Nikita Kucherov

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Round Robin teams with most to lose

With Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return to Play plan kicking in this week, the possibility of the 2020 Stanley Cup being raised remains alive. In recent power rankings posts, we’ve focused on Qualifying Round storylines and matchups. But what about the teams who aim to thrive rather than survive. Today we discuss the top four teams in each conference who will compete in Round Robin for Seeding.

To be more precise, we’re wondering which top four teams have the most on the line. In this case, we’re focused on the top four teams in each conference’s outlooks during entire NHL playoffs, rather than just the Round Robin for Seeding.

Let’s rank them first to last as far as desperation goes in each conference. At the end, we’ll debate who has the absolute most on the line, and who’s playing with house money.

The Bruins won the Presidents’ Trophy, so it seems fairest to start with the top four for the East.

Top four East (Round Robin) NHL teams with the most and least to lose

1. Tampa Bay Lightning

Imagine if the Lightning draw the Blue Jackets at some point during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

(Are you cringing too?)

While the Lightning are lucky that they get to jet-ski around a market like Tampa Bay, the rumblings will grow to a fever pitch if they fall short again. (Like, we might need to physically separate Andrei Vasilevskiy from Kenan Thompson.)

Yes, this franchise owns a Stanley Cup. But that was from the Vincent Lecavalier – Martin St. Louis – Brad Richards era. For all Steven Stamkos has accomplished, he’s had his heart and face broken in many NHL playoffs. At some point, it’s going to get awkward if Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman “can’t win the big one.”

(Speaking of cringing, wait for those takes.)

2. Boston Bruins

The 2019-20 Presidents’ Trophy winners keep hiding Father Time’s coat and shoes. It’s not just Zdeno Chara hogging the Fountain of Youth/Lazarus Pit at 43, either. Patrice Bergeron remains dominant at 34. You might make a double-take when you realize Brad Marchand is already 32. Oh yeah, Tuukka Rask is 33, too.

You … gotta think the Bruins are peaking right? Right? I mean, I honestly felt like this group would hit the aging curve hard by now, yet they comfortably topped the NHL standings this season.

It’s not just about wondering if the window will close. Even before the pandemic pause, it seemed like pending UFA Torey Krug would represent a tight squeeze. If they want to bring Krug back, you’d think they’d need to break up some of the band.

As much as this group has accomplished, you have to think that Chara & Co. want a second Stanley Cup (and first for star David Pastrnak).

3. Washington Capitals

*Rubs eyes*

Wait a minute, is this really happening? Are the Capitals relatively unfettered by “must-win” pressure?

Well, not exactly. Aside from the occasional Jakub Vrana, this roster’s getting a little up there in age. If for some reason you want to ponder your own mortality during the escape of watching hockey, merely ponder Alex Ovechkin‘s gray hair.

Alex Ovechkin Round Robin NHL
It works for Ovechkin, but still. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

With Braden Holtby‘s pending UFA status lingering, there’s still room for Capitals drama. No doubt, though, slaying that Stanley Cup dragon relieves most of the angst.

4. Philadelphia Flyers

For some, the Flyers kinda slipped up the ranks under the radar. This has been a team that’s mainly been playoff bubble material, at least when the wheels don’t fall off. Now they’re a Round Robin for Seeding away from possibly swiping the East’s top seed.

Don’t blame at least some of the Flyers for feeling pretty loose, then.

Yet … it’s not as if they’re playing with zero pressure.

Obviously, Philly can be a tough market. If the Flyers flounder, people will grumble about squandering a golden opportunity.

Also, for all the considerable youth on this roster, could this be a “sweet spot” between rising talent and aging stars? Claude Giroux (32), Jakub Voracek (30), and James van Riemsdyk (31) all might be heading toward a decline.

Top four West (Round Robin) NHL teams with the most and least to lose

1. St. Louis Blues

Like the Capitals, the Blues recently ended their franchise’s decades-long Stanley Cup drought. I’d wager there are some Blues fans who view the rest as “all gravy.”

Still, when you’re defending champs, you have a target on your back.

Combine that thought with Alex Pietrangelo possibly being out the door, and the temperature rises. What if this is the Blues’ best chance at a second Stanley Cup for quite a while? That thought won’t inspire the “Jaws” theme, exactly, but there’s some heat on the Blues.

2. Vegas Golden Knights

It feels deeply weird to put a third-year team on this list. Shouldn’t the Golden Knights enjoy basically a decade-long “honeymoon phase?”

