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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.

Mikhail Sergachev thinks Lightning will find a way to work out his next contract

Tampa Bay Lightning Mikhail Sergachev contract salary cap
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By just about any standard, it sure doesn’t look like it will be easy for the Lightning to sign pending RFA defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to a new contract. Sergachev told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen that he believes it will all work out, though.

“It’s a little different obviously right now, but I’m trying to leave it to my agent (Mark Gandler),” Sergachev said on Thursday, via Rosen. “He’s going to deal with it, I guess. But for me, I just want to continue the season, play and get better and see what happens. I feel like they’re going to work out something. I have a good agent.”

Here’s why this is an interesting situation to watch, considering Sergachev’s potential, and also the Lightning’s larger cap challenges.

What is the right contract?

Sergachev, 21, really earned more trust — and playing time — from the Lightning this season.

Sergachev’s ice time climbed from 15:22 per game in 2017-18 to 17:55 in 2018-19, and finally 20:22 on average this season. Despite the pause, Sergachev set career-highs in goals (10) and points (34).

The Lightning see improvements in his all-around play, too, as Victor Hedman noted to The Athletic’s Joe Smith in January (sub required).

“He’s evolved into a great two-way defenseman,” Hedman said. “ … He’s an unbelievable talent offensively, we all know that. But the shot blocks, the hits, the way he plays in his own end, it’s fun to watch.

“I’ve said this many times before, the sky is the limit for this guy. This is just the start.”

During certain stretches, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Lightning were holding Sergachev back a bit.

Such a thought makes you wonder if we haven’t really seen his offensive ceiling yet. On the other hand, theoretically, veteran defenseman Hedman and Ryan McDonagh could also insulate Sergachev defensively.

So what’s a fair contract for Sergachev? Again, it’s tough to tell.

Using Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool while adjusting for an $81.5M cap hit, the anticipated deal might be for eight years with a $6.5M cap hit. While Evolving Hockey’s model puts an eight-year deal at a 32-percent chance, other most likely outcomes sit at six years (25 percent) or a two-year bridge (13%).

Let’s zoom out, though, as the Lightning’s overall situation and history could factor into Sergachev’s individual value.

Can the Lightning pull off salary cap magic again with Sergachev, Cirelli, Cernak?

Time and time again, we’ve seen the Lightning pull off serious wizardry in tight cap situations. All of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman signed for less than market value.

Watching Alex Killorn zoom around Tampa Bay docks on his jet ski provides a reminder of why they took discounts, along with the “playing for a really good team in a state with tax breaks” factors.

Financial blowback from COVID-19 might make this offseason the trickiest one yet for Tampa Bay. After all, they were already anticipating some challenges if the cap went up to, say, $84.5M or so.

When rating all 31 NHL teams’ salary cap situations, The Athletic’s James Mirtle ranked Lightning dead last (sub required).

(You’d think it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to be compared to a “deep-fried pickle,” but alas.)

Via Cap Friendly, the Lightning already have $76.16M devoted to 15 players for 2020-21. That’s before you factor in new contracts for Sergachev, but also dark horse Selke candidate Anthony Cirelli, and useful defenseman Erik Cernak.

Going back to Evolving Hockey’s projection tool, hypothetical estimates combine the three at $14-$15M. Even Mirtle’s more generous estimate would tack on $11M.

(Frankly, if the Lightning signed Sergachev and Cirelli for $11M, let alone Cernak, they’d be getting great deals.)

But, yeah, we’ve seen players accept less than they might otherwise get with the Lightning. It wouldn’t be shocking to see this happen again, especially if Sergachev is OK betting on himself by taking a shorter “bridge” deal.

Even so, expect painful losses for the Lightning. It’s tough to imagine bargain bin free agent Kevin Shattenkirk squeezing in again, and you’d expect Tampa Bay to lose one or more of Tyler Johnson or Yanni Gourde.

Yes, there are worse problems to have … which is probably why Sergachev will just relax and do cat-centric exercises rather than worrying too much.

More on the Lightning:

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.

Alex Killorn interviews Lightning teammates, raises money for charity with ‘Dock Talk’

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Alex Killorn has accomplished many things, but thanks to his “Dock Talk with Killer” Instagram series, he might be able to put “influencer” on his growing resume.

The NHLPA’s website shares more on Killorn’s Instagram series. In a nutshell, the 30-year-old forward goes from dock to dock on his jet ski, interviewing Lightning teammates.

By doing so, we get some fun-dumb interviews with the likes of Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, and more. Killorn posted the first, unique Q&A on April 12:

View this post on Instagram

Thanks to @gabe_marte21 for the edit job!

A post shared by Alex Killorn (@akillorn17) on

Killorn followed up with episode two, starring the likes of Sergachev. If you want a nice testament to why players take less money to stick with the Lightning, these sessions should do the trick. There’s also dog talk with Hedman, and cat fancy with Sergachev.

