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BriseBois faces plenty of questions in replacing Yzerman as Lightning GM

Bombshell news dropped on Tuesday, as word surfaced that Steve Yzerman is transitioning to advisory role with the Tampa Bay Lightning, while Julien BriseBois gets a promotion to GM.

It’s all a lot to take in, and the hockey world is scrambling to find out what happens next with Stevie Y, and why Stevie Y is stepping down in the first place. Could Yzerman be coming back home to the Detroit Red Wings, or perhaps setting the stage to be build a potential Seattle expansion team?

Those questions – along with a simple “Wait, what?” – come to mind immediately following such news.

What about the Lightning’s side of the equation, though?

BriseBois (pictured to the right of Jacques Martin in this post’s main image) has been the subject of GM rumors for some time, so the 41-year-old carries some hype into his promotion. He’s undoubtedly ranked as a big part of the picture in Tampa Bay, including running an outstanding operation for their AHL affiliate the Syracuse Crunch.

Now it’s his chance to justify that hype, and while Yzerman’s done great work in locking up stars Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman to team-friendly extensions, BriseBois faces challenges in molding all of that promise into postseason glories.

Consider some of the key decisions BriseBois must make over the next couple of years:

The bill’s coming for Vasi

Andrei Vasilevskiy has two years remaining on a bargain $3.5 million cap hit. Soak that outstanding value in for a moment, as while his Vezina campaign fizzled as his energy waned in 2017-18, he was still a worthy finalist at a remarkably cheap rate.

Those savings won’t last forever, although note that the 24-year-old would once again be slated for RFA status. (Seriously, this team is a well-oiled machine for cap management.)

Can BriseBois leverage that last RFA year into savings, or the sort of term that would benefit Tampa Bay? Of all the decisions ahead, Vasilevskiy’s future is the most pivotal single scenario.

Court Karlsson?

Could he make a big splash by getting Erik Karlsson?

This would be tricky, yet it’s worth exploring, particularly if the Golden Knights relent in their pursuit of the star defenseman after landing Max Pacioretty.

Cap Friendly lists Tampa Bay’s cap space at just $2.646M, so a Karlsson trade might be easier around the trade deadline. And, really, such a move seems tough to imagine if the Senators truly require Bobby Ryan or Marian Gaborik to be a part of any package. Maybe the ship sailed once Tampa Bay committed to Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, along with Kucherov, anyway.

Still, it’s worth asking: would BriseBois pursue Karlsson – or perhaps some other splashy upgrade – with even more vigor than Yzerman did?

Young guns

Moving back to situations with brilliant young players, Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point are entering contract years.

Gourde (26, $1M cap hit in 2018-19) is slated to become a UFA, while Point (22, dirt-cheap rookie deal) would become an RFA. BriseBois must gauge how much additional leverage each forward might gain – or lose – by playing out their deals, and react accordingly. Would it save money to sign them soon, or would it be better to see where the cap comes in for 2019-20?

(For whatever it’s worth, Point mostly developed in the WHL before flourishing with the Lightning, while Gourde began his Crunch days in 2013-14.)

In defense

Whether he makes the unlikely move to land Karlsson or not, there are some decisions looming regarding the Lightning’s defense.

Granted, Stevie Y and BriseBois already did the heaviest lifting, as most NHL teams would practice dark arts to put together a trio like Hedman, McDonagh, and Sergachev, especially considering that the veterans are locked up long-term and Sergachev is still covered for two more seasons.

Still, this is a team with lofty ambitions, so surrounding that trio with other capable defensemen could be the difference between hoisting the Stanley Cup or looking back wistfully at near-misses.

Anton Stralman might be the odd man out among capable defenders, as his $4.5M cap hit expires after this season, and he’s arguably already showing signs of decline at 32. It’s likely a relief that Braydon Coburn (33, $3.7M) and Dan Girardi (34, $3M) will see their deals expire, too, but Tampa Bay could see a lot of experience evaporate in the near future.

