atlantic division

Lightning show off quick-strike offense in win over Canadiens

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The Tampa Bay Lightning entered the 2019-20 NHL regular season with an obvious chip on their shoulders. Despite winning 62 games last year and running away with the Presidents’ trophy, a first-round sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2019 playoffs left a perennial championship contender with something to prove.

On Wednesday evening, the Lightning reminded the Montreal Canadiens, and the rest of the NHL, that they have the ability to strike at a moment’s notice. Braydon Coburn, Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson each lit the lamp in the span of 2:08 to lead the Bolts to a 3-1 victory over the Habs.

Andrei Vasilevskiy recorded 33 saves and Nikita Kucherov added two assists as the Lightning captured their third win of the season. Tampa Bay heads to Boston Thursday to conclude an early six-game road trip.

Jeff Petry opened the scoring for Montreal with a power-play blast at 15:46 of the first period. Max Domi assisted on the play and has picked up six points (three goals, three assists) in the previous four games. But the Lightning answered with a surge of their own.

Coburn tallied the equalizer late in the first period when his shot from the high slot sailed past Carey Price at 19:53 of the opening period. Then, Stamkos and Johnson scored early in the second period to give Tampa Bay full control of the contest.

The Lightning have so much offensive firepower, but they have to caution themselves against relying on their quick-strike ability.

Stamkos led by example on the ice, notching two points, but also sent his teammates a minor warning through the media following a loss on October 6 against the Hurricanes.

“We just continue to be the freewheeling team that thinks that we can just come into games and win because we’re skilled,” Stamkos told reporters. “We keep falling back into the same old bad habits that we’ve been doing, that cost us the season we had last year. Unless we change things, it’s going to be a really, really, really long year.”

The Lightning have not gotten off to the smoothest of starts this season, posting a 3-2-1 record and somehow finding themselves on the outside of the Eastern Conference Playoff picture on the young season.

In the past two years, the Metropolitan Division has supplied both wild card teams in the East, but this year figures to be different with several changes in the Atlantic. The Buffalo Sabres are off to a tremendous start with Ralph Krueger behind the bench. In Florida, the Panthers made a number of offseason additions and brought in three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville. Additionally, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins expect to be near the top of the standings when it is all said and done.

From the Lightning perspective, the division will be much more competitive, and a slow start could have big ramifications in terms of playoff positioning, making this early divisional game more important than it is viewed on the surface.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

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.

It’s Florida Panthers 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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers. 

2018-19
36-32-14, 86 points (5th in Atlantic Division, 10th in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Sergei Bobrovsky
Noel Acciari
Anton Stralman
Brett Connolly
Joel Quenneville – coach

OUT:
Roberto Luongo – retired
James Reimer
Troy Brouwer
Jamie McGinn
Derek MacKenzie
Riley Sheahan

RE-SIGNED:
MacKenzie Weegar
Jayce Hawryluk
Sam Montembeault
MacKenzie Weegar

2018-19 Season Summary

If you’re a Florida Panthers fan, do you even care about last season at this point?

You’d be forgiven if you’ve forgotten already.

Florida’s offseason began with the hiring of Joel Quenneville, one of the NHL’s most successful and respect coaches of all-time, and it only kept gaining speed.

The Panthers added Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari up front and Anton Stralman on the backend. And then they signed perhaps the biggest piece that’s been missing, a stud No. 1 goaltender.

[More: Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

We can debate back and forth about the merit of a seven-year, $70 million deal all day. What you can’t argue is the fact that the Panthers have taken a massive step toward competing with the big boys in the Atlantic Division.

It makes yet another season of playoff-less hockey a little easier to stomach after how aggressive Dale Tallon has been. It’s had pretty much become a given that the Panthers wouldn’t make the playoffs over the past two decades. They’ve reached the postseason just twice in the past 18 years, an undesirable trend in a market that struggles to put butts in seats.

It’s tough to get anything done with inconsistent goaltending and lackluster team defense, two lowlights of Florida’s fifth-place showing the Atlantic last season.

Even with the ninth-best goals-per-game as a team, the Panthers couldn’t outscore their problems from the blue line backward. They collectively allowed the 28th most goals out of the league’s 31 teams.

Stralman coming in should help that, as should the system Quenneville installs along with Bob’s goaltending.

Up front, the Panthers really just need more of the same from guys like Aleksander Barkov, Mike Hoffman and Jonathan Huberdeau. All three hit the 30-goal plateau.

