Lightning still the team to beat in NHL’s Eastern Conference

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Getting swept in the first round wasn’t enough to knock the Tampa Bay Lightning off the mountaintop.

After finishing 21 points ahead of everyone else during the 2018-19 regular season, the Lightning are again Stanley Cup favorites and the team to beat in an ever-improving Eastern Conference. With a stacked roster that includes goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, the road to the final goes through Tampa Bay.

”They got a young goaltender who’s getting better and better every year (and) their D corps is pretty solid,” Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. ”Their forward group is so skilled and solid that I would still say it’s Tampa.”

That’s no knock on the Boston Bruins, who lost Game 7 of the Cup Final to St. Louis. Or the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who have plenty of Cup-winning experience. The Lightning performed some salary cap gymnastics, kept their core intact and aren’t shying away from the well-deserved hype.

”Expectations are high: Of course for everyone the main goal is to win the Cup,” Vasilevskiy said. ”We’re more mature now. We have more experience. … I think the last few seasons people (say), ‘Tampa will win the Cup 100 percent’ every time. That’s the expectation, but the reality is every team can win the Cup. We’re playing in the best league in the world, so anything can happen.”

With Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto and Florida, the Atlantic Division looks like murderer’s row. The Bruins got through only after coming back from a 3-2, first-round deficit against Toronto and aren’t feeling cocky.

”Our division’s been great the past couple years and there’s no end in sight there,” Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”We feel that we have to go through Toronto, we have to go through Tampa, we have to go through Florida and everybody.”

The Panthers signed two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and hired three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville to take the next step. Across the East in the Metropolitan Division, the improved New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are rejuvenated with some big additions.

”The Rangers signed elite winger Artemi Panarin, traded for top defender Jacob Trouba and drafted Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko, while the Devils got Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban and selected center Jack Hughes first overall.

OLD GUARD

Pittsburgh still has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Washington still has Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and yet each team has undergone a transformation since last lifting the Cup. The Penguins look closer to falling down the East standings at this point, and Crosby acknowledged there are some question marks.

”We’re a little bit younger, and in some ways we’re maybe a little bit older, too,” Pittsburgh’s captain said. ”We’re younger, so I think we’re going to be probably a quicker team, probably an energized team and we’ll have some guys that are pretty excited to be in the positions they’re in. We’ll have to see what we can do with that.”

The Capitals believe their championship window is still open.

”We expect to be amongst the league leaders in terms of wins and points,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”That’s the culture that we’ve established now and now we need to continue to build it.”

CHIP ON SHOULDER

Columbus will undoubtedly take a step back after losing Panarin and Bobrovsky and letting trade deadline pickups Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel walk in free agency. Much like the New York Islanders a year ago after losing John Tavares to Toronto in free agency, the Blue Jackets plan to use their personnel defections as a rallying point.

”There’s no secret losing those guys probably hurts a little bit, but we’re bringing back a lot of our core guys,” leading goal scorer Cam Atkinson said. ”We have to come in with a chip on our shoulder and prove a lot of people wrong, but I think that it should fuel your fire to prove people wrong.”

Columbus will rely heavily on goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

”The biggest question is goaltending,” Atkinson said. ”That’s going to be the biggest thing. The St. Louis Blues won with a rookie goaltender coming in in the middle of the season and look what happens to that team.”

The Islanders let starting goalie Robin Lehner depart in free agency and replaced him with Semyon Varlamov. Coach Barry Trotz’s structure remains, but no one’s going to underestimate them this time around.

LETDOWN BRUIN?

No team since Pittsburgh in 2009 has won the Cup after losing in the final the previous year. Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said the ”taste is still there” from the Game 7 defeat at home.

”It will probably always be there,” Krug said. ”It’s how you manage it individually to use it as motivation.”

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

It could be neck and neck between the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers for the final playoff spot. Carolina will need stable goaltending to duplicate a surprise run that ended in the East final. Philadelphia added coach Alain Vigneault, center Kevin Hayes and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, but remains a bit of a mystery amid inconsistent play.