A shrewd GM would use those expiring contracts to possibly get out of trouble, or grab some rentals. Getting rid of Ryan Callahan‘s contract would be huge, and it’s plausible that BriseBois would be far more interested in doing so than Yzerman, who seemed to love collecting former Rangers.

Beyond those older defensemen, BriseBois will need to ascertain the value of younger expiring contracts in Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin.

The coach?

Jon Cooper’s a great quote. He’s also enjoyed success just about everywhere he’s gone, hustling through some obscure coaching gigs to make his way to Tampa Bay. You could do a lot worse than sticking with him.

While BriseBois must respect Cooper – he briefly coached the Crunch – it’s possible that Cooper might not be “his guy.” Even if he is, if there’s a belief that Cooper is nearing his expiration date – as many believe just about every coach reaches at some point – then it’s a situation to watch.

The Lightning don’t operate in a pressure cooker of a hockey market, which might explain why they didn’t absorb too much criticism after falling short in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, not to mention missing the postseason altogether in 2016-17. Considering context, it’s totally reasonable for them not to draw much heat.

The heat could really rise if the Lightning don’t meet expectations this time around, particularly if it seems like Cooper commits Typical NHL Coach Sins like not trusting young players enough. You could argue that he should have given Sergachev a longer leash last season, among other situations, so it’s not totally out of the question.

***

If you were to poll NHL executives about “dream” GM jobs, the Lightning would almost certainly land in the top five. In plenty of cases, they’d probably rank first overall.

So, there are a lot of blessings that come with this, although the curse is that critics will be harsh if BriseBois stumbles now that he’s landed the top gig.

Fair or not, many will view him as a failure if this outstanding Lightning core fails to nab the franchise’s second Stanley Cup (and possible more). There are worse situations to be in, but that doesn’t mean this is necessarily an easy job.

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.

Under Pressure: Steve Yzerman

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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.

Steve Yzerman seems to have every piece of the puzzle in place going forward.

A forward contingent that includes superstar names such as Stamkos and Kucherov, a rearguard that features a Norris winner in Victor Hedman and up-and-coming talent in Mikhail Sergachev, and a Vezina-calibre goaltender that would have stormed away with the award if not for a late-season hiccup due to fatigue.

The supporting cast around this core is almost unmatched, too. Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde and J.T. Miller are all solid pieces. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson (assuming he has a bounce-back season) are strong complements.

Ryan McDonagh is exactly what the Lightning needed on defense, and they locked him up long term after trading for him at the deadline.

Tampa’s farm system is filled with players both talented and allowed to mature in the minors.

The general manager of the Lightning has built one of the best teams in the NHL today and has seemingly figured out how to keep that going in the future, with his core locked up long term.

Building a great team is one thing. Keeping it great for an extended period of time is another. If the Lightning want to replicate the success of the Chicago Blackhawks, let’s say, it’s not the big name deals that turn into three Stanley Cups in six years, but the smaller ones that fill in the cracks.

Tampa has all sorts of money tied up in big name players. They sit just over $2.6 million below this year’s salary cap of $79.5 million.

They’re fine this season. It’s next year where things start to get interesting.

[2017-18 review | Breakthrough: Brayden Point | Three questions]

The team can shed roughly $10 million in Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi if they so choose. All three are set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season.

Nearly half of that money will go to Kucherov, whose annual average value is essentially doubling at the start of 2018-19 after signing a big-money extension earlier this summer.

Then Yzerman needs to find a way to re-sign Brayden Point, the team’s No. 2 center who, if he continues to improve, could become a point-per-game player this season. That kind of production commands big money, although a bridge deal could help lessen the blow for a couple years.

Yzerman will also have to sort out what to do with Yanni Gourde, a late-blooming rookie last season that put himself into the Calder conversation with 25 goals and 64 points. He’s getting paid a paltry $1 million for his services this season and will be in need of a nice raise come next summer as well, if not sooner given his UFA status next July.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, if he continues in the same vein as he is now, will need elite goaltender money in two years. Mikhail Sergachev, who is shaping up to be a franchise defenseman, will also need a significant pay raise in the same offseason that Vasilevkiy does. And there will be more, assuming a litany of talented prospects pan out as well.

