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Three questions facing Tampa Bay Lightning

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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

1. Can the Lightning finally avoid the late-season fall-off that has been plaguing them?

There’s an old hockey commercial where Sidney Crosby jumps out of a picture where the Penguins had just lost the Stanley Cup to the Detroit Red Wings in 2008. Dejected, Crosby says, “I never want to be in this picture again,” and then jumps back into the shot.

While there isn’t a specific moment for Tampa Bay, but there’s certainly a big picture to gaze at. The Lightning need to have the same mindset as Sid did. They’ve been to the Cup Final once and the Eastern Conference Final three times in the past four seasons. They’ve held 3-2 series leads in two of the three conference finals and still have nothing to show for it. They’ve failed to score in Game 7s. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have turned into ghosts when need the most. Secondary scoring dried up. And their defense has failed at the wrong moment.

These seem like small revisions given how talented the team is, but nonetheless, they’re questions that need answers.

[2017-18 review | Under Pressure: Steve Yzerman | Breakthrough: Brayden Point]

2. Can the Lightning find a way to improve their penalty kill? 

They are a team with few glaring faults, but if one needs to be pipped for improvement, it’s the team’s penalty kill.

Sure, scoring a lot of goals can cover a multitude of sins, but in a critical Game 6 against the Capitals in the Eastern Conference Final, it was a power-play goal by T.J. Oshie that proved to be the first and final dagger as the Caps sent it to Game 7 in a shutout win.

Tampa’s penalty kill ranked 28th in the regular season at 76.1 percent and fell to 75 percent in the playoffs. In layman’s terms, if you could goad the Lightning to take four penalties a game, you were almost assured of scoring once. When games are as close as playoff contests can be, every advantage (and disadvantage in Tampa’s case) counts.

They have a solid defensive core, and having Ryan McDonagh for a full season should help improve their PK numbers.

Perhaps staying out of the box a little more could do wonders as well. The Lightning took the third most minor penalties last season and were the 10th highest team in terms of times shorthanded.

3. Will Andrei Vasilevskiy come into this season with more stamina? 

The words you never want to hear from your starting goalie around March when you’re a lock for the playoffs is, “I’m tired.”

Vasilevskiy did utter those words last season.

“Tiredness is something that I probably never faced before,” Vasilevskiy told the Tampa Bay Times. “I mean, 50-plus games. When you play in 20-plus games, it’s like you think, ‘Oh, I’m good, I can play 60-plus.’ But now when I’m on 50-plus, I’m like, ‘That’s tough.’

That fatigue ultimately cost him the Vezina.

His play down the stretch of the regular season dipped and he was rested. The rest did him good, as he was solid in the postseason, but the Lightning need him to be relatively fresh for the 60 or so starts he will make, or at least build in a bit more rest throughout the season.

On the other hand, Vasilevskiy was going through the throes of being a No. 1 for the first time in the NHL and still managed a .931 save percentage in five-on-five situations over the course of the season.

Endurance can be taught and managed. It’s scary to think what Vasilevskiy can do if there’s no fall off physically and mentally.


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

Under Pressure: Steve Yzerman

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Steve Yzerman seems to have every piece of the puzzle in place going forward.

A forward contingent that includes superstar names such as Stamkos and Kucherov, a rearguard that features a Norris winner in Victor Hedman and up-and-coming talent in Mikhail Sergachev, and a Vezina-calibre goaltender that would have stormed away with the award if not for a late-season hiccup due to fatigue.

The supporting cast around this core is almost unmatched, too. Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde and J.T. Miller are all solid pieces. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson (assuming he has a bounce-back season) are strong complements.

Ryan McDonagh is exactly what the Lightning needed on defense, and they locked him up long term after trading for him at the deadline.

Tampa’s farm system is filled with players both talented and allowed to mature in the minors.

The general manager of the Lightning has built one of the best teams in the NHL today and has seemingly figured out how to keep that going in the future, with his core locked up long term.

Building a great team is one thing. Keeping it great for an extended period of time is another. If the Lightning want to replicate the success of the Chicago Blackhawks, let’s say, it’s not the big name deals that turn into three Stanley Cups in six years, but the smaller ones that fill in the cracks.

Tampa has all sorts of money tied up in big name players. They sit just over $2.6 million below this year’s salary cap of $79.5 million.

They’re fine this season. It’s next year where things start to get interesting.

[2017-18 review | Breakthrough: Brayden Point | Three questions]

The team can shed roughly $10 million in Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi if they so choose. All three are set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season.

Nearly half of that money will go to Kucherov, whose annual average value is essentially doubling at the start of 2018-19 after signing a big-money extension earlier this summer.

Then Yzerman needs to find a way to re-sign Brayden Point, the team’s No. 2 center who, if he continues to improve, could become a point-per-game player this season. That kind of production commands big money, although a bridge deal could help lessen the blow for a couple years.

