Steve Stamkos

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Barzal is Islanders’ game-changer

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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 New York Islanders.

The New York Islanders have their share of questions entering the 2019-20 season but there is one thing they can be sure of — they have one of the game’s most exciting young players and a franchise cornerstone in Mathew Barzal.

Even though his point totals may have regressed in year two, the 22-year-old Barzal was the Islanders’ most dynamic and impactful player during the 2018-19 season and is on a trajectory that should take him to stardom in the NHL.

He has an incredible mix of speed, vision, and playmaking ability that makes him perfect for the modern game and a force to be reckoned with when he has the puck on his stick.

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

He has already become one of the best and most productive playmakers in the league and could be on the verge of taking his production to an entirely new level based on what he has already done.

Two comparisons to consider for Barzal entering this season.

1.  Over the past two seasons (his first two in the league) he is one of just 11 forwards (minimum 100 games played) that has averaged at least 0.65 assists per game, 0.89 points per game, and posted a 52 percent Corsi rating. The others on that list are are Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, Brad Marchand, Nikita Kucherov, Steve Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Johnny Gaudreau, Mikko Rantanen, Artemi Panarin, and Mitch Marner.

Excellent company to be in, especially when you consider just how young he is and is just now entering his age 22 season.

2. It’s the latter point (his age) that is the key. Barzal is one of just 11 active forwards to average at least 0.89 points through their age 21 season in the NHL, a list that includes Crosby, Stamkos, Marner, Connor McDavid, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, Ilya Kovalchuk, Nicklas Backstrom, Auston Matthews, and Alex Ovechkin.

Marner, Matthews, and Barzal are all the same age, but the other eight combined to score at a 100-point pace in their age 22 season.

The biggest difference between Barzal and most of the players on that list is that he is not quite the goal-scorer that some of them are and is more known for his ability to drive play and set up his teammates, so a lot of his point production will be tied to what the players around him are able to do once he gets them the puck. He can definitely help put them in better positions to score, but it is still up to them to finish the play. It is also possible he could develop into more of a goal-scorer if he takes on more of a shoot-first mentality. He has never been a low-percentage shooter, and while passing and playmaking is his greatest strength offensively, he could probably put himself in a position to average more than two shots per game. Especially if he does not have elite talent around him at the given time.

No matter what direction he takes, Barzal is the Islanders’ best player and the one player that can swing a game in their favor.

His rapid development into a top-line player is one of the reasons the Islanders were able to overcome the free agent departure of John Tavares without completely falling apart. They already had a star on the roster ready to fill that No. 1 role, and his best days are still ahead of him.

This is the hardest type of player to acquire in a rebuild, and it usually takes a top draft pick to get one.

The Islanders were fortunate enough to be able to get one in the middle of the first-round and have the piece they need to build around.

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.

McAvoy has goal, assist as Bruins top Lightning 3-2

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Charlie McAvoy had a goal and added a helper as the Boston Bruins knocked off the NHL’s top team in a 3-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night on NBCSN.

The resurgent Bruins have now won five of their past six games after losing their previous four and leapfrogged the Detroit Red Wings into third place in the Atlantic Division.

Boston welcomed some reinforcements on Wednesday with the return of Brad Marchand, who had missed eight of the past 10 games for Boston, and David Backes, who had been out since Oct. 30 because of colon surgery.

Marchand chipped in with two assists, one on McAvoy’s opener and a second on Riley Nash’s slick wrist shot to give the Bruins a 2-0 lead after a 19-shot performance in the first period.

The Bruins continued the shelling in the second, firing 13-more on Andrei Vasilevskiy, who played a stellar game despite the result, finishing with 33 saves.

After two periods, Boston had outshot the Lightning 32-12, but Andrej Sustr was able to pot his first of the season to cut Boston’s lead to 3-1 after Torey Krug scored what eventually would be the game-winning goal to make it 3-0.

Tampa Bay played with a little more purpose in the third period and Steven Stamkos retained NHL points lead with his 11th goal of the season on a nice tic-tac-toe play in the third period.

Stamkos (37 points) leads teammate Kucherov by one point. Kucherov assisted on Stamkos’ marker, giving him at least one point in 20 of 25 games this season.

Tuukka Rask stood tall, stopping nine third period shots for just his fourth win of the season.

The Lightning has lost four of their past six games but remains atop of the Eastern Conference with 36 points.


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: 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.

Pre-game reading: Dillon and Watson fight, then make friendly summer workout plans

— Above, San Jose’s Brenden Dillon and Nashville’s Austin Watson exchange penalty box pleasantries following a scrap.

Here’s the transcript:

Dillon: Hey Wats… we gotta work on our cardio this summer, huh?

Watson: I’m dyin’ after like 10 seconds, man.

Dillon: Jesus.

Watson: I’ll come see Joey, we’ll mix it in.

Dillon: Joey doesn’t know cardio.

Watson: I know, that’s why I’m gonna come see him.

Dillon: Ah, I like it.

Watson: Good luck the rest of the year, bud.

Dillon: Thanks, you too buddy.

“Joey” is Watson’s teammate, Preds center Ryan Johansen. Johansen and Dillon are British Columbia natives and co-host a charity summer golf event in Whistler each summer. To the best of our knowledge, the tournament does not include cardio.

— On Feb. 3, the Lightning lost 5-2 to Ottawa, dropping them to 22-24-6 and seemingly out of playoff contention. Then, GM Steve Yzerman had a fire sale and traded away Ben Bishop, Valtteri Filppula and Brian Boyle, further suggesting the postseason dream was dead.

But after last night’s OT win over Ottawa, the Bolts are now 12-2-3 since that aforementioned loss on Feb. 3. They’re right back in the playoff picture and, what’s more, there’s a “light at the end of the tunnel” for injured captain Steve Stamkos, who’s missed the last four months following knee surgery.

— Chicago goalie Corey Crawford was hit in the head with a Shea Weber slapshot during last night’s game against the Habs. The Tribune’s Chris Hine wonders if NHL concussion protocol failed Crawford by not removing him from the contest.

— Vancouver won’t make the playoffs, so GM Jim Benning has a new goal in mind, and that’s to see how well his young prospects fare at the NHL level. But will head coach Willie Desjardins, who’s notoriously and fiercely loyal to certain vets, get on board?

“I talk to Willie on a day-to-day basis and we talk about that,” Benning said, per The Province. “Up to this point, his focus was to try and compete hard every night and win enough games to challenge for one of those last playoff spots.

“Now that reality has set in, he’s going to be on-board with getting our young kids more ice time.”

Bolts rule out Callahan indefinitely following second hip surgery

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Tampa Bay forward Ryan Callahan, who’s only played 18 games this year while recovering from offseason hip surgery, has undergone a follow-up procedure and will be sidelined indefinitely.

The Bolts made the announcement on Wednesday, just hours after a big 4-1 win over Edmonton. Callahan wasn’t in the lineup to face the Oilers — he hasn’t played since early January, when he skated just under 15 minutes in a loss to Philly.

The nature of this ailment has to be concerning.

Callahan, who turns 32 next month, is in the third of a six-year, $34.8 million deal with a $5.8M average annual cap hit. And this lingering hip problem comes on the heels of a disappointing ’15-16 campaign, in which Callahan scored just 10 goals and 28 points — the lowest marks since his rookie campaign.

As such, Tampa Bay is now bracing for an immediate future without a huge part of its leadership group. Captain Steve Stamkos has resumed skating, but there’s no set date for his return from major knee surgery.

Callahan, who’s been an alternate captain in each of the last three seasons, won’t be playing anytime soon either.