“These guys are good players, really good players, and when you look around the League, they’re going to get paid a certain amount,” Yzerman said after the Kucherov extension. “We want to keep as many of our good players as we can. We’d like to keep everybody. Unfortunately, you can’t do that. But we’re trying to be as competitive as possible while trying to manage the salary cap.”

This is all heading toward some tough decisions for Yzerman. Can they afford Gourde after this year? Does a big name player with a big name contract need to be shipped at some point? Do they lose three depth defenseman with plenty of experience?

The cap is likely to increase, but so is the market value of the players Tampa must sign.

Yzerman’s biggest task now is managing the empire he’s created while he tries to win a Stanley Cup, if not two or three.

Their best window is now.


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

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

PHT Power Rankings: Best salary cap era teams to not win Stanley Cup

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It is the summer and with no games being played at the moment it is awfully difficult to rank the NHL’s 31 teams on a weekly basis. So the PHT Power Rankings will spend the next month taking a look back at some of the best (and worst) developments in the NHL, both past and present. Best trades. Worst trades. Best all-time teams. Any other random things we feel like ranking. This week we look step into the present and look at the best trades that have been made (so far) this summer.

For better or worse the success or failure of teams in the major North American sports is defined almost entirely by what they do in the playoffs. It is not always fair because it puts all of the emphasis on what happens in a small sampling of games where anything from injuries, to bad luck, to one poorly timed bad game can turn things completely upside down.

Sometimes the best team in a given season is not the one that is holding the trophy at the end of the playoffs.

Sometimes there is still a lot to be said for being one of the best teams over an 82-game schedule, no matter what does or does not happen in the playoffs.

This week’s power rankings is about teams that might fall into that group as we look back at the best teams in the salary cap era to not win the Stanley Cup.

1. 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings. This Red Wings team was absolutely insane both in terms of its roster and what it accomplished on the ice during the regular season.

On an individual level Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were just entering the prime of their careers. Nick Lidstrom won his third Norris Trophy. Brendan Shanahan was a 40-goal scorer at the age of 37. Eight different players scored at least 20 goals while Steve Yzerman, at the age of 40, scored 14 in only 61 games. On a team level, they scored 301 goals (one of only three teams to score at least 300 goals in a single season in the salary cap era) and won 58 games, the fourth-most in NHL history. Before you start screaming about shootout wins, only four of those wins came in the shootout, so even if you exclude those four games (dropping the win total to 54 regulation/overtime wins) it still would have been a top-five total in league history in the pre-shootout era.

They were amazing.

The only thing this team did not have: Great goaltending, and that played a pretty significant factor in them going out in in the first round to the No. 8 seeded Edmonton Oilers, who were just beginning a rather stunning and unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final.

2. 2009-10 Washington Capitals. If we really wanted to we could probably throw three or four Capitals teams on this list (like the three teams that won the Presidents’ Trophy), but of all the Capitals teams that did not win the Stanley Cup in the Alex Ovechkin era this team was by far the best. I am not even a Capitals fan and it makes me irrationally angry that they did not win it all. Not only because they were absolutely good enough to win it all, but because of what not winning in this season did to the franchise — and the narrative surrounding Ovechkin’s career — in the coming years.

This Capitals team just flat out steamrolled teams during the regular season, winning 54 games (only losing 15 in regulation) and scoring 313 goals, the most of any team in the cap era. What makes that 313 total so outrageous is that they are one of only three teams to score at least 300 goals in this era (the Red Wings team listed above being one of the others), and one of only four to score more than 290. The other three teams to top the 290 mark did it during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons coming right out of the lockout when goal-scoring briefly skyrocketed.

Their goal total in this season was 45 more than the next closest team (the Vancouver Canucks, who scored 268). That gap between the Capitals and Canucks was the same as the gap between the Canucks in the second spot and the Red Wings … who were 14th in the league in goals. This Capitals team was scoring goals like it was 1985 in an era where everyone else was reverting back to the dead-puck era.

