Victor Hedman

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Biggest stories of the offseason

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With NHL training camps set to begin and the 2019-20 season just around the corner, this week’s NHL Power Rankings will be taking a look back at the biggest storylines of the offseason.

Offer sheets, restricted free agents, a Metropolitan Division arms race, the general manager and coaching carousel in full swing, and even a few oddities.

What were the biggest stories of the summer? To the rankings!

The big stories

1. The rise and fall of Paul Fenton. Simply the most stunning story of the offseason. After one mostly disastrous season in charge of the Minnesota Wild, Fenton was fired this offseason and replaced by Bill Guerin. It’s not just that he was fired after a year, but that the Wild waited until after the draft and free agency to make the move.

2. Sebastian Aho‘s offer sheet. It had been six years since a restricted free agent signed an offer sheet with another team, and it was starting to feel like it was never going to happen again. Then Aho and the Montreal Canadiens actually went through with the process. Only problem was the Canadiens made it a contract that was ridiculously easy for the Carolina Hurricanes to match.

3. Unsigned RFAs. With the start of training camp just days away almost all of the top RFAs remain unsigned. Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point, Kyle Connor, Charlie McAvoy, Ivan Provorov, Brock Boeser. It is unprecedented to have this many top-tier RFAs still unsigned this late in the summer. Many of these negotiations will continue throughout training camp and the preseason, but how many will spill over to the regular season?

4. Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s IIHF suspension. Three months after a social media video surfaced of Washington Capitals star Evgeny Kuznetsov in a room with white powder on a table, he was handed a four-year suspension by the IIHF due to a positive cocaine test in May. Kuznetsov voluntarily sought help through the NHL’s education and counseling program and is expected to meet with commissioner Gary Bettman before training camp.

5. Metropolitan Division madness. The Devils and Rangers re-ignited their rivalry with big offseasons that saw them land the top two picks in the draft and acquire some big name veterans, the Flyers overhauled their defense and gave Kevin Hayes a ton of money, the Blue Jackets lost several key players, the Penguins traded Phil Kessel and Olli Maatta, and the Hurricanes added to an already outstanding defense.

6. Florida goes all in Bob. The worst kept secret at the start of the summer was Sergei Bobrovsky going to the Florida Panthers. He fills their biggest need and could be the piece they need to get back in the playoffs, especially after hiring Joel Quenneville as head coach in April.

7. The GM and coaching carousel. Decades after he revived the Red Wings as a player, Steve Yzerman returns to Detroit to try and do the same as the general manager. That paved the way for Ken Holland to leave Detroit to try and rebuild the charred remains of the Peter Chiarelli era in Edmonton. Behind the benches, six teams will have new coaches as Quenneville (Florida), Alain Vigneault (Philadelphia), Todd McLellan (Los Angeles), Ralph Krueger (Buffalo), D.J. Smith (Ottawa), Dave Tippett (Edmonton), and Dallas Eakins (Anaheim) get their chances. For many, it is a second (or third) chance behind an NHL bench.

8. Nashville’s big change. The Predators needed another game-breaking forward to help fix a dreadful power play that failed them all year. They hope to have found that in Matt Duchene. To make room for him they had to deal from their depth on defense and dump P.K. Subban‘s salary. Are they a better team with Duchene over Subban? David Poile is taking a big gamble that they are.

9. Ron Francis takes over Seattle. This is going to be a tough job, not only because he is starting an organization from scratch, but because expectations will be almost unreachable given what happened with the Vegas Golden Knights.

10. New rules. Video review is being expanded to cover major and match penalties, as well as goals scored as the result of a hand pass, high stick on the puck, or pucks that should have been whistled for being out of play. There are also some new player safety rules in place. Read all about them here.

The oddities

11. Robin Lehner‘s New York “Rangers” Masterton Trophy. Lehner won the 2018-19 Masterton Trophy, awarded annually to the player that shows perseverance and dedication to hockey, and gave an inspiring speech at the awards ceremony. When he actually received the physical trophy it had him playing for the New York Rangers. He played the 2018-19 season for the New York Islanders. Fans of those teams do not like being confused for the other.

