Previewing the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, and objectively, with far fewer former Rangers. It’s tough to shake the impression that the Lightning’s fixation on Rangers was an Yzerