Andrei Vasilevskiy

NHL Playoffs: How should top four East teams approach Round Robin?

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[UPDATE – JULY 10: NHL announces full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

While the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams fight to make it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Round Robin is merely for seeding. Such a scenario presents the NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding teams (four in each conference) with many conundrums, including the age-old rest vs. rust debate.

PHT will take a look at such dilemmas for all eight teams in the NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding, starting with the East. We’re going East first because the Bruins a) won the Presidents’ Trophy and b) addressed such debates recently.

We might as well go in order as they would be ranked, too.

Debates for East top four teams heading into NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding

Boston Bruins

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty reports that Bruce Cassidy said he’s open to the idea of resting players during the three-game Round Robin for Seeding.

“Would we like to win all three games? Of course, in a perfect world, but I think with all teams there’s going to be some sort of a preseason mentality worked in with how the lineups are constructed every game,” Cassidy said, via Haggerty. “But if the [veteran players] want to play every game then I’m going to listen to them. It’s their bodies and they would know best. Then in the last game in the third period we’re going to shut our eyes and hope nobody gets hurt in those situations.”

The Bruins are in a heightened situation. While it stings that they may lose the top seeding they earned with 2019-20’s only 100-point season, this is also a roster brimming with veterans.

Most obviously, Cassidy must manage Zdeno Chara (43) and Patrice Bergeron (34). Really, the list goes deeper even than Tuukka Rask, who’s 33.

Brad Marchand is 32, and stands as an example to other contenders. As you may recall, Marchand aggravated a previous hand injury before the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

Maybe it was coincidental, but Marchand’s top line struggled during that seven-game slugfest with the Blues. If teams like the Bruins want to go deep, they should emphasize caution most of all.

So, beyond the obvious, there are players who’ve been banged up like Torey Krug. Charlie McAvoy‘s also dealt with bumps and bruises despite ranking as one of the younger Bruins.

Overall, the Bruins rank among the East Round Robin teams with the most incentive to rest key players.

[MORE: How should the West’s top four teams handle rest vs. rust?]

Tampa Bay Lightning

How should the team with the most to lose deal with the Round Robin for Seeding?

Imagine how badly things could play out for the Lightning. We all know that their historic 2018-19 season ended in a stunning first-round sweep. Kenan Thompson mocked it. Andrei Vasilevskiy looked really steamed.

What if the Lightning fall short under these strange circumstances?

It could cost Jon Cooper his job. And there’s the increased risk of scapegoating a lack of “preparedness” if the Lightning take a preseason approach to the Round Robin for Seeding.

You could definitely make the argument that the Lightning took a while to get back into their elite form in 2019-20, too.

But … the Lightning are smarter than to cave to bad takes, right?

Let’s not forget that the Lightning didn’t really take their feet off the gas during that 2018-19 regular season — not really. Rather than resting stars more aggressively, Nikita Kucherov and others chased history.

Personally, it really looked like Victor Hedman was far from 100 percent, even missing some of that first-round sweep.

This Lightning team boasts a fairly old defense beyond Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev. Hedman is 29 already. Steven Stamkos is 30 (ponders own mortality for a second).

Cooper needs to find the right balance. If there’s any hint of failure in that regard, the vultures may start circling.

Washington Capitals

Zooming out, the most logical choice would be for the Capitals to promote rest.

Almost every major Capitals player is 30 or older, with the rare exception of breakthrough winger Jakub Vrana (24). There’s also some incentive to see if Ilya Samsonov (23) is still sharper than Braden Holtby (30).

But 34-year-old Alex Ovechkin doesn’t sit out a whole lot of games. Maybe the unique circumstances (and lack of a Maurice Richard Trophy to chase) might change Ovechkin’s approach, yet it’s not a slam-dunk to sit him. As Cassidy said, coaches will at times defer to players. It wouldn’t be shocking if such an approach occasionally backfires.

All things considered, the Capitals joust with the Bruins for the East Round Robin team with the most to gain from resting aging stars.

Philadelphia Flyers

The knee-jerk reaction would be to say that the Flyers want to shake off rust.

For one thing, the Flyers boast several core players in the younger range. Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov are both 23, while Carter Hart is 21. The Flyers also are “playing with house money” as a team that could climb to the top spot if they end up hot during the Round Robin for Seeding.

But the Flyers have plenty of reason to be careful, too.

To start, the drop-off between Hart and Brian Elliott (or another goalie) looks pretty severe. You don’t necessarily want to increase injury risks with Hart, then.

Also, there are veterans to manage. Philly should aim to keep Claude Giroux (32) and Jakub Voracek (30) fresh, not to mention someone like Matt Niskanen (33). While Sean Couturier is only 27, he’s the sort of player you’ll lean on a ton in playoff situations. So you might want to tread lightly there.