12. NJ Devil goes through the glass. What was the mascot trying to accomplish? No one knows, but it spoiled a child’s birthday party by running through a giant glass window.

13. Connor McDavid‘s skate lace belt. Not really sure what else to say here, other than when you are the best in the world you can dress however you want.

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14. Phil Kessel’s one-room theatre. After putting his Pittsburgh home on the market, the Internet pounced on a random photo of what looked to be the loneliest movie theatre room in the world … a single desk chair in front of a big screen TV. Kessel said he never actually used the room, it had been empty, and his realtor thought they should put a chair in it to give the feel of a theatre. It was still fun while it lasted.

15. Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s reaction to Keenan Thompson’s Lightning joke. He did not find it amusing (Victor Hedman, however, cracked a smile).

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.

Jon Cooper has to get more out of 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.

The Lightning went into the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the clear-cut favorites. After all, they picked up 128 points during the regular season, which was 21 points more than the team that finished in second place, the Calgary Flames.

So when the playoffs kicked off in April, the Bolts were a heavy favorite in the Round 1 matchup against the No. 8 seed Columbus Blue Jackets. The Lightning had Nikita Kucherov, who led the league in scoring and who eventually won the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. They had three players in the top 12 in scoring and they had Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was named the Vezina Trophy winner.

The Bolts kicked off the playoffs the way you expected them to. They built up a 3-0 lead in Game 1 of their best-of-seven series against the Jackets, but they watched that lead evaporate and they eventually lost the first game. For whatever reason, that stunned them and they were never able to recover.

Yes, there was an injury to their number one defenseman, Victor Hedman. Kucherov also received a suspension during the series. Still, there’s no excuse for a team with 128 points to get swept in the first round.

There’s several reasons why teams fail to live up to expectations, but one of the fingers is usually pointed at the head coach. Jon Cooper, who signed a long-term extension with the team in March, failed to come up with an answer for his team in the playoffs.

At the same time, it’s tough to blame all of the Lightning’s playoff shortcomings on just one person. The quiet whispers questioning Cooper’s future in Tampa were silly. He was never going to lose his job this summer, but that didn’t stop the chatter.

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

“When you have the amount of points we had, it’s a blessing and a curse, in a way. You don’t play any meaningful hockey for a long time. Then all of a sudden, you have to ramp it up. It’s not an excuse. It’s reality,” Cooper said after Game 4, per CBC. “That’s how it goes. You have a historic regular season, and we had a historic playoff.

“We couldn’t find our game. It’s that clear. For six days in April, we couldn’t find it. It’s unfortunate because it puts a blemish on what was one helluva regular season.”

Now, it’s up to Cooper and his team to find a solution.

The Lightning will surely be placed in the same territory as the pre-2018 Washington Capitals. Before they won the Stanley Cup, the Capitals’ regular season performances were meaningless. It didn’t matter if they finished first, second or third during the season if they didn’t win it all. Eventually they did, but there were years of criticism that came before their title. The Lightning are in the same boat right now.

How can Cooper get even more from this team?

They led the league in goals, they gave up the fifth-fewest amount of goals, they had the best power play, best penalty kill, three players in the top 12 in scoring and they arguably had the best goalie in the NHL. There’s no denying that this group is talented, but as Cooper has to find a way to push the right buttons to get them to another level in the spring.

As he mentioned in the above quotes, playing meaningless games for months isn’t ideal. With the league, conference and division wrapped up, the Lightning had nothing to play for until the start of the playoffs. It sounds like Cooper learned from that lesson and he needs to find a way to challenge the group down the stretch if they’re running away with the league again.

That’s easier said than done, but Cooper’s one of the smarter coaches in the league. He should be able to turn last year’s disappointment into something positive. It also helps that he has a roster loaded with talent.

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.