There’s also plenty of secondary scoring off the sticks of Evgenii Dadonov, Vincent Trocheck and Frank Vatrano. All three could conceivably reach the same mark. Trocheck had 31 the year before but was limited to 55 games because of injury last season. Dadonov was two shy with 28 and Vatrano had 24. Brett Connolly, too — and if healthy — showed he can reach at least 20 after playing 81 games last season. He hadn’t played more than 71 in any of his previous seven seasons prior.

And Connolly, a Stanley Cup winner with the Washington Capitals two seasons ago, adds playoff experience, along with Stralman (two Stanley Cup Final appearances) and Acciari (one Cup Final appearance.)

The days of perennial losing in Florida might just be over.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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 Detroit Red Wings 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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Detroit Red Wings.

2018-19
32-40-10, 74 points (7th in the Atlantic Division, 14th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Valtteri Filppula
Patrik Nemeth
Calvin Pickard
Steve Yzerman – general manager

OUT
Thomas Vanek
Martin Frk
Luke Witkowski
Wade Megan
Ken Holland – general manager

RE-SIGNED 
Joe Hicketts
Dominic Turgeon

[MORE: Three questions | Blashill under pressure? | X-factor]

2018-19 Season Review

The Detroit Red Wings did what we all expected them to do this past season.

They were never going to compete for a playoff spot, at least not without some divine intervention. A team in the midst of a rebuild, the Red Wings lived up to the low expectations set out for them. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Rebuilds aren’t about the win-loss record or the position in the standings. Instead, they focus on the bigger picture — long-term success with bouts of short-term growth to get them there.

And if we use that metric, and strip away the record and the fact that they’ve missed the playoffs now three years on the trot after making it 25 straight times before that, we can certainly find some positives.

Most importantly, the young core that will one day lead this team took another in terms of production.

Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi all took steps in terms of production, with all four setting career highs in goals and at least tying career highs in points. All four of those guys are also 25 or under, so there’s plenty more of where that came from to come and where the optimism in Detroit lies.

And the next harvest from the farm could come as early as this season in the form of Filip Zadina and Taro Hirose, two more forwards with point-producing prowess. Michael Rasmussen should also compete for a spot.

The Red Wings relied on an older backend this past season after re-signing Mike Green last summer and rolling with Jonathan Ericsson, Trevor Daley and Danny DeKeyser, three of which are 33 or older.

A mid-season trade saw Madison Bowey enter the fold and Nick Jensen departing to the Washington Capitals.

Defenseman Filip Hronek, 21, should get a full-time gig with the Red Wings this season after finishing fourth in rookie defensemen scoring last season in just 46 games.

Of course, the biggest move made over the summer was the installation of Steve Yzerman as the team’s new general manager. Ken Holland, who had been the team’s GM since 1997, is now in Edmonton and it’s up to Yzerman to turn the rebuild into a perennial contender, much like the one he created in Tampa Bay.

This team isn’t expected to move the needle much further this coming season, which should get a pass, especially as Yzerman gets the lay of the land in the town spent his whole 22-year playing career in.

Their offseason moves have been few and mostly underwhelming with the return of Valtteri Filppula, and the addition of Patrik Nemeth on the blue line.

There’s still no word, either, on whether 38-year-old Niklas Kronwall will return for another season.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Sabres have questions to answer in offensive, defensive zones

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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 Buffalo Sabres.

Let’s ponder three burning questions for the Sabres in 2019-20 …

1. How will their goaltending situation play out?

The San Jose Sharks will tell you, confidently, that team save percentage during the regular season means very little.

In their case, they’re not lying, per se. Still, it would be stretching the truth based on a complete anomaly.

And as bad as the Sharks were between the pipes in the regular season, they still had enough talent to put them into the Western Conference Final.

How does this relate at all to the Buffalo Sabres some 2,700 miles away? Well, it outlines how much better the Sharks were in front of Martin Jones despite an inferior team save percentage. The Sabres are a team that couldn’t be saved by outscoring their opponents and therefore their 22nd-ranked team save percentage of .901 had quite the bearing on their outcome in 2018-19.

There wasn’t much between Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark last season. Both played well along with the team early on in the season, when the Sabres were battling for first in the East. That all came crashing down in the second half, however, as team defense took a nosedive, bringing their season along with it.

Ullmark, who signed a one-year extension with the team on Saturday, enters once again as the backup but should see significant time as he did last year, especially if Hutton struggles again.

