Anton Stralman

Lightning have plenty of questions to answer after playoff failure

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Not winning the Stanley Cup isn’t what makes the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning a failure.

Sometimes great teams simply don’t win.

There is no shame in losing in the Stanley Cup Final. Losing Game 7 of a conference final is nothing to hang your head over.  If their season had ended in that manner (again), or perhaps even in the second round against Boston or Toronto, there would have been some criticism and some doubt about their ability to finish the job, but the reaction wouldn’t have been anywhere near as harsh as it will be following their four-game exit at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Championships are rare, and a great regular season guarantees you nothing when it comes to hardware because there are so many factors that go into being handed that trophy at the end of the playoffs.

What makes this Lightning team a complete and total failure is the fact it simply no-showed in the playoffs. And even saying that may be letting this group off the hook more than they deserve.

This was not the 2010 Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals outplaying a team for seven games only to lose because a goalie got white hot and played the series of his life. This was not a team playing well and doing things right only to go lose a long, drawn out seven-game series because a bounce or two didn’t go their way.

This was the best regular season team of the modern era, and maybe one of the best regular season teams ever, getting absolutely humiliated in four straight games. This thing was not even close.

Outside of the first 15 minutes of the series where the Lightning jumped out to an early three-goal lead, there was never a point in this series where you felt like they were close to breaking through, or that they were playing their game and simply being beaten by a goalie or some rough puck luck, or that they were going to get themselves right.

They just flat out got whooped.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

A team that scored 325 goals during the regular season, and had three different 40-goal scorers, and outscored teams by more than 100 goals, was thoroughly dominated.

They managed just eight goals in four games. They were outscored by a 19-8 margin for the series, and 19-5 over the final 11 periods.

If you wanted to look for excuses, you could point to the injuries to Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman on the blue line, and especially Hedman’s. He is one of the key cogs that makes the machine run smoothly. But this wasn’t the first time they played without him this season and they never looked that bad without him.

And for as good as Stralman is, they only had him for 47 games during the season and still managed to win 62 games without him.

This is also a team that was deep enough and good enough to be without its starting goalie for an entire month and still went 12-3-0 without him.

You could also point to the fact the Blue Jackets are probably better than their final regular season record because the roster as currently constructed was only together for about a month-and-a-half. Maybe that, combined with the absence of Hedman in Games 3 and 4 and the fact he surely wasn’t healthy in Games 1 and 2, narrowed the gap.

But there is no way it narrowed the gap this much. 

You can’t fault anyone for injuries. But you can fault, say, Nikita Kucherov for taking himself out of Game 3 due to a reckless, selfish play. You can fault the offense for not showing up.

What makes this performance even worse for the Lightning is that it in a lot of ways validated any criticism they may have faced for falling short in recent postseasons.

As I wrote before the playoffs began, the Lightning were under a ton of pressure to win this year (probably more than any other team in the playoffs) not only because of what they did during the regular season, but because of the way they have fallen short in recent postseasons.

Again, this is a team that had a 2-1 lead in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and then lost three games in a row scoring only two goals. This is a team that in two of the past three years had 3-2 series leads in the Eastern Conference Final only to lose both, scoring just three total games in the four games they lost (they scored three goals in their Games 6 and 7 losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016, and zero goals in their two defeats a year ago to the Washington Capitals).

There is losing, and then there is collapsing.

The Lightning have developed a tendency for collapsing.

Now comes the hard part for the Lightning.

Now they have to figure out why this happened, why this team failed so spectacularly, and what exactly there is to do about it.

There is no denying the talent on this team, and it’s not like the group is without its share of success. Since the start of the 2014-15 season the Lightning have won more regular season games than any other team in the NHL, and the third most playoff games. The core that produced all of those wins is still locked in place and under team control, and most of them are still in the prime of their careers. It’s not like this is a situation that is screaming for a massive overhaul, and quite honestly, a massive overhaul is probably the worst thing they could do.

But it’s no longer unfair to ask if something is just off here.

Is it the coach? Is it the players? Or was it simply a team that had been ridiculously close in recent years, falling just short, simply falling on its face at the worst possible time?

In a vacuum any of the Lightning’s recent postseason losses are nothing to be terribly worried about on their own.

That’s sports. Your season is going to end short of a championship far more often than it doesn’t. But to keep losing the way they have, and to keep going out as meekly as they have when they have been in a position of control is something worth talking about.

Simply losing isn’t what is going to define the 2018-19 Lightning, or even this current core of players.

It is the way they have lost that is defining them.

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.

New York Rangers ’15-16 Outlook

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If you’re fascinated by athletes chasing big numbers in contract years, then the New York Rangers have been a go-to source of entertainment in recent years.

It’s difficult (if not nebulous) to try to quantify the impact of “greed is good,” but the Rangers are a hungry team with plenty of motivation in 2015-16. That’s what happens when you mortgage bits of your future via trades and employ some players chasing their next checks.

You never really know how wide open a Stanley Cup window might be.

Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault saw that in action in Vancouver, as the franchise declined from a huge contender to a bubble team in little time.

We’ve asked more than once if Henrik Lundqist’s elite days are numbered. It’s also worth noting that at 31, Rick Nash is in the middle of that age in which snipers see a slide in production.

The contract year situations aren’t of “uh oh, we better re-sign Henrik Lundqvist/our current captain/Derek Stepan” enormity, but they’re still intriguing.