Killorn uses Dock Talk to promote a worthy cause

The best part — which is saying something, because Killorn presented Sergachev with an incredible leopard skin fanny pack — is that Killorn is using this to raise money for charity.

That NHLPA.com article explains that tie dye “Dock Talk with Killer” shirts already raised at least $30K of a $50K goal for the Hillsborough Education Foundation. Maybe a planned next episode will put that fund over the top?

“We have some really good guys lined up for the next episode,” Killorn told NHLPA.com. “The fact we’ve been able to help out and sell these t-shirts … the amount we’ve sold is crazy. It’s been a fun little thing that’s helped benefit some people.”

It’s tough to top entertaining people and raising money for charitable causes … especially when those fanny packs are involved.

(I don’t know about you, but I’ll probably have the silly music from these videos in my head for most of the day.)

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.

Ovechkin, Carlson, Holtby provided big surprises, disappointments for Capitals

Capitals surprises disappointments Ovechkin Carlson
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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 Washington Capitals.

Carlson surprises as Capitals, NHL defensemen scoring leader

John Carlson began 2019-20 on a downright dizzying scoring pace, and really only slightly cooled off down the stretch.

There were moments when Carlson topped the league in scoring outright, and the NHL named him the first star of October after a ridiculous seven-goal, 23-point output over 14 games. Carlson became the first defenseman to reach 50 points in 40 games or fewer since Paul Coffey did so in 1994-95.

It’s telling that, for all the strong offensive seasons the Capitals enjoyed, Carlson topped the team with 75 points.

Should he win the Norris Trophy? That’s a debate for another day.

To some extent, it almost feels beside the point. Carlson keeps raising the ceiling for what he can accomplish, and it’s really become a sight to behold.

Heading into the season, Carlson leading defensemen in scoring wouldn’t have been that huge of a surprise. The magnitude of his scoring dominance ranks as one of the biggest surprises for the Capitals, though. Carlson topped all blueliners by 10 points (75 to Roman Josi‘s 65), and Josi was 10 points ahead of third-ranking Victor Hedman (55).

Realizing that Carlson had about a month to tack on more points makes his accomplishments that much more astounding.

Ovechkin passes 700, in range of another Maurice Richard Trophy

Yes, yes, death, taxes, and Alex Ovechkin scoring lots of goals. I get that.

The “death” part of that is a reminder that Father Time eventually wins. With that in mind, Ovechkin tying David Pastrnak for the NHL lead with 48 goals at age 34 isn’t routine. It’s mind-blowing. Ovechkin’s .71 goals-per-game average this season represents his best rate since his matching .71 from 2008-09. When he was 23. Yeah.

Now, you can transition Ovechkin-related Capitals surprises to disappointments if you look away from the goals, all 700+ (706) of them.

A drop in playmaking explains how Ovechkin can score 48 goals and not lead the Capitals in scoring. He managed 19 assists for 67 points in 2019-20. That assist rate of .28 ranks as the second-worst of his illustrious career.

While his 2019-20 stands as a little cleaner, the points about Alex Ovechkin’s defense being shabby also ring true. Wince at this multi-season RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey, for example:

Capitals surprises disappointments Ovechkin evolving hockey

It makes you wonder: for all of Ovechkin’s gifts, might his flaws eventually outweigh what he brings to the table?

One way or another, such thoughts could lead to future surprises and disappointments for Ovechkin and the Capitals.

Holtby towers over other disappointments for Capitals

There are other positive surprises for the Capitals, including the ascent of winger Jakub Vrana.

But if there’s one issue that towers as a disappointment — one that could at times derail strengths for Capitals — it was a rough, rough season for Braden Holtby.

Holtby managed a 25-14-6 record in large part because of his team’s scoring ways. Holtby produced an ugly .897 save percentage, and Hockey Reference’s version of GSAA puts him at an ugly -16.76. For context, only Jimmy Howard (-22.12) ranked lower by that metric.

Zooming out on his entire career, I’d argue that Holtby’s probably been underrated at times. Yet, those past accomplishments might cloud future judgments for the pending UFA. He’s struggled quite a bit during the regular season for the past three years, really.

Could the Capitals produce surprises in going with younger goalie Ilya Samsonov, who was solid in 2019-20? Would Holtby leaving be a bigger disappointment, or would the Capitals be the ones suffering if they handed him an ill-advised contract? After extending Nicklas Backstrom, it was that much clearer that someone has to go eventually.

Might Holtby once again rebound in the playoffs, as he did so masterfully during that curse-breaking, Cup-winning run in 2017-18? Also … why does that run feel like it happened a decade ago?

We could see more twists and turns — so, yes, surprises and disappointments — involving Holtby and the Capitals before this is all over.

MORE ON THE CAPITALS:

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.