The Buffalo Sabres will get a boost from new coach Ralph Krueger but more rebuilding is likely. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin wants the Sabres to ”trust the process,” which is ongoing not just in Buffalo but also Montreal and Detroit before those teams can target a postseason run. Ottawa’s long-term rebuild should set them up for a top draft pick.

PHT Morning Skate: Blues get names engraved on Stanley Cup

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• It is official, the Stanley Cup now includes the names of the St. Louis Blues for the first time. (St. Louis Blues)

• Speaking of the Blues, the party is now over as they get back to work. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• What is (and is not) distracting about Taylor Hall‘s contract situation for the New Jersey Devils. (All About The Jersey)

• Taking a look at some pre-season pre-draft rankings for the 2020 class. (TSN)

• Ten questions for the Columbus Blue Jackets entering training camp. (1st Ohio Battery)

• Golden Knights veterans share stories from their first NHL training camps. (Sin Bin Vegas)

• Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan wants to re-sign both Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby, but is that realistic? (NBC Washington)

• Inside Connor McDavid‘s NHL political awakening. (ESPN)

• Calgary Flames goalie David Rittich just wants to prove that he can be a starter in the NHL. (Flames Nation)

• Why Philadelphia Flyers defender Shayne Gostisbehere is saying sorry to Wayne Simmonds. (NBC Philadelphia)

• It is now or never for goalie Tristan Jarry with the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Tribune-Review)

• What going to salary arbitration means for a player’s long-term outlook with a team. (Anaheim Calling)

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Laine off to Switzerland; Who will play with Crosby?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Jets restricted free agent Patrik Laine will practice with SC Bern of the Swiss League. (Swiss Hockey News)

• With Laine and Kyle Connor still not signed, the Jets are relying on Mason Appleton and Gabriel Bourque. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• The re-signing of Mitch Marner is a clear message from Maple Leafs management. (Leafs Nation)

• Pension Plan Puppets argues that Marner’s contract is set up for him to fail. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• The Flyers are incredibly disappointed that Travis Konecny isn’t in training camp. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• The Matthew Tkachuk situation in Calgary could make things ugly for the Flames cap situation. (Flames Nation)

David Backes is hoping to have a great camp so that he can make an impact on the Bruins roster. (NBC Sports Boston)

• Is the Provorov extension a good deal for the Philadelphia Flyers? (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

Adam Fox is looking to carve out an important role on the Rangers this year. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• The Canucks need more than just two lines to score if they’re going to make the playoffs. (Vancourier)

• Ever wonder what happy to Robby Fabbri‘s tooth? (NHL.com/Blues)

• Who will play with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel this year? (Pensburgh)

• What’s new on the latest NHL 20 video game? (Game Spot)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Penguins excited for fresh start after disappointing finish

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CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Penguins are excited for a fresh start.

Sidney Crosby and the Penguins became the first team in a generation to win consecutive championships a little more than two years ago. But the Penguins stumbled into an extended offseason last spring when the New York Islanders swept them from the first round of the playoffs.

That left general manager Jim Rutherford to wonder aloud after the season whether some of his players were too content because they’ve won a couple of Stanley Cups.

Crosby and the Penguins are out to prove that’s not the case.

”I think there’s a certain level of hunger and urgency and desperation you have to have if you’re getting through the playoffs,” Crosby said Friday as the Penguins opened training camp.

”Sometimes you think because you have experience that it automatically gives you an edge. It does if you use it, but if you don’t, it doesn’t do much for you.”

Coach Mike Sullivan believes his team can be a championship-caliber group again. But he stressed a daily focus and attention to detail, a brand of intelligent and responsible hockey Sullivan has tried to instill since he took over in December 2015.

”I think this team is capable of doing some real good things,” Sullivan said. ”But we have to earn it every day. It’s not inevitable. There’s a nice feeling around the team. I think everyone is excited about the opportunity and possibilities that we have.”

The Penguins traded winger Phil Kessel to Arizona for Alex Galchenyuk in the offseason.

The 31-year-old Kessel scored 27 goals and 82 points last season, his fourth with the Penguins. He was a vital part of Pittsburgh’s run to consecutive Stanley Cups, finishing second to Crosby for the 2016 Conn Smythe Trophy, while scoring 18 goals and 45 points, as the Penguins became the first team in nearly two decades to win back-to-back titles.