Rather than overtaxing go-to guys, this could be an opportunity for others. Could Nolan Patrick crack the lineup if his migraine issues are behind him? Perhaps a prospect from Philly’s impressive farm system will make a jump?

The Flyers have a lot to like about this situation. Even so, they also need to avoid getting too greedy.

MORE ON NHL PLAYOFFS, ROUND ROBIN FOR SEEDING:

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.

Carter Hutton opens up about vision issues, tough Sabres season

Carter Hutton didn’t want to use his vision issues as an excuse for a rough season with the Sabres. Hutton opened up to the Buffalo News’ Lance Lysowski about his struggles with convergence insufficiency, and it’s a fascinating read.

Essentially, Hutton struggled to track pucks thanks to his left eye moving slower than his right. After receiving advice from the Sabres’ staff, Hutton sought out specialists and started to feel back on track by January.

“[Therapy] became part of my daily routine,” Hutton said. “I would do a ton of different eye training and things to get better at that. In the moment it was obviously tough. Now, moving forward, I learned a lot of skills to help improve that area and make my eye strength better and work on stuff. We weren’t sure what it was. It was something I managed throughout the season.”

Interestingly, Hutton told Lysowski that he started to feel back to normal during a tough Jan. 11 outing against the Canucks. (Sometimes results and feelings don’t always match up, huh?)

Hutton cannot pin all struggles on vision problems, but …

Now, Hutton himself didn’t chalk up all of his struggles to vision issues.

Even if you jump past some very difficult months, Hutton merely managed a 6-8-0 record and mediocre .901 save percentage starting with that Canucks loss.

That said, it will be interesting to see how Hutton performs if he puts his vision challenges behind him. Now, sure, the “struggling player will turn things around” story is a trope; we’re merely seeing it drop at a different time because of the pandemic interruption.

Consider this a story to watch heading into 2020-21 nonetheless.

More evidence that NHL teams need to manage goalie fatigue

Broadly speaking, I’ve often wondered: how many NHL players could benefit from, say, LASIK corrective vision surgery? Smart teams turn over every stone to try to get an edge, and there might be jelly in that donut. Incremental improvements can mean quite a bit in hockey.

Hutton’s vision struggles are also a reminder of how things can fall apart rapidly for goalies, in particular. It’s plausible that Hutton became so preoccupied with his vision that other parts of his game faltered. Or, really, when you really struggle (Hutton suffered through a personal 13-game losing streak), then sometimes you feel pressured to do too much.

It’s another testament to managing the person, not just the goalie. And maybe most importantly, managing that person’s workload.

Consider factors that increase the likelihood of developing convergence insufficiency, via Cedars Sinai:

You are mostly likely to notice symptoms of CI when you do close visual work, such as reading. Symptoms are even more likely if you do this for a long period of time. Extreme tiredness (fatigue) also can bring on symptoms.

Sounds like something a goalie might be at risk for, eh? (And also, gulp, bloggers.)

Really, one cannot help but wonder if goalies silently deal with similar vision or eye problems.

We’ve certainly learned of goalies acknowledging the strain that comes with the position, especially when facing bigger workloads. Lightning star Andrei Vasilevskiy admitted he was feeling tired when he made the jump to No. 1 in 2017-18. During the same season, Capitals workhorse Braden Holtby mentioned that his fatigue issues were mental, rather than physical.

Too much time for Hutton to resolve vision and other issues, or just right?

For better and worse, Hutton will get a long break from NHL hockey. As you likely know, it’s possible that the 2020-21 season may begin in December, or possibly even later.

By then, Hutton may be long beyond any vision issue. Even so, he’ll likely need to shake off any rust.

It should also be interesting to compare and contrast Hutton with a goalie who might go the distance during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. If the break between the end of 2019-20 and the beginning of 2020-21 is compressed as some expect, will Hutton and a few others gain a big edge?

After all, Hutton showed some serious promise as at least a platoon goalie during his time with the Blues. Hutton has one year left on his current contract, so the Sabres have incentive to figure out the best scenario. (Or, you know, maybe they’d trade Hutton?)

Overall, Hutton’s future and how goalies might be affected by all of this turbulence ends up being a lot to take in. You know, sort of like trying to keep track of an extremely fast-moving piece of vulcanized rubber.

MORE: Sabres fans are fed up with losing, and so is Jack Eichel.

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.

Killorn, Lightning jet ski their way to NHL return in ‘Bolts are Back’

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During some of the dog days of the pandemic pause, Alex Killorn gathered Lightning teammates for some tremendous-cheesy “Dock Talk” videos. It only makes sense, then, that he gathered the gang (“the boys?”) for the best segment yet to celebrate the NHL’s return to play. Yes, the “Bolts are back,” indeed.*

* – In small groups

Killorn, Steven Stamkos, and other Lightning teammates celebrated this announcement — on jet skis, with humor — to the tune of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are back in town.”

(Warning: that song will probably get in your head if you watch the video above. Maybe it already is?)

Enjoy some of the best moments of Killorn’s great “Bolts are back” video.

Splashy highlights of Killorn, Stamkos, other Lightning players in “Bolts are back”

Killorn makes his “directorial debut” with an honestly very nice overhead pool shot. The video starts strong with Stamkos and Killorn being goofy on their jet skis.

Stamkos "Bolts are Back"
What, Stamkos didn’t spring for fancy airpods? (via Killorn)

In a moment of poor sportsmanship/skismanship, an unnamed Bruin (or, most likely, someone wearing a Bruins shirt?) gets splashed. Figure this one out, Internet. I believe this is the same person who gets dumped in the water (while wearing a Maple Leafs shirt?) later on?

Bruins guy in "Bolts are Back"
Well, that’s rude. (via Killorn)

While there’s plenty of room for debate, I’d argue that Andrei Vasilevskiy (aka “Big Cat”) earns the nod for best cameo. We catch him lifting weights, and grunting something — maybe “you’re the man?” — before spotting his Lightning pals.

Vasilevskiy Big Cat "Bolts are Back"
Do goalies need to be that ripped? Asking for Dominik Hasek. (via Killorn)

Like many great filmmakers, Killorn tackles class when he features Lightning teammate Anthony Cirelli in one of the more memorable sequences of “Bolts are Back.” Notice that Cirelli (“Rocco”) is waiting tables before being summoned. You see, Cirelli is on an entry-level contract. Is his artificially deflated contract being referenced by Killorn?

Clearly.

Judging by Cirelli abandoning his duties, it’s not only good that the Bolts are back, and so seemingly is the NHL. It’s also promising that Cirelli’s due a raise as a pending RFA.

Other cast members

Not every appearance was as strong as a grunting big cat. Then again, maybe it boils down to repeat viewings, because Mikhail Sergachev‘s fanny pack and cat moved up the power rankings over time:

Sergachev cat
Almost a dog-like pose? Not complaining. (via Killorn)

Clearly, Braydon Coburn and/or Killorn are well-schooled on action movie tropes. At least, that’s my headcanon for Coburn being interrupted while cutting wood. Doesn’t that happen in every thriller involving a reluctantly returning hero? Anyway, Coburn joining the group with an open shirt earns one of the bigger laughs:

Braydon Coburn cameo
Alrighty then, “Kobayashi.” (via Killorn)

Killorn isn’t yet at that “obsessive auteur director” level just yet, as I imagine a control freak would have been maddened by the imperfect skiing V:

imperfect V "Bolts are back"
Maddening. (via Killorn)

(Seriously, who is the straggler? Could Cirelli’s jet ski not keep up? Class rears its ugly head again.)

Killorn ties it all together with another great joke: “The Bolts are back” — in small groups.

"Bolts are Back" -- in small groups
(via Killorn)

Killorn actually might be right about the whole “breakout influencer of the year” thing, honestly.

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.

What is the Lightning’s long-term outlook?

Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning
Getty Images

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Lightning have been favorites to win the Stanley Cup for the past few seasons due to their cornerstone pieces at every level. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov lead the forward group and are the top two point scorers on the Bolts roster through the first 70 games. Victor Hedman is the most prominent name on a well-balanced blueline and Andrei Vasilevskiy was in the discussion for the Vezina Trophy.

In addition to the stellar building blocks, the Lightning also have secondary offensive firepower. Brayden Point is close to becoming a foundational player, if he is not there already. Alex Killorn was closing in on a 30-goal season, Anthony Cirelli, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde and others contribute in a meaningful way.

Tampa Bay also hasn’t seen the true impact of trade deadline acquisitions of Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman.

The Lightning have all the pieces needed to accomplish their goal of winning a championship but remain in limbo until society solves the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long-Term Needs

The wish list in Tampa Bay is quite short. The organization has accomplished a lot in recent years but still needs to get over the final hump and win a Stanley Cup. Ultimately, the Lightning’s regular season performance had little impact on the judgment of this team as long as they reached the postseason.

The long-term needs for the franchise are essentially the same as other teams that have a core in place and compete for a championship year in and year out. Find value in the NHL Draft process and continue to produce prospects that can contribute in one way or another to the varsity team. General manager Julien BriseBois also needs to manage the salary cap effectively and not fall into the trap of paying for past performances but rather remain focused on the future.

