.”

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

The Lightning are at the point where it doesn’t matter what they do during the regular season anymore. Everyone will judge them by what happens in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It happens to every great team that doesn’t win it all. Just ask the Washington Capitals. That’s how they were treated until they won the Cup in 2018.

General manager Julien Brisebois will get a chance to shape this team into his image now that Steve Yzerman is no longer in the picture. BriseBois has found a way to add some quality depth players to the roster, but he still needs to sign Point, who is currently a restricted free agent. Expect that to happen eventually.

“I don’t have a precise timeline,” BriseBois said last month. “I feel very optimistic … [Contracts with players like Point who don’t have arbitration rights as Group 2 restricted free agents] are just a little more complicated to get done, and the deadline to get something done is essentially the start of training camp.”

Whenever that contract gets done, the Lightning will be able to put all of their focus on the ice. The sooner they can do that, the better off they’ll be. But again, regardless of what they accomplish during the regular season, it won’t mean anything if they can’t win it all come June.

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

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.

It’s Ottawa Senators 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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Ottawa Senators.

2018-19
29-47-6, 64 points (eighth in the Atlantic Division, 16th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Nikita Zaitsev
Connor Brown
Michael Carcone
Ron Hainsey
Tyler Ennis
Artem Anisimov
Ryan Callahan (LTIR)

OUT
Brian Gibboons
Oscar Lindberg
Zack Smith
Cody Ceci
Ben Harpur
Aaron Luchuk

RE-SIGNED:
Josh Norris
Anders Nilsson
Anthony Duclair

2018-19 Summary

Last season was an eventful one for the Senators organization. Not only did they finish last in their division, conference and the entire league, they also traded away their best forward, Mark Stone, and their franchise defenseman, Erik Karlsson. That’s rough.

Despite the fact that they traded Karlsson in September, the team got off to a decent start. They weren’t lighting the league on fire, but they had a respectable firsts two months of the season. Things turned after they dropped a pair of games to the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 4 and 6. In the 10 games following those two losses, the Sens came away with just two victories.

Things ended up getting so bad for Ottawa that they finished in the basement of the NHL. The second-to-last team in the league was the Los Angeles Kings and they finished seven points ahead of the Senators. That’s a significant gap. The big issue, was that the Sens didn’t have their own first-round draft pick because they traded it the Colorado Avalanche for Matt Duchene.

Everyone in the NHL knows that the biggest issue right now is the owner. Eugene Melnyk doesn’t appear to be interested in spending the money to keep his star players in the fold and the fact that he’s turning off the fan base in the process isn’t helping either. Whether or not he’s capable of surrounding his team with the tools to succeed remains to be seen.

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-factor]

The Sens have a lot of good young prospects, but they’re in the middle of a rebuild that should take quite some time. Former Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach D.J. Smith was hired to be the head coach this off-season and it’ll be up to him to get this group of youngsters ready to perform on the ice.

“Now it’s about trying to push kids to realize their potential,” Smith said, per NHL.com. “There is nothing more satisfying than to watch a guy push himself past the limit and become better than even he thought he could be. It’s in most kids; you just have to find a way to get it out of them. It’s something I really enjoy.

“We’re in a division (Atlantic) with some of the best offenses in the League — the Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s going to take time, but we’ll learn to get better together. We’re only going to get better by learning to play against teams like that.”

Cutting the goals against will be one of Smith’s biggest challenges. The Sens were the only team in the league that allowed more than 300 goals (302) last season.

Building this team from the ground up isn’t going to be easy and it’s going to take time, but Smith has to get them to take a positive step or two this season.

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

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.

Shattenkirk joins Lightning on one-year deal

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Four days after the New York Rangers bought out the final two years of his contract, Kevin Shattenkirk has found a new team.

Shattenkirk’s new home is a familiar one for former Rangers with the 30-year-old defenseman signing a one-year, $1.75 million deal with the Lightning on Monday. He now joins Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman, Ryan Callahan, and J.T. Miller as ex-Blueshirts who wound up in Tampa — a.k.a. Rangers South — in the last few years.

In 73 games last season Shattenkirk scored twice and recorded 28 points while battling through the aftermath of knee surgery and nights in the press box as a healthy scratch.

“It’s definitely not a success story,” Shattenkirk said on a Monday conference call. “A lot of these things, they have to be learning experiences.”

The Lightning nearly had Shattenkirk two years ago at the NHL Trade Deadline, but the then-St. Louis Blues defenseman vetoed a deal because he wanted to test the free agent market and not sign an extension before July 1. He was then dealt to Washington before signing a four-year, $26.6 million deal with the Rangers that summer.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Due to Shattenkirk’s buyout, the Rangers will have $1.433 million on their cap until the end of the 2022-23 NHL season and owe him a $2 million signing bonus next July 1. Per Cap Friendly, the Lightning are a little over $9 million from the cap ceiling with only restricted free agents Adam Erne and Brayden Point left to re-sign. That number could rise some once general manager Julien BriseBois figures out their goalie situation with Andrei Vasilevskiy and Louis Domingue and summer acquisitions Curtis McElhinney and Mike Condon. There’s also a move or two for BriseBois to make on the the blue line as it’s now a bit crowded after bringing back Braydon Coburn and Jan Rutta, as well as signing Luke Schenn, who could very well be AHL-bound.

It’s a good signing for both sides. The Lightning take a low-risk gamble on Shattenkirk hoping he can find his offensive form while not feeling the pressure of having to be one of the big contributors on the blue line. For Shattenkirk, he gets a season on a loaded team to find his game again in hopes of being able to cash in next summer in free agency.

“I think I have a huge chip on my shoulder right now,” said Shattenkirk. “I want to show I’m back to my old self and prove that I can be a player in this league again.”

MORE: Shattenkirk’s New York homecoming ends with buyout

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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.