Steven Stamkos

Lightning still the team to beat in NHL’s Eastern Conference

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Getting swept in the first round wasn’t enough to knock the Tampa Bay Lightning off the mountaintop.

After finishing 21 points ahead of everyone else during the 2018-19 regular season, the Lightning are again Stanley Cup favorites and the team to beat in an ever-improving Eastern Conference. With a stacked roster that includes goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, the road to the final goes through Tampa Bay.

”They got a young goaltender who’s getting better and better every year (and) their D corps is pretty solid,” Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. ”Their forward group is so skilled and solid that I would still say it’s Tampa.”

That’s no knock on the Boston Bruins, who lost Game 7 of the Cup Final to St. Louis. Or the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who have plenty of Cup-winning experience. The Lightning performed some salary cap gymnastics, kept their core intact and aren’t shying away from the well-deserved hype.

”Expectations are high: Of course for everyone the main goal is to win the Cup,” Vasilevskiy said. ”We’re more mature now. We have more experience. … I think the last few seasons people (say), ‘Tampa will win the Cup 100 percent’ every time. That’s the expectation, but the reality is every team can win the Cup. We’re playing in the best league in the world, so anything can happen.”

With Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto and Florida, the Atlantic Division looks like murderer’s row. The Bruins got through only after coming back from a 3-2, first-round deficit against Toronto and aren’t feeling cocky.

”Our division’s been great the past couple years and there’s no end in sight there,” Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”We feel that we have to go through Toronto, we have to go through Tampa, we have to go through Florida and everybody.”

The Panthers signed two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and hired three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville to take the next step. Across the East in the Metropolitan Division, the improved New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are rejuvenated with some big additions.

”The Rangers signed elite winger Artemi Panarin, traded for top defender Jacob Trouba and drafted Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko, while the Devils got Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban and selected center Jack Hughes first overall.

OLD GUARD

Pittsburgh still has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Washington still has Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and yet each team has undergone a transformation since last lifting the Cup. The Penguins look closer to falling down the East standings at this point, and Crosby acknowledged there are some question marks.

”We’re a little bit younger, and in some ways we’re maybe a little bit older, too,” Pittsburgh’s captain said. ”We’re younger, so I think we’re going to be probably a quicker team, probably an energized team and we’ll have some guys that are pretty excited to be in the positions they’re in. We’ll have to see what we can do with that.”

The Capitals believe their championship window is still open.

”We expect to be amongst the league leaders in terms of wins and points,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”That’s the culture that we’ve established now and now we need to continue to build it.”

CHIP ON SHOULDER

Columbus will undoubtedly take a step back after losing Panarin and Bobrovsky and letting trade deadline pickups Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel walk in free agency. Much like the New York Islanders a year ago after losing John Tavares to Toronto in free agency, the Blue Jackets plan to use their personnel defections as a rallying point.

”There’s no secret losing those guys probably hurts a little bit, but we’re bringing back a lot of our core guys,” leading goal scorer Cam Atkinson said. ”We have to come in with a chip on our shoulder and prove a lot of people wrong, but I think that it should fuel your fire to prove people wrong.”

Columbus will rely heavily on goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

”The biggest question is goaltending,” Atkinson said. ”That’s going to be the biggest thing. The St. Louis Blues won with a rookie goaltender coming in in the middle of the season and look what happens to that team.”

The Islanders let starting goalie Robin Lehner depart in free agency and replaced him with Semyon Varlamov. Coach Barry Trotz’s structure remains, but no one’s going to underestimate them this time around.

LETDOWN BRUIN?

No team since Pittsburgh in 2009 has won the Cup after losing in the final the previous year. Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said the ”taste is still there” from the Game 7 defeat at home.

”It will probably always be there,” Krug said. ”It’s how you manage it individually to use it as motivation.”

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

It could be neck and neck between the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers for the final playoff spot. Carolina will need stable goaltending to duplicate a surprise run that ended in the East final. Philadelphia added coach Alain Vigneault, center Kevin Hayes and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, but remains a bit of a mystery amid inconsistent play.