Long-Term Strengths

The best asset of the organization is their current core group of players. Hedman, Kucherov, Stamkos and Vasilevskiy are all locked up for the next several seasons. Point’s contract does not expire until the end of the 2021-22 season and is close to becoming an integral part of the team, if not already.

If the NHL season does not return, the Lightning will be one of the more fascinating teams to watch this upcoming offseason. Will they blow it up as if they didn’t achieve their goal? Does Jon Cooper remain coach? Or, do they take another shot at a championship next season and reevaluate at that time?

The pause in action created a murky situation for the future of several NHL teams and the Lightning are near the top of that list.

MORE ON THE LIGHTNING
• Looking at the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning
• Lightning biggest surprises and disappointments so far


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Biggest surprises, disappointments

Lightning surprises disappointments Shattenkirk Vasilevskiy
Getty Images
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Lightning disappointments were mostly mild ones

If there’s one overwhelming disappointment for the Lightning’s season, it’s that it came to a pause, and may not end. That’s the elephant in the room for any credible contender, really, but the Lightning rank among the teams with the biggest reasons to gripe about the pandemic interruption.

Otherwise, finding deeper Lightning disappointments requires some probing. Allow a few attempts:

  • The Lightning stumbled out of the gate, for sure. At least by their standards.
  • In struggling early, they ceded the Atlantic Division to the Bruins. Home-ice advantage could be significant if the two titans meet in a second-round series.
  • Some seemingly promising players struggled. Let’s begin with Mathieu Joseph.

While Joseph wasn’t spectacular in 2018-19 (13 goals, 26 points), he was a useful contributor, especially considering modest ice time. Those contributions dried up in 2019-20, to the point that he played almost half of his games in the AHL.

  • Yanni Gourde didn’t suffer to the same degree as Joseph. Even so, Gourde only managed 10 games so far in 2019-20 after scoring 25 and 22 during his previous two seasons.
  • Also, it was kind of disappointing that Jon Cooper benched Nikita Kucherov during the season. Personally, I never dig it when a star player seems to get scapegoated.
  • It would be a letdown if the Lightning didn’t get to take advantage of “rentals” in Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, even if they’re extended rentals anyway (since both are under contract through 2020-21).

Lightning enjoyed some pleasant surprises in players exceeding expectations

Count me among those who really liked the Lightning making a low-risk signing with Kevin Shattenkirk. Even so, I didn’t necessarily anticipate Shattenkirk enjoying this strong of a rebound year.

Along with tying Mikhail Sergachev — another bet who’s paying off nicely — with 34 points, Shattenkirk provided all-around value for the Lightning. Consider where Shattenkirk ranks on this team GAR chart at Evolving Hockey:

Lightning surprises disappointments GAR

That above chart provides a quick rundown of other Lightning players who enjoyed better-than-expected seasons. Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat also enjoyed strong seasons, sometimes riding plenty of friendly bounces.

Cirelli, Vasilevskiy end up even better than expected

As mentioned earlier today, Anthony Cirelli makes his way on plenty of analytics-leaning Selke Trophy lists.

His potential candidacy is also starting to earn a bit more attention beyond those niche circles. Ken Campbell featured Cirelli’s Selke credibility for The Hockey News in March, for example.

Cirelli’s teammates notice, too. The Athletic’s Joe Smith reports (sub required) that Tyler Johnson said Cirelli’s nickname is “Selke,” and maybe only half-jokingly. Reigning Selke winner Ryan O'Reilly can see why Cirelli is turning heads, too.

“Oh yeah, you can see it playing against him,” O’Reilly said, via Smith. “Seeing the way he frustrates and skates and does little details. We don’t really see him enough. But I know the times we have played against him, definitely, he’s a very impactful player.”

Let’s roll out that Cirelli backchanging GIF one more time, huh?

Just as importantly, Andrei Vasilevskiy enjoyed another splendid season.

This marks Vasilevskiy’s fourth season of at least a .917 save percentage, which was his mark in 2019-20. But people sometimes chalked up Vasilevskiy’s successes mostly to the team in front of him before.

Lately, though, he’s been standing out nicely in advanced stats, such as various websites “Goals Saved Against Average” formulas.

Being that the Lightning face salary cap crunches in trying to keep their impressive assembly of talent together, Vasilevskiy faces credit in justifying his upcoming $9.5M AAV — even before that salary actually kicks in.

If you ask me, Vasilevskiy certainly made a strong argument for his value in 2019-20. That’s a promising development for the reigning Vezina winner, whether you rank that sparkling work among the Lightning surprises or merely expected it.

MORE ON THE LIGHTNING
• Looking at the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning
• Lightning’s long-term outlook

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.