Then they lost in the first-round to the Montreal Canadiens, which began that multiple-season process where too many people (including the Capitals) decided a 54-win team that scored nearly 50 more goals than every other team in the league was doing something wrong and had to change, shifting way too far in the opposite direction and probably setting the franchise back several years.

What makes the first-round exit even more frustrating is that they were the better team, only to lose because Jaroslav Halak just so happened play the three best games of his life in Games 5-6-7 of the series. If Halak was anything other than superhuman in just one of those three games the Capitals easily move on. It was all very stupid.

3. 2008-09 Detroit Red Wings. The 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings were a force. They won the Presidents’ Trophy with the league’s best record, then dominated every team they faced in the playoffs, including a really good Pittsburgh Penguins team in the Stanley Cup Final that, at times, looked like it didn’t even belong on the same ice as the Red Wings (Game 1 and 2 in particular were laughably one-sided in Detroit’s favor).

What did Detroit do the following offseason? They just brought back almost the exact same roster, and then added to it by signing Marian Hossa (one of the best players on the Pittsburgh team that it had beaten in the previous year’s Final) to a one-year contract.

With Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and Hossa the Red Wings had three of the five best two-way forwards in the NHL, the league’s best defense pairing in Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, and a bunch of damn good players throughout the lineup (Johan Franzen, Valterri Filppula, Jiri Hudler, Niklas Kronwall, Tomas Holmstrom) that made the roster incredibly intimidating.

On paper and on the ice this team was stacked, and they had the results to back it all up, finishing with one of the best records in the league (112 points, third best) and obliterating the Western Conference in the playoffs with a 12-3 record. The only team that gave them a fight was Anaheim in the second round.

Their quest for a second consecutive title, however, came up just short in the Stanley Cup Final rematch against the Penguins when they lost Games 6 and 7, with the latter ending with Marc-Andre Fleury‘s buzzer-beating save on Lidstrom.

4. 2005-06/2006-07 Buffalo Sabres. Am I cheating here a little by including both seasons? Maybe. But they are both pretty much carbon copies in how they turned out.

The Sabres were one of the NHL’s most exciting teams coming out of the 2004-05 lockout and had assembled a fast, high-powered offense led by Chris Drury, Danny Briere, Thomas Vanek, Maxim Afinogenov, and Jason Pominville that was a ton of fun to watch. They won 105 regular season games between the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons (second only to the Red Wings during that stretch) and found themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals in both seasons, only to lose both times.

The 2005-06 campaign was probably the most devastating because that series went all the way to a Game 7 — a Game 7 where the Sabres went into the third period with a 2-1 lead before self-destructing over the final 19 minutes, allowing three consecutive goals to a Hurricanes team that would go on to win its first Stanley Cup.

5. 2017-18 Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning have had quite a few excellent teams in the cap era, reaching the Stanley Cup Final once and the Eastern Conference Final three other times.

The best of those teams was probably the one they put on the ice this past season. How good were they?

They finished with 117 total points in the standings thanks to a roster that boasted…

  • Two of the top-offensive players in the league (including the league’s third-leading scorer in Nikita Kucherov) as part of a ridiculously deep offensive team that scored 17 more goals than any other team in the league.
  • The Norris Trophy winner in Victor Hedman.
  • A Vezina Trophy finalist in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Extremely impressive roster and tremendous results.

Unfortunately for the Lightning it was yet another disappointing ending as they let a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final slip away, capped off with a blowout loss in Game 7 at home to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

It was the third time in four years they were a part of the NHL’s Final Four and allowed a series lead to slip away.

[Related: How the Lightning keep coming up just short]

6. 2013-14 Boston Bruins. The Bruins had an incredible run between 2010 and 2014 where they played in the Stanley Cup Final twice (winning one) and won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best regular season team.

The 2013-14 team was the Presidents’ Trophy winning team, finishing with 54 wins and coming back strong after a heartbreaking Stanley Cup Final loss the previous season.

This particular era of Bruins hockey was highlighted by suffocating defensive play and outstanding goaltending, with this particular team being the most dominant of them all in that area. During this season Bruins allowed just 2.09 goals per game and had two goalies (Tuukka Rask and Chad Johnson) appear in at least 25 games and finish with a save percentage above .925.