On defense, you have veteran Keith Yandle and fading graybeard (literally) Dan Boyle. Antti Raanta also enters a pivotal year as an NHL backup.

The forward group might be the most intriguing.

Just look at the pending RFAs alone: Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T Miller and Emerson Etem. There’s some fascinating potential for all four of those players.

Even with Boyle’s $4.5 million cap hit set to expire, salary cap gymnastic may be required once again in the summer of 2016.

***

Paying players after strong years – and learning to let some of the less essential ones go – has been a pretty rewarding process for the Rangers, even if there’s been the occasional miss (see: Anton Stralman).

Tampa Bay Lightning ’15-16 Outlook

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Tampa Bay’s mantra going into this summer might as well have been “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

It certainly seems that was Lightning GM Steve Yzerman’s philosophy as a trip to the Stanley Cup Final has led to a quiet offseason. At the same time, there is still the potential for organic, internal changes.

Forward Jonathan Drouin might find himself playing a bigger role next season after getting limited minutes in 2014-15 and barely participating in the playoffs. He has a ton of offensive upside as illustrated by his back-to-back 100-plus point seasons with the Halifax Mooseheads. If the 20-year-old forward can build off of his 32-point rookie campaign, then he will be complimenting an already deep offensive core.

At the same time, netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy’s rise last season has changed the dynamic of Tampa Bay’s goaltending. While Ben Bishop is still the team’s starter, Vasilevskiy should start pushing him for ice time. The potential is also there for a goaltending controversy should Bishop endure a sustained cold streak.

We might also see defenseman Slater Koekkoek earn a regular spot with the Lightning after playing in three contests with Tampa Bay in 2014-15. He was the 10th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and might become a significant threat with the puck and factor with the man advantage.

For the most part though, the status quo is expected to remain. Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and Jason Garrison should once again lead Tampa Bay’s blueline. Stamkos remains the centerpiece of the offense while the hope is that the Triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat has another strong campaign.

The Lightning got a lot out of that core last season, which has earned them another chance to pursue a championship together.

Kucherov reportedly travelling with the Lightning to Chicago

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Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov was on the team’s charter to Chicago on Sunday; however, is availability for Game 6 is still uknown.

The 21-year-old fell awkwardly into the goal post during the first period of Saturday’s Game 5 loss and did not return.

“I don’t have an update on [Kucherov],” Jon Cooper said postgame. “I thought he was going to come back, and then I got word he wasn’t coming back. He’ll be evaluated probably tonight and tomorrow.”

If Kucherov can’t play in Game 6 on Monday night, it would be a big blow to the Bolts’ offense. He has 10 goals and 22 points in 25 playoff games this spring.

“It’s tough to lose a guy like that,” said defenseman Anton Stralman per The Tampa Bay Times. “He’s definitely one of the guys you want on the ice.”

Puck drop on Game 6 is set for 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

‘It took him a few years, but Victor Hedman’s arrived’

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CHICAGO — Those who’ve been watching closely know Victor Hedman’s been among the NHL’s elite defensemen for a little while now.

Those who haven’t been watching closely, well, those people sure know now.

Hedman was brilliant in Tampa Bay’s 3-2 victory over the Blackhawks, on center stage in the Stanley Cup Final.

The 24-year-old’s excellence included a mighty assist on the game’s winning goal, when, with just over three minutes remaining in regulation, he picked up the puck at his own blue line, rushed his giant frame through the neutral zone, went wide on Brent Seabrook and used his reach to sling a perfect pass to Cedric Paquette, who directed it into the Chicago net.

“I said to him after the game, ‘How do you find those plays, man?'” said his defensive partner, Anton Stralman. “He’s very optimistic in that way. Likes to join the rush, usually makes really good reads, when to go, when not to go.”

Hedman was drafted second overall in 2009, right after John Tavares. He jumped into the NHL right away, but not with the spectacular results that some rookies have enjoyed.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is the only player on the current roster that was on that 2009-10 team with Hedman.

“It’s tough to come into the league as an 18-year-old defenseman. I think that’s the toughest position to be put in,” said Stamkos. “Especially in the position that we were in. We weren’t a great team. He was getting some minutes against some quality competition, and our team was struggling. He was kind of thrown into the fire. He’s matured as a player, matured as a person. You see the confidence that he has now. He steps up in all big moments.”

“Hedman, what he’s doing, I mean, this is clearly his coming-out party,” added Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper.

On top of the pass that Hedman made on the winning goal, he also set up Ryan Callahan’s first-period rocket past Corey Crawford, on one of the longest bombs you’ll ever see in a hockey game.

“We were pressured in the zone a little bit and trying to calm the play down a little bit,” Hedman explained. “I wasn’t going to give it to him. I saw their d-man fell. Tried to put it there. He made a good catch on his backhand. It was a hell of a shot. That was obviously a big goal. We probably got a little lucky that their d-man went down.”

Perhaps, but there was no luck in the second period when Hedman made arguably an even better pass, sending the puck high off the glass to give Nikita Kucherov a breakaway.

“Words can’t describe the force that he’s been out there for our team,” said Stamkos. “We’ve known how good he is all along.”

“Just the plays he makes, it’s fun to watch,” said Cooper. “He’s really grown into that role. It took him a few years, but Victor Hedman’s arrived.”

Related: Hanifin feels he has NHL ‘mindset,’ but won’t be ‘mad’ if he goes back to college