The Buffalo Sabres will get a boost from new coach Ralph Krueger but more rebuilding is likely. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin wants the Sabres to ”trust the process,” which is ongoing not just in Buffalo but also Montreal and Detroit before those teams can target a postseason run. Ottawa’s long-term rebuild should set them up for a top draft pick.

Who can challenge Alex Ovechkin for NHL’s goal crown this season?

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Alex Ovechkin has been the NHL’s most dominant goal-scorer from the moment he entered the league and has a chance to finish his career as the league’s all-time goal-scoring leader. Even if he doesn’t eclipse Wayne Gretzky’s mark of 894, there were still be an argument to be made that he is the best ever at putting the puck in the net when you account for the era they played in. He has already finished as the leading scorer eight times, including six of the past seven seasons.

It has become a foregone conclusion that he is going to score at least 50 goals and outscore everyone. This past season the gap closed a little bit as Edmonton’ Leon Draisaitl finished just one goal behind and John Tavares four goals back.

Will anyone be able to finally overthrow him at the top this season?

Let’s take a look at some contenders.

The top contenders

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: They key for Matthews will be staying healthy. Over his first three years in the league he has scored at a 42-goal pace over 82 games. That is the good news. The bad news is he has missed 36 games over the past two seasons. He is just now entering what should be his peak years in the league and (if he stays healthy) might have a shot at 50 goals.

Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets: He was expected to challenge Ovechkin a year ago, especially after an 18-goal month of November. But his shooting percentage cratered for the remainder of the season and he finished with only 30 goals. He is too talented for that to happen again. Expect big things from him this season.

Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning: Since Oveckin entered the NHL at the start of the 2005-06 season, only five players other than him have finished a season as the league’s leading goal-scorer (and only three of those five are still active). Stamkos is one of those players, and he has actually accomplished the feat twice. He is still one of the league’s best players, is on an offensive powerhouse team, and is coming off of a 45-goal season. He is always a threat.

The next tier

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: He is the best player in the world, but he is probably more of a playmaker than a pure “goal scorer.” Still, he has topped the 40-goal mark in each of the past two seasons and is entering the peak offensive production period of his career. He’s got a few 50-goal seasons in his future.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: His shot volume has skyrocketed the past two years and even finished with a league-high 385 shots on goal this past season. He’s a 40-plus goal guy and if he sees just a little bit of a spike in his shooting percentage to go with that added shot volume he could be capable of some special things.

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning: He is one of the elite players in the league so he always has to be in the discussion, but I am not sure if he is going to be quite as dominant as he was a season ago.

The sleeper

David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins: He only needed 66 games to score 38 goals for the Bruins a year ago (a 47-goal pace over 82 games) and is quickly developing into an elite offensive player on a Stanley Cup contender. As long as he gets significant time next to Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand he is going to be surrounded by All-Stars and put into a great scoring environment.

Maybe not as close as they were

Leon Drasaitl, Edmonton Oilers: He was the runner-up a year ago, finishing just one goal behind Ovechkin. He is a great talent, a great player, and plays next to the league’s best playmaker. I am just not sure if he scores on 20 percent of his shots again. That might drop him down a tier or two on the goal leaderboard.

John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs: His first year in Toronto produced a career high in goals (47) and his highest ever finish in the goal race. He has talent around him and is a great player, but like Draisaitl I feel like there might be a bit of a shooting percentage regression coming in his future this season. Even if that only knocks a few goals off of his total, that might keep him out of the race.

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.

What can Elias Pettersson do for an encore?

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The one big positive for the 2018-19 Vancouver Canucks was the rapid development of Elias Pettersson.

From the moment he arrived he was the team’s best, most impactful player and began his career with a five-game point streak and 10 goals in his first 10 games. Even when he was not scoring goals he made the Canucks worth watching every night he was in the lineup because he was always one shift away from doing something spectacular.

He ended the season with 28 goals in only 71 games and became just the second Canucks player to ever win the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year (Pavel Bure won in 1991-92). He is now the face of the franchise and the player the whole thing is going to be built around.

The question for the Canucks now becomes what he can do for an encore in year two after such a strong rookie season.