While they were shutting teams down defensively, they also averaged more than 3.15 goals per game and were the third highest scoring team in the league complete with six different 50-point forwards (and a seventh, Carl Soderberg, that had 48 points in only 73 games).

Their run came to an end, however, in the second round against their arch rivals in Montreal, blowing a 3-2 series lead when their offense dried up, scoring just one goal (total) in Games 6 and 7.

7. 2010-11/2011-12 Vancouver Canucks. Like the Sabres up above we are combing these two because, well, they were just so similar in each season.

Today we may know the Canucks as a bumbling franchise haphazardly stumbling along in some kind of a rebuild that may or may not have much of a direction.

But there was a time — not that long ago! — that they were one of the elite teams in the league, winning the Presidents’ Trophy in back-to-back years in 2010-11 and 2011-12, with the former going all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final only to lose in Game 7 to the Bruins. They came back the next season and finished with the best record once again, only to then be easily dismissed in the first-round by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

The foundation of these teams were Henrik and Daniel Sedin at the top of the lineup, and an incredible goaltending duo in Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. The Sedins were especially dominant during this stretch with Daniel winning the Art Ross trophy during the 2010-11 season, while they were both among the top-four point producers in the league during the two-year stretch.

Things rapidly fell apart for the Canucks after the 2011-12 season. The Sedins started to slow down, Schneider and Luongo were eventually traded in separate deals, while the team has made the playoffs just twice since then and has not made it out of the first round.

8. 2008-09 San Jose Sharks. Even though the Joe ThorntonPatrick Marleau era never produced a Stanley Cup for the Sharks, it was still an incredible run when they were together prior to Marleau’s exit to Toronto.

The 2008-09 season was the franchise’s high point (at least as far as regular season performance goes) as the Sharks finished with the best record in the league.

Thornton and Marleau were still close to being point-per-game players at the top of the lineup, while the front office strengthened the defense prior to the season by trading for Dan Boyle and signing Rob Blake to add to a blue line that already had Christian Ehrhoff and a young Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

The result was a 117-point regular season, a total that only four teams in the cap era have topped (the 2005-06 Red Wings, and three different Capitals teams).

Their postseason run ended in six games at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks.

9. 2011-12 Pittsburgh Penguins. In between their back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances in 2008 and 2009, and their back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and 2017, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a lot of early and disappointing exits in the playoffs. A lot of those teams were unfairly labeled as “underachieving” or having missed an opportunity to win another championship when the reality is a lot of them just simply weren’t good enough beyond their top couple of stars.

Of all the Penguins teams between 2009 and 2016 that didn’t win the Stanley Cup, this is the one you can look at and fairly say “they missed an opportunity” or underachieved.

This team, when healthy, was absolutely loaded and should have gone further in the playoffs.

By the end of the season Sidney Crosby was back healthy after his concussion/neck issues and was at the height of his power as an offensive player, and along with Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal gave the team an unmatched trio of centers down the middle. When all three were in the lineup they were all but unstoppable. On top of that they had a 40-goal scorer in James Neal on the wing, a lethal power play, and plenty of depth at forward. They closed out the regular season on an 18-4-2 run and looked to be the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

Their biggest flaw: A collectively short fuse that saw them fly off the handle and melt down when someone punched them in the face. This was on display in their first-round series loss to the Philadelphia Flyers (a total gong show of a series), as well as the bad version of Marc-Andre Fleury in the playoffs when he played what was perhaps the worst playoff series of his life.

10. 2005-06 Ottawa Senators. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s the Ottawa Senators had a lot of really good teams that were loaded with talent. Even though the 2006-07 team ended up being the only one of them to reach the Stanley Cup Final, the 2005-06 team may have been the best. 

Daniel Aldredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza were all 90-point scorers (with Spezza doing it in only 68 games), Zdeno Chara was leading the defense in his final season with the team before leaving in free agency after the season, and Dominik Hasek played his one season with the team.

Hasek’s situation is the great “what if” here.