Yzerman will also have to sort out what to do with Yanni Gourde, a late-blooming rookie last season that put himself into the Calder conversation with 25 goals and 64 points. He’s getting paid a paltry $1 million for his services this season and will be in need of a nice raise come next summer as well, if not sooner given his UFA status next July.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, if he continues in the same vein as he is now, will need elite goaltender money in two years. Mikhail Sergachev, who is shaping up to be a franchise defenseman, will also need a significant pay raise in the same offseason that Vasilevkiy does. And there will be more, assuming a litany of talented prospects pan out as well.

“These guys are good players, really good players, and when you look around the League, they’re going to get paid a certain amount,” Yzerman said after the Kucherov extension. “We want to keep as many of our good players as we can. We’d like to keep everybody. Unfortunately, you can’t do that. But we’re trying to be as competitive as possible while trying to manage the salary cap.”

This is all heading toward some tough decisions for Yzerman. Can they afford Gourde after this year? Does a big name player with a big name contract need to be shipped at some point? Do they lose three depth defenseman with plenty of experience?

The cap is likely to increase, but so is the market value of the players Tampa must sign.

Yzerman’s biggest task now is managing the empire he’s created while he tries to win a Stanley Cup, if not two or three.

Their best window is now.


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

Building off a breakthrough: Brayden Point

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Lightning.

This one is tough.

There are solid cases to be made for Yanni Gourde and Mikhail Sergachev, but Point — at least in this scribe’s eyes — edges out the two rookies because of his fantastic playoff performance.

But not only that.

Point went from and 18-goal scorer in his rookie season to eclipse the 30-goal mark in his sophomore campaign with 32, and bumped his point total from 40 in 68 games to 66 in 82. He tied Nathan MacKinnon for the most game-winning goals with 12, showing not only can he score, but he can find the best time to do so.

In the playoffs, Point subsequentlyy showed he could produce under the pressures of the most meaningful games of his career, amassing 16 points in 17 games while being, arguably, Tampa’s best player in the Boston series Tampa won and the Washington series they lost.

There’s a legitimate chance that the former Western Hockey League standout becomes a point-per-game player this season, which is scary for opposing teams given how stacked the Lightning already are offensively.

“You want players from other teams to think, ‘This isn’t going to be an easy night for us,'” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said during the playoffs. “[Point] does that, regardless of who he’s playing against. If it doesn’t work out for him early, you know he’ll find a way to make sure it does.”

And Point is doing all of this as he sort of defies the odds.

[2017-18 review | Under Pressure: Steve Yzerman | Three questions]

A third-round pick isn’t supposed to be this good yet, never mind a team’s No. 2 center. He’s only ever played nine games in the American Hockey League — he had four points in that stint three years ago — and has seemingly made the transition from junior elite to NHL star with ease.

He may not have not been afforded the chance, at least in such a high capacity, if not for Steven Stamkos‘ freak injury in 2016-17, but Point showed he wasn’t just up to the task, he was well-prepared for it.

Point’s shot share numbers were 52.02 this season, down slightly from the 52.73 he posted in his rookie year, but consider that he played 14 more games with minimal falloff. His goals-for percentage jumped from 54.79 percent to 59.43 percent and his five-on-five shooting percentage boosted from 8.79 percent to 10.02 percent.

Point enters a contract year this year, with his three-year entry-level deal set to expire at seasons’ end. Given how well he’s handled everything that’s been thrown his way in his brief NHL career, it’s likely Point’s best is still yet to come, handing general manager Steve Yzerman yet another big contract to try and fit under the salary cap.


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 Tampa Bay Lightning 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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

2017-18
54-23-5, 113 pts. (1st in the Atlantic Division, 1st in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in seven games to the Washington Capitals, Eastern Conference Final

IN
Andy Andreoff

OUT
Chris Kunitz
Matthew Peca
Andrej Sustr
Peter Budaj

RE-SIGNED
J.T. Miller
Nikita Kucherov
Cedric Paquette
Ryan McDonagh
Louis Domingue
Adam Erne
Slater Koekkoek

– – –

For a good stretch last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning legitimately had the forerunner in the Hart, Vezina and Norris races.

They were also the favourites to win the Stanley Cup.

In the end, they wound up with Norris going to the Victor Hedman, and arguments can still be made that Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy should have won the Hart and Vezina, respectively.

But there was no Cup-hoisting in Florida.

It’s plain to see that the Lightning were a juggernaut last season, at least until they weren’t.

Fatigue and a subsequent drop in performance ended up costing Vasilevskiy the Vezina. The disappearance of goal scoring — from the team that score the most goals in the regular season — in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final would up costing the Lightning a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.

Judging by how the regular season went, the disappointment of being up 3-2 needing just a win to head to the Cup Final seems like a failure despite all the successes.

Kucherov hit 100 points. Stamkos came back after playing in just 17 games in 2016-17 and was a point-per-game player once again.

Second-year forward Brayden Point took a big step in his game, hitting the 30-goal plateau and rummaging up 66 points — and another 16 in 17 playoff games to boot — as he continues his ascent to stardom.