Well, the Golden Knights are a deeply unusual expansion team.

Rather than being full of young debris, this is a full-flavored contender. And that goes right down to having some expensive players who are getting a little older. Not “Bruins” old, but the core Golden Knights might suddenly enter declines in the not-so-distant future.

Most obviously, Marc-Andre Fleury probably already hit a wall at 35. The Golden Knights made the smart investment to acquire Robin Lehner, but that could set the stage for drama. After all, if we’re being honest … Lehner probably should be the No. 1 guy for now.

The Golden Knights gambled earlier than expected, so if they leave with empty wallets, it will be pretty painful. Not “Joe Pesci’s gruesome death in Casino” painful, but painful.

3. Dallas Stars

The Stars should rank lower. As much as any team, it’s bewildering to realize that they’re basically a hot week from owning the top seed in their conference.

But, honestly, any team that’s thrown Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus this often faces some bleeping horsebleep if they end with a whimper.

4. Colorado Avalanche

Honestly, it feels like we’re still in the “rising fast” portion of the Avalanche’s growth.

While they’ve made some nice moves, you get the impression something splashier lingers down the road. They haven’t gone all-in by any stretch yet, and most of their core is still so young. Nathan MacKinnon‘s 24, Mikko Rantanen‘s merely 23, and Cale Makar‘s a 21-year-old rookie.

If anything, this feels like the “young kids hit a bump in the road” part of the narrative. Sports can be strange even in pre-pandemic times, though, so who knows?

Round Robin Team with most, least to lose

• Lightning have the most to lose

If they fall especially flat, it could conceivably cost Jon Cooper his job. That’s absurd by any measure, and particularly now, but … it’s also far from unimaginable.

•  Flyers have least to lose

The best might be yet to come for this group, aside from the aforementioned aging players. Probably.

MORE NHL RETURN TO PLAY:
League clears up 2020 NHL Playoffs picture
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds
A look at the Western Conference matchups

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
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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 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
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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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning

2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning Stamkos Cirelli
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning.

2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning

Record: 43-21-6 (92 points in 70 games) second in Atlantic, East.
Leading Scorer: Nikita Kucherov – 85 points (33 goals and 52 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves

Season Overview:

Blame it on a hangover from that stunning sweep by the Blue Jackets, or maybe subtler factors, but the Lightning limped into 2019-20. Things looked shaky through November, as they ended that month with a mediocre 12-9-3 record. There was even a point where Kucherov got benched.

At some point, though, a flipped switched and the Lightning returned to their dominant form.

While Kucherov hasn’t been able to match his historic 2018-19 output, he once again ranks among the most lethal scorers in the NHL. The Lightning enjoyed strong work from the usual suspects — Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman — and a second consecutive strong season from Andrei Vasilevskiy.

To the Lightning’s delight, they clearly continue to spot talent beyond the obvious, too. Anthony Cirelli already looked like a gem, but in 2019-20, he rose to the level of being a dark horse candidate for the Selke Trophy.

You could rank the Lightning among the teams that should be most upset about the pandemic pause.

Most obviously, the Lightning might not get a chance to avenge that Blue Jackets sweep if the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs don’t happen. Even if they do, who knows how such a pause might affect how sharp players end up being?

There are other troubling thoughts. This Lightning team must always wrestle with the salary cap, so who knows how many shots they have left before they become less of a “complete” team? Considering Steven Stamkos’ latest injury, who knows how the aging curve will hit the Bolts?

The Lightning also made aggressive moves to win now with rentals. Sure, Goodrow and Coleman are under contract for 2020-21, but Tampa Bay paid big prices for them for two playoff runs, not one.

At least the Lightning enjoy as good a chance as any contender if play does resume, though.

Highlight of the season

You mean, beyond that Cirelli backcheck against Mathew Barzal?

From late December to mid-February, the Lightning put together an absurd 23-2-1 run. That’s the kind of streak that makes you want to remove and clean your glasses, even if you don’t own glasses. You know you’re up to something special when you set a record you didn’t manage in a historic 2018-19 season, as the Bolts won 11 straight.

Naturally, the Lightning hope that the biggest highlights of their 2019-20 season are yet to come, but that hot run was impressive nonetheless.

MORE ON THE LIGHTNING
• Lightning biggest surprises and disappointments so far
• 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.