Even though he was 41 years old he was still having an outstanding season with a .925 save percentage (among the best in the NHL) before suffering an injury as a member of the Czech Olympic team at the 2006 games in Turin. That injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season, leaving rookie Ray Emery as the Senators’ primary goalie the rest of the way. While Emery played well in the regular season and in the first-round of the playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he struggled in the second round against the one of the aforementioned Sabres teams, resulting in a five-game loss. With a healthy Hasek this may have been a team capable of winning it all.

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.

Leafs’ smartest bet is to sign Matthews, Marner, Nylander now

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Late July ranks as “the dog days of the hockey summer,” so it’s no surprise that we’ve seen the Toronto Maple Leafs’ in-house big three (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander) provide virtually identical quotes about taking it easy regarding their contract situations. You can basically copy and paste the “shrug, gonna leave it to my agent”-type comments.

If you ask me,* Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas shouldn’t take such a nonchalant approach. Instead, he should get all three done. Like, now.

The natural leaning is to say that Nylander is the most urgent, and that’s a reasonable assumption. After all, he’s currently an RFA without a contract for 2018-19, while Matthews and Marner are set to enter the final year of their rookie deals. The deadlines are more urgent when it comes to Nylander.

But, in seeing the Maple Leafs allow James van Riemsdyk to walk in free agency, you can probably see that Dubas & Co. are fully aware that some big contract decisions loom. Just about every indication is that the Maple Leafs would be much better off signing all three – not just Nylander – as soon as possible.

[From earlier this summer: more on Leafs’ toughest work just beginning]

Now, it’s worth noting that such talks would require mutual interest, which is far from guaranteed.

If Marner and Matthews have zero interest in signing extensions before the season begins, then it’s a bit of a moot discussion. Early rumblings are that discussions have at least started, and players would only be reasonable to strongly consider accepting a decent extension, as the threat of a career-altering injury must loom over the head of any NHL player.

Let’s keep it simple and assume that Marner and Matthews would be glad to sign a fair extension sometime this summer. With that caveat out of the way, here are some of the factors for why it makes a ton of sense to push hard for an immediate solution, even if Dubas is – publicly – playing it close to the vest.

We haven’t seen their best, maybe not even close

You can make a strong argument that all three forwards saw their value either subtly or starkly diluted in 2017-18.

  • In the case of Auston Matthews, there were a few factors worth considering.

One was out of everyone’s hands, as Matthews was limited to 62 regular-season games thanks to injury issues. It’s quite plausible that his postseason struggles had at least something to do with lingering health challenges, too.

Power play context is also interesting for Matthews. While he received decent power play TOI (essentially clustered with the heaviest-use players at 2:09 per game), you can see from Left Wing Lock’s listings that Matthews wasn’t a part of Toronto’s robust top unit. That’s fairly unusual for a high-end young talent.

“Puck luck” might have been the lone factor that pushed Matthews’ numbers in a positive direction, as his high 18.2 shooting percentage helped him generate 34 goals in just 62 games. Then again, Matthews could very well boast elite shooting talent to go with his hearty shooting volume, so the Maple Leafs must be cognizant of a potentially outrageous contract year for the American star.

That’s especially true if a top power play unit features Matthews with John Tavares, and if Tavares forces defenses to send lesser opponents against Matthews.

  • Nylander might be the player whose stats were least subverted by context and Mike Babcock’s quirks in 2017-18.

Granted, it probably didn’t help that Matthews missed some time … but even then, Nylander rarely spent even-strength shifts away from number 34.

This post won’t focus a ton upon Nylander anyway, as the Maple Leafs don’t really have much of a choice but to sign him this summer. (If they don’t it would be a huge headache holdout stretching into a promising season.)

  • Here’s a take for you: Mitch Marner’s situation is actually the most pivotal.

Matthews is the most important player for the Maple Leafs’ future, probably even including Tavares, considering the age difference. That said, Matthews falls in line with Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Sidney Crosby, and other no-brainer “face of the franchise” players that you simply have to pay a lot, and merely hope that they leave a little money on the table. This post asserts that the Maple Leafs would gain very little in waiting with Matthews, but one way or another, he’s getting paid, and almost certainly long term.