[Breakthrough: Brayden Point | Under Pressure: Steve Yzerman | Three questions]

Hedman was, well, Hedman, racking up 17 goals and 63 points, rookie Yanni Gourde put himself into the Calder conversation with 25 goals in 64 games and the deal that sent Jonathan Drouin to Montreal in exchange for Mikhail Sergachev looked like a masterstroke by general manager Steve Yzerman after the latter had 40 points in his rookie season.

One of the deepest teams in the NHL also found a way to add better depth when they exchanged Vladislav Namestnikov, a prospect and two picks for Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller.

But losing when on the cusp of the Cup Final… that lingers as much as it stings.

The Lightning may not have won it all this year, but my goodness do they have a team set up for several runs at Lord Stanley. They will also be a case-study in how a team handles giving monster contracts to several players and still is able to building a winner around that, but the talent they have under long-term contracts is a bit silly. Keeping McDonagh and Miller on extensions is big, and they’ve even been linked in the Erik Karlsson sweepstakes.

Perhaps that would put them over the top.

They’ve reached the conference final in three of the past four seasons — and the Stanley Cup Final once — but just can’t get it done. Their two biggest names have failed to show up in those big games, too.

Maybe they can take a cue from the Capitals from this season, of how to exercise those past demons.

Prospect Pool

Boris Katchouk, LW, 20, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) – 2016 second-round pick

The Tampa Bay Lightning have another prospect in the system that’s dominating the Ontario Hockey League as a junior player. Given some of the talent on the big club that has done the same, this bodes well. Katchouk had 42 goals and 85 points in 58 games this season with the Greyhounds. He was solid with Team Canada at the world juniors as well, scoring three goals and six points as Canada won gold. The Lightning have the luxury of sending Katchouk to the American Hockey League next season to continue his progression.

Cal Foote, D, 19, Kelowna (WHL) – 2017 first-round pick

Foote had 19 goals and 70 points in 60 games last season with the Rockets, scoring 13 more goals than in his sophomore season. Like Katchouk, Foote featured at the world juniors, adding three assists for Team Canada in seven games and then got a chance to play in the AHL to cap off his season, scoring once in six games. Like Katchouk, Foote will head to Syracuse next season to hone his game at the professional level.

Taylor Raddysh, RW, 20, Erie/Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) – 2016 second-round pick

Syracuse is getting a big influx of top-end junior hockey talent this season, and Raddysh can be counted among those joining the ranks. Like Katchouk (teammates after a mid-season trade) and Foote, Raddysh will be afforded time to grow as a professional amongst men. He was also on Team Canada, also won gold at the world juniors and also lit up the OHL with 33 goals and 83 points in 58 games.

Tampa’s farm system is incredibly stacked.


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

Capitals force Game 7 vs. Lightning with all-around effort

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The Washington Capitals needed the best version of themselves to force a deciding game in the Eastern Conference Final, and that’s exactly what they got at home on Monday.

Hockey fans will be treated to a Game 7 (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to determine who will face the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final, which will begin Monday, May 28.

And if that game is half as good as Game 6 was, a treat is exactly what fans will get.

Yes, Game 6 between the Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning might have been the most exciting game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs so far — not bad for a 3-0 final score.

The scoreline was far from indicative of what happened on the ice. Washington was desperate, but not reckless. Calm and composed, they controlled much of the game and were finally rewarded in the second period via T.J. Oshie‘s power-play marker from the slot — Oshie’s first of two in the game as he added an empty-netter to seal the win late in the third.

The Capitals probably should have won by more, but Andrei Vasilevskiy was in the zone for most of the night.

Down 3-2 coming into Monday, and losers of three straight after taking a 2-0 series lead, the Capitals needed a hero to avoid another humiliating exit from the playoffs.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Holtby, Smith-Pelly help Capitals force Game 7]

Oshie stepped up, for sure.

Braden Holtby looked determined, evidenced by his 24-save shutout with the stakes never higher.

And while Alex Ovechkin looked like a man-possessed in early on — finishing with five shots on goal, one of three Capitals players to do so — it was Devante Smith-Pelly who really shined.

Smith-Pelly put on a physical masterclass early — finishing the game with five hits, including the massacre above.

Then, Smith-Pelly helped the Caps out on the scoresheet.

Chandler Stephenson won a race to beat out the icing call. The puck made its way around the back of Tampa’s net, and Jay Beagle pushed it back to Stephenson, whose backhand pass from behind Vasilevskiy found a streaking Smith-Pelly for a 2-0 lead.

And man, did that goal mean something to DSP. Watch the celly:

It was a heroic effort from Smith-Pelly, Oshie and Holtby, and they’ll need one more before they can truly say they’ve exorcised their playoff demons.

They’ll have 48 hours from now to figure out their course of attack for Game 7, and Tampa will have the same amount of time to pick themselves back up again after the beating they took in the game.

Bring on Game 7, we’re all ready.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 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