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

For all of the brilliance he displayed in his debut, the only red flag that might exist is that a lot of his goal-scoring success was driven by a 19.4 percent shooting percentage, which is an almost absurdly high number and one that is unlikely to be duplicated in year two. It is such a high mark that only eight players (minimum 140 shots) hit that number in a single season between 2010 and 2017 (Steven Stamkos, Anders Lee, Sidney Crosby, Adam Henrique, T.J. Oshie, Jiri Hudler, Mark Scheifele, and William Karlsson) and none of them did it more than once during that stretch, meaning their shooting percentages all regressed the next season.

It is an almost impossible number to reach over a full season, and it is especially unheard of for rookies. Pettersson was the first rookie (age 20 or younger) to shoot that high since Eric Lindros in 1993, and only the third since 1990 (Lindros and Jaromir Jagr).

This is not to suggest that Pettersson is going to suddenly forgot how to score goals, or that his shooting percentage is going to drop so dramatically that it put a huge dent in his production.

He has a great shot and elite skill and is probably always going to be capable of shooting at a percentage well above the league average. It just won’t always be that high, meaning his game is going to have to evolve. For him to match (or exceed) the 30-goal pace he set out on last season he is probably going to have to increase his shot volume and put more pucks on net. He is capable of that, and is talented enough and good enough that the production we saw from him in year one is probably a good baseline to expect in future seasons.

He just might take a different path in getting there in future seasons.

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.

What if the Lightning don’t win it all?

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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.

Three pressing questions for the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning.

1. What if they fall short again?

Looking at a season as a failure because it does not result in a championship is a foolish approach to take in sports. Even if you are the best team in the league on paper the odds of actually winning it all are overwhelmingly stacked against you. One team against the field is always a bet you are more than likely to lose.

But the 2018-19 Lightning season, for as great as it was, has to be looked at as at least some kind of a failure. Maybe not a total failure, but definitely a failure to some degree. Not because they didn’t win it all, but because of HOW they did not win it all — quietly bowing out in four games against the No. 8 seed. Also because after years of collapse and near-misses in the Eastern Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final (blowing two 3-2 series leads in the ECF, and a 2-1 series lead in the SCF) that was supposed to be the team to get it done. Then it did not even win a single playoff game.

Expectations will be through the roof again with this roster, and the pressure is only going to be mount because they have to show they are a championship team instead of a paper tiger. But what if they fall short again? It probably depends on how far they go. A Round 1 or 2 loss, especially one like this past season, means someone almost certainly gets fired — whether it is the coach  or the GM — or gets traded (break up the core?)

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. What will Brayden Point‘s new contract look like, and how will they make it work?

To answer the first part of that question, it will probably look significant. Point is one of them any unsigned restricted free agents on the open market and is coming off a monster season offensively that saw him establish himself as a key part of the Lightning’s core and one of the top offensive players in the league. He is only 23 years old, has improved every year he has been in the league, and is just now entering the prime of his career. He should easily get more than $7 or $8 million per year.

The problem for the Lighting is making that fit within the structure of the team, where Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Ryan McDonagh, Yanni Gourde, and Alex Killorn are all already signed to massive long-term deals. They have enough to sign Point for this season, but next season (when Vasilevskiy’s deal kicks in) it will get tight. Someone (Palat? Killorn?) will have to be on the move.

3. Will their offseason additions be enough to put them over the top?

Given the Lightning’s salary cap constraints they had to go bargain hunting this offseason and may have struck gold with Kevin Shattenkirk and Pat Maroon on one-year deals for under $3 million (combined). Shattenkirk will have far less pressure on him in Tampa Bay than he did in New York because he will not be counted on to be the top player on defense and they won’t need him to be a difference-maker. You also have to think he will have a chip on his shoulder have something to prove after a disappointing end with the Rangers.

As for Maroon, the size and intangible element he brings from a Stanley Cup winning team will almost certainly be dramatically overstated. Maybe it matters a little, but what is truly important is that he is an excellent depth player that will make their bottom-six better. They are not the big-name moves some other teams made, but the Lightning didn’t need impact. They just needed solid complementary pieces, and that may be just what they receive.

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.