The Marner situation, more than the situation of those two others, seems the most mysterious from a value standpoint.

Simply put, John Tavares can dramatically drive up Marner’s value. It’s to the point that an incredibly simple observation – Marner told Sportsnet that he plans on increasing his shooting volume – would scare the daylights out of me if I was in Dubas’ shiny shoes.

“In the corners, how he can get away from people and draw people into him, I think that’s very important to have on your line,” Marner said of Tavares. “For me, personally, it kinda makes me think I need to shoot more. Going into this season, I have to be ready to shoot. He can make those plays quick.”

Marner fired 194 shots on goal in 82 games last season (2.37 SOG per game), scoring 22 goals for an 11.3 shooting percentage. It’s easy to picture Marner flirting with three SOG per game, particularly in the very likely event that his ice time skyrockets from last season’s average of 16:23 minutes per night.

It’s far from outrageous to picture Marner scoring 40 goals and 80-something points if he’s a full-time winger for Tavares. Far lesser players have raked in the dough with Tavares.

Marner scored 69 points last season despite spending portions of 2017-18 in Mike Babcock’s doghouse. He took off with Nazem Kadri, yet he spent a bit more time lining up with an aging Patrick Marleau and a good-but-unspectacular Zach Hyman. There were significant factors holding Marner’s numbers in the stratosphere, and the Maple Leafs would be foolish not to take advantage of any doubt that he could be a star-level producer.

A season with Tavares would remove just about any doubt, and maybe inflate his stats to the point that he’d play over his head. That would be a real problem for the Maple Leafs.

Cap percentages, cautionary tales

Yes, there are cases when a team might have been better off waiting, even with a prominent player.

Aaron Ekblad comes to mind as a nice piece who’s making the sort of money his team might regret, but he stands in contrast to Marner and Matthews in that he was riding peak performance years while those Leafs forwards’ stats were subdued (as discussed in the previous section).

Dubas & Co. should be more concerned about contracts that ran their course and ended up costing big money.

The Oilers are lucky that, in all honesty, Leon Draisaitl probably is worth $8.5M per year. Still, it’s difficult not to wonder how much money they might have saved if they signed him during the summer of 2016 when his career-high for points was 51 and he didn’t enjoy a long run maximizing his numbers with Connor McDavid (Draisaitl scored 29 goals and 77 points during his 2016-17 contract year).

Matthews is 20. Marner is 21. They’re already revealing themselves to be difference-makers, but it’s not outrageous to picture them both making quantum leaps in 2018-19. If that happens, those contract values will soar.

The early bird also gets the worm when it comes to simpler arguments.

If Matthews’ and/or Marner’s reps want to say “My client is worth x percent of the salary cap” – a very reasonable negotiating ploy – wouldn’t you want that discussion to revolve around 2018-19’s upper limit of $79.5M, rather than a 2019-20 top end that’s likely to be higher, maybe considerably so? Contracts that seem steep today can look a lot better down the line thanks to the rising cap, not to mention if some big-ticket players raise the bar for salaries.

What would Y do?

Again, this discussion hinges on Matthews and Marner being at least reasonably interested in extensions. If any players would roll the dice with health, it would be ones as young as these two. That’s especially true since the best-case scenario for 2018-19 could be each forward tearing up the NHL, and the Leafs finally making a deep run.

That said, “sign your core players as early as possible” has been a theme for much of PHT’s off-season writings (see these divisional breakdowns), and will likely carry over to August and beyond.

Few teams have as much to gain or lose by such discussions as the Maple Leafs do, at least with the Lightning somehow walking the tight rope with Nikita Kucherov after working magic with Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman (Kucherov and Hedman rank as proactive extensions, by the way).

Can Dubas match or at least echo Yzerman’s successes? Toronto presents some additional challenges – steeper taxes, tougher media coverage – but the Maple Leafs would be wise to do the best they can to pull off their own Matrix-line cap maneuverings. Even if it means dropping the casual facade.

* – You didn’t and the Maple Leafs certainly did not; I’m aware of that.

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.