Rutherford spoke of a culture change in the dressing room following the season, and while Kessel is now in Arizona, the Penguins will still need to replace his production.

”Phil produced for us, it’s no secret,” Crosby said. ”Nobody has to come in here and put up the same stat lines he did. It’s pretty tough to fill those shoes. I think collectively we’re going to have to find ways to make up for that.”

Evgeni Malkin seeks a bounce-back season after the 2012 NHL MVP, and two-time scoring champion, ended a career-worst minus-25 with just 21 goals, his lowest full-season output in almost a decade. The 33-year-old spoke said Friday he wants to be a better leader this season.

”Last year, I’m not happy, for sure,” Malkin said. ”Now, it’s a new challenge this year. I want back, my highest level. I can still play at the top level. I want to show everyone I’m not done.”

Malkin skated alongside Galchenyuk and free agent pickup Brandon Tanev on Friday.

The 25-year-old Galchenyuk has put up five consecutive 40-point seasons, and can play both ends of the ice. The 27-year-old Tanev spent his first four seasons in Winnipeg, and also has a reputation as a strong penalty killer and a hard-working, two-way player. He set career highs with 18 goals and 29 points last year.

Pittsburgh also traded for forward Dominik Kahun in the offseason. The 24-year-old played in all 82 games for Chicago in his first NHL season and finished with 13 goals and 37 points. On Friday, Kahun played on a line with Crosby and 24-year-old Jake Guentzel, who scored 40 goals last season.

Crosby and the Penguins are eager to add the new faces into the mix.

”I think it’s exciting to build an identity and have a fresh start,” Crosby said. ”When we won, we didn’t sit here talking about June. Just like the fact that we got swept last year, it really doesn’t matter at this point. We’re all starting from the same spot.”

Offensive upgrades helping playoffs become expectation for Coyotes

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The obstacles of struggling to score goals and staying healthy didn’t force the Arizona Coyotes to wither and eye the NHL draft lottery last season. Instead, it was a “next man up” mentality that head coach Rick Tocchet continued to bark out to his players that put the team deep into the race for one of the Western Conference wild card spots.

The effects of losing a different teammate seemingly every week to another injury could have led to a team fading away, but the Coyotes’ close proximity to the wild card race was a key factor in not letting the situation take a toll on the roster.

“It’s a big kudos to our coaching staff and our general manager and our leadership group and our young guys to stick with the process, even though we had new bodies coming in almost every day,” Coyotes forward Derek Stepan told NBC Sports during last week’s NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago.

The Coyotes finished with 386 man-games to injury or illness last season, third-highest in the NHL. But their goaltending, led by Darcy Kuemper, who filled in for the injured Antti Raanta, was a big bright spot, as was their penalty kill, which tied for league best at 85%. The area of goal scoring, however, needed some help. Their 131 even strength goals were worst in the league, per Natural Stat Trick. To help solve that problem Alex Galchenyuk was traded to Pittsburgh for Phil Kessel, who is currently 43 goals away from 400 in his career.

[MORE: How Phil Kessel can transform Coyotes’ offense]

It’s the confidence built up after overcoming last season’s hurdles and the addition a top offensive star in Kessel that has Stepan believing the playoffs can be a reality next spring.

“I certainly don’t see why we wouldn’t expect that,” Stepan said. “We were close last year. I think Chayka did a really good job of adding pieces to help us on the offensive side of the puck. It comes with that work ethic that we had at the end of last year, we kind of built that identity. I’m going into [the season] expecting to be in the playoffs this year.”

Stepan, who wasn’t sure yet if Tocchet would start him on a line with Kessel, added that the trade “re-energized” the Coyotes roster and with some internal improvements what held them back last season won’t stand in their way in 2019-20.

As far as integrating Kessel’s unique personality into what he described as a tight-knit dressing room, the veteran Stepan is eager to add the sniper to the group.

“I’m OK with him being a different cat,” Stepan said. “We’ve got a lot of dogs on our team. We could use a cat.”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.