Looking to make the leap: Slater Koekkoek

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Depending upon how you define “making the leap,” plenty of Tampa Bay Lightning youngsters could qualify for this post.

That’s part of what makes the group GM Steve Yzerman assembled so scary: there are a ton of quality prime-age players who broke through recently or may break through soon.

Even beyond the very-young Triplets, you have Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Nesterov and Andrei Vasilevskiy expecting bigger things, possibly as soon as 2015-16.

There are plenty of almost-there guys who can make the jump, too, from Adam Erne to Anthony DeAngelo.

Here’s a vote for Slater Koekkoek.

As the 10th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, the 21-year-old seems like he’s primed for an arrival sooner rather than later.

He got his feet wet at the NHL level, playing in three games with the Bolts in 2014-15. While his AHL numbers won’t blow you away, the Lightning have every reason to give Koekkoek a chance to prove himself, as the likes of Nesterov, Andrej Sustr and even Matt Carle seemed to move in and out of Jon Cooper’s doghouse during the playoffs.

Speaking of Carle, he seemed impressed with the young blueliner’s skill when he debuted in April, as the Tampa Tribune reports.

“He skates really well, skated with the puck a lot and created a couple of chances on his own,” Carle said. “He was jumping up in plays. But I don’t think I played well enough to help him out. I kind of hung him out to dry on a couple of odd-man rushes. But he’s a talented kid who can skate well.”

Adding more mobility to a defense corps that includes Victor Hedman? That could leave Lightning fans leaping for joy.

Under Pressure: Tyler Johnson

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Steven Stamkos might very well enter the season without a contract extension, but even if he has an off campaign, he’s likely in line for a huge payday thanks to his earned reputation and demand. But what would happen if Tyler Johnson, who had 72 points last season, regresses?

The difference between Stamkos and Johnson is that when Stamkos emerged as a superstar, it was in line with expectations, whereas Johnson has consistently had to defy them. Johnson stands at 5-foot-9 and his unimposing frame contributed to him never getting drafted while Stamkos was a first overall selection.

Johnson forced his way up the Lightning’s depth charts though by dominating in the minors and more recently leading the highly effective Triplets line with Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. At this point, Johnson’s made the Lightning look very good for signing him as an free agent prospect back in 2011. In May 2014, he inked a three-year, $10 million extension, which still looks like a big steal.

It’s clear that the 25-year-old forward is capable of producing regardless of his relatively small stature, but his rapid rise has set the bar higher than that. Johnson played like a star in 2014-15 and if he continues to perform at that level, then next summer there will be anticipation and speculation about the monster contract he might get, just as there is with Stamkos right now. He doesn’t have Stamkos’ same lengthy history of success though, so if Johnson struggles to live up to the high standard he set last season, then he’s less likely to get the benefit of the doubt. Consequently, regressing now might cost him millions in potential earnings.

That’s to say nothing of the fact that his decline would be a significant blow to the Lightning’s scoring depth, which was at the center of their success last season. Tampa Bay needs him to continue to be the next Martin St. Louis. And the thing about St. Louis is that once he broke out with his 70-point campaign in 2002-03, he consistently played like a star for the remainder of his tenure with the Lightning.

It’s Tampa Bay Lightning day at PHT

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The Tampa Bay Lightning fell two wins short of the summit. At least they boast the sort of young legs that can hoist them back to similar heights, though, right?

Jonathan Toews was impressed with the push-back from Tampa Bay in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, even if he delivered that message in the form of a backhanded compliment. Negative types would say 2014-15 was a year of almost – nearly winning the division, coming that close to a Cup win – but most would agree that last year a big success.

The question is: will the Lightning look back at that run as the time they learned how to win the big game?

Time hasn’t always been kind to teams who fall in Stanley Cup Final rounds, although the Lightning have the makings of a team that could be here to say, perhaps running parallel to the Penguins (who lost in 2008 before winning it all in 2009).

Most obviously, the Lightning have the same coach and the same core players.

Off-season recap

Of course, one can look at that bounty of prime-age assets and think that the Lightning can make this last for ages.

Unless you’re a huge Brenden Morrow fan, the main cast members from the 2014-15 Bolts are returning for the sequel. The biggest changes are expected to be from internal growth: Jonathan Drouin may take a bigger role, Andrei Vasilevskiy could push Ben Bishop for starts and others hope to become full-time NHL players.

The biggest consideration comes when you ponder contracts that end after 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Most obviously, Steven Stamkos is in the last year of his contract, a fact that will likely make for distracting headlines.

One piece of “The Triplets” – Nikita Kucherov – will be an RFA after 2015-16. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat will carry that same RFA status after 2017-18, and one would expect big upgrades from their matching $3.33 million cap hits. Even the goalie duo of Bishop and Vasilevskiy only hold two-year deals.

A quiet summer makes sense for the Lightning, yet it’s a bit foreboding, as many would prefer to see “Stamkos signs seven-year mega-deal” in this slot. Yzerman still has time to swing deals like those both before, during and after 2015-16, but looming cap challenges are the elephant in the room.

That’s a bummer for the future, yet the Lightning seem well-stocked for the shorter term.

Johnson’s broken wrist recovering on schedule

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Tyler Johnson’s broken wrist is “recovering on the time line” it’s supposed to, he told the Tampa Bay Times yesterday.

The dynamic Lightning forward has been able to remove the brace he was forced to wear and said he’s “going to do everything I possibly can to be ready” for training camp.

Johnson broke his right wrist in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final versus the Blackhawks. He went into the series as a legitimate Conn Smythe Trophy candidate, but was held to just one goal and one assist as Chicago beat the Bolts in six games.

Despite the injury, Johnson still finished the postseason with 23 points, tied for the lead with Patrick Kane.

Can the Bruins’ defense get up to speed?

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It sounds like the Boston Bruins were taking notes when they watched mobile defensemen Duncan Keith and Victor Hedman square off in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

GM Don Sweeney isn’t asking his group to impersonate Bobby Orr next season, but it sounds like he’s asking for a more active approach, as the Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa reports in this interesting piece.

Most obviously, he wants defensemen to skate a bit more with the puck in transition, easing things on the Bruins’ forwards.

“I think they have to,” Sweeney said. “At times, we probably got a little bit too stationary on our breakouts. We need to be in motion a little bit. That means our forwards will be in motion a little bit, because teams were able to smother the walls, pinch, and pre-pinch.”

Shinzawa provides a few additional sensory details about how such a modified scheme might work, at least ideally:

The tweaks are meant to shift the danger level away from the net. Defensemen will be more active, perhaps up the ice and closer to the walls. Forwards will not have to retreat as far to funnel pucks into favorable real estate. There will be greater challenges to zone entries, similar to how MBTA police close down on fare evaders. The goal, as Sweeney likes to say, is to create anxiety for opponents up the ice.

Let’s be honest, though: it’s reasonable to wonder if the Bruins really boast the personnel to make such a modernization work.

(This idea also turns the knife in a little deeper when it comes to losing Dougie Hamilton.)

Looking at the structure of this team, is it better to try to keep up with the Joneses or merely try to do what you do best? After all, there’s always the possibility that Claude Julien, Zdeno Chara and David Krejci will see better days after a bumpy season (which featured serious injury issues for Chara and Krejci).

Striving for a more modern approach is understandable, but sometimes sports teams lose their identity and gain little in return by trying to dance to the beat of someone else’s drum.

Either way, it’s an intriguing development to ponder in 2015-16. The full article is well worth a read, by the way.

(H/T to Kukla’s Korner)