Ryan McDonagh

Lightning battling through early-season adversity

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There is no reason to rush to judgment after 12 games, but the Tampa Bay Lightning have not looked like themselves.

The Bolts escaped the Prudential Center with a wacky 7-6 overtime win Wednesday but have certainly not played with the poise or structure expected of a Stanley Cup favorite.

“We are working extremely hard, it’s not for a matter of will and effort,” Ryan McDonagh told NBC earlier this week. “We are trying to get on the same page here as far as how we want to play, especially away from the puck. We had a lot of things go right for us in last year’s regular season. But this is a new year, we are trying to find a new identity”

Tampa won the 2019 Presidents’ Trophy with ease, earning 128 points and finishing the year with 21 more points than the next closest team in the standings.

While a 6-4-2 record to open the season is not a doomsday scenario, especially with eight of their first 12 games on the road, the Lightning know they are not executing at the level in which they have come to expect.

“We have to find a way to be aggressive within our structure, I think that is when we are at our best,” McDonagh said. “We understand what makes us successful as a group, it’s about going out there and doing it.”

During their Wednesday matchup against New Jersey, Tampa overcame a two-goal third-period deficit when Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph and Ondrej Palat scored within 13:18 of each other to obtain a 6-5 advantage.

But, Kyle Palmieri of the Devils completed a hat trick with eight seconds remaining in regulation and forced overtime. While Tyler Johnson scored the game-winning goal in the extra session, the Lightning need to play a much more systematic style of hockey in order to reach their ultimate goal.

“We can’t get down on each other and let things snowball,” McDonagh said. “Understand at points in the game we need to be simple and safe and when there is an opportunity to strike, try and make it happen.”

Coach Jon Cooper felt his team suffered from their own success last season when they faced adversity for the first time. The club crumbled in their Round 1 series against the Blue Jackets after clinching a playoff spot in early March.

“It’s a blessing and a curse because you don’t play any meaningful hockey for a long time,” he said.

The NHL regular season is an 82-game voyage, and this early skid might end up having a positive impact on the Lightning when it’s all said and done.

“You want to go through some ups and downs as the year goes on, it brings out the true identity of individuals,” McDonagh said. “There is no doubt that we got guys in here that want to push for one another, keep grinding forward and accomplish what we want to accomplish. No doubt in my mind we got the right group of guys in here.”

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.

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.

Goal, fight, ripped jersey highlight wild first period in Game 7

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So, Alex Ovechkin isn’t a big game player, you say?

What say you, then, about Ovi’s goal 62 seconds into Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday?

Ovechkin called Game 7 the biggest game for himself, the team and the Capitals organization on Tuesday and he wasted no time putting an early stamp on it.

His shot was vintage Ovi, just slightly higher in his “office” than usual. But the result was the same: a seeing-eye clapper that sailed past Andrei Vasilevkiy for a 1-0 lead.

Ovi’s goal kicked off a wild first period.

Game 6 was a brilliant hockey game, and if we got even half that energy in Game 7, it was always going to be a doozy.

Devante Smith-Pelly, who was the hero in Game 6, made quite the sacrifice after getting drilled in the head with slapshot off the stick of Ryan McDonagh. Smith-Pelly remained down before getting helped off the ice and down the tunnel to the room.

He returned a short time later.

The period also featured a spirited scrap between Tom Wilson and Braydon Coburn. The two exchanged pleasantries earlier in the period in a scuffle after the whistle, where Coburn ripped off Wilson’s helmet and both were handed penalties.

When their time in the sin bin ran out, each exited the penalty box and immediately tried to knock each other’s head off.

Wilson and Coburn were involved in much of the fun in the first.

Wilson’s hit on Chris Kunitz helped set up the rush that led to Ovechkin’s goal.

Coburn, meanwhile, was trying to collect all the Capitals gear he could in the period. After ripping off Wilson’s helmet, he then stole Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s jersey right off his back in the same scuffle.

MORE:
• Oshie, Ovechkin give Capitals’ power play unique options
• Lightning need to ‘push back’ after missed opportunity in Game 6
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub


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 New York Rangers Day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The New York Rangers.

The New York Rangers earned their third Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history with a 53-22-7 record last season.

New York then eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games of the first round and edged the Washington Capitals in seven games in the conference semifinals. However, Tampa Bay cut New York’s bid for a second straight Stanley Cup Final appearance short defeating the Rangers in seven games in the Eastern Conference Final.

Rick Nash led the way offensively for the Rangers scoring a career-high 42 goals and 69 points in 79 games. Center Derick Brassard also had a career year notching a personal best for goals (19) and points (60).

In what was his final NHL season, Martin St. Louis reached the 20-goal plateau for the 10th time in his career. The 40-year-old announced his retirement in July.

In goal, Henrik Lundqvist went 30-13-3 while posting a 2.25 G.A.A. and a .922 save percentage in 46 appearances. Despite missing 25 games due to a vascular injury, the 33-year-old finished fifth in Vezina Trophy voting.

Cam Talbot took over in Lundqvist’s absence. The 28-year-old finished the season with a 21-9-4 record to go along with a 2.21 G.A.A. and a .926 save percentage.

Off-season recap

It was a busy off-season for the Rangers.

After 15 years as the general manager of the Rangers, Glen Sather stepped down in July and handed the duties to Jeff Gorton.

On the ice, the Rangers dealt Talbot to the Edmonton Oilers and filled his spot with Antti Raanta.

New York also acquired Emerson Etem from the Ducks for Carl Hagelin on the second day of the NHL Draft.

Earlier this month the Rangers added depth at center inking free agent Jarret Stoll to a one-year deal.

The Rangers also took care of their own.

Restricted free agents J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast got new deals and Derek Stepan avoided arbitration signing a new six-year $39 million contract.

James Sheppard, who scored two goals and registered nine penalty minutes in 14 games after being acquired from the San Jose Sharks, remains unsigned.

Several Rangers are still recovering from injuries suffered last season.

Brassard had wrist surgery in late June and was expected to require four-to-six weeks of recovery time. Captain Ryan McDonagh, who led all Rangers’ blue liners with 33 points in 71 games last season, is still recovering from a broken foot suffered in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Mats Zuccarello has been cleared to resume skating and have contact after taking a shot to the head from McDonagh in Game 5 of the Rangers’ first round series against the Penguins.

Mackenzie Skapski is still recovering from off-season hip surgery.