[A look back at the Sabres in 2018-19]

2. Will the re-tooling on defense do wonders?

Taking advantage of a cash-strapped Vegas Golden Knights team, the Sabres went about acquiring Colin Miller for a couple of picks, a shrewd move by general manager Jason Botterill and one that was much-needed as the team strives for a better defensive effort this coming season.’

Speaking of shrewd moves, they also added Henri Jokiharju after trading Alexander Nylander to the Chicago Blackhawks. Henri Jokiharju was taken in the first round in 2017 and was projected to be a big part of Chicago’s future on the right side. Instead, they traded him away for Nylander who hasn’t developed the way the Sabres would have wanted him to.

All these moves leave the Sabres with nine defensemen on their roster, meaning one should be getting moved prior to the season, both for cap compliance and roster space reasons. The Sabres are above the cap limit by $1 million and have 24 players signed at the moment.

There have been rumors of Rasmus Ristolainen being on his way out, but nothing has materialized in that realm as of yet.

Nevertheless, the additions of Miller and Jokiharju are intriguing, along with having Brandon Montour getting a full training camp with the team and a healthy Jake McCabe back in the fold.

3. Can the Sabres get the secondary scoring they need? 

Buffalo’s big three of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart combined for over 200 points last season, including Skinner’s 40 goals and Eichel’s 82 points.

From there, their next two top scorers came on defense with Dahlin and Ristolainen, the latter who may not be with the team by the time the regular season rolls around.

No other forward on the team had more than 34 points (Conor Sheary) and 16 goals (Jason Pominville), so the Sabres have gone out and tried to rectify that.

The addition of Marcus Johansson is a big one, in terms of puck possession and scoring. Johansson had 13 goals and 30 points in 58 games last season and 11 points in 22 games for the Boston Bruins in the playoffs.

They also acquired Jimmy Vesey, the 17-goal man from last season with the New York Rangers. Vesey hasn’t been the player he was touted as coming out of college as a Hobey Baker winner but perhaps new scenery on a young team can jump-start his career.

There’s also the pending return for Ristolainen if the Sabres can swing a deal. Buffalo won’t be wanting a defenseman in return, which means they could add someone up front to add further depth.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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

Johansson gives Sabres scoring, versatility

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The Buffalo Sabres have added some scoring depth and some versatility with the signing of forward Marcus Johansson on Saturday.

The Sabres and Johansson agreed to a two-year, $9 million deal that carries a cap hit of $4.5 million per season. It’s a good term for Johansson, 28, who can prove his worth over the next two years and parlay that into a longer deal at the end of it.

For the Sabres, they get a player who an excellent left-winger and has the ability, if needed, to play in the middle. As Mike Harrington from the Buffalo News points out, Johansson has won 900 faceoffs in his career thus far but hasn’t played the position much since he was with the Washington Capitals.

Where he plays is still up in the air. He’s likely to start the season on the wing and in Buffalo’s top-six contingent. But the Sabres are thin at center after Jack Eichel and he would certainly see time there if need be. If nothing else, the option is there for a player that can theoretically play any of the forward positions. Johansson’s utility extends to the power play as well.

The Sabres scratched priority No. 1 off their list when they extended Jeff Skinner. They also re-upped on Zemgus Girgensons on Friday.

It’s not nearly as splashy an offseason as last year, but the Sabres are making solid moves to improve their club after it showed flashes last season. I don’t see Buffalo as a team far off from being in the playoff conversation (I figured they were going to be in it last year, so what do I know.) But adding some scoring to a team in the bottom third in the category last season is a good step in that direction.

Johansson has 20-goal capabilities, having done so twice now in his career. He played just 29 games in 2017-18 after a nasty head shot by Brad Marchand and was limited to 58 games this season because of injuries.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Prior to that, Johansson hit the 20-goal mark in 2014-15 and then again in 2016-17, playing the NHL’s full slate of 82 games in both of those campaigns. His possession numbers in those two seasons — 53.1 percent and 52.9 percent, respectively — were his best as a pro, as well.

Johansson is simply effective when he’s healthy and if he can stay that way with the Sabres, he’s a shrewd addition to a team that is only getting better as their young stars get older.

Perhaps there’s a little superstition at play here, too.

Johansson hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2013, making it with the Capitals on four straight occasions before runs with the New Jersey Devils and most recently a Stanley Cup Final appearance with the Boston Bruins.

With the Bruins, Johansson played a critical role, scoring four times and adding seven assists in 22 games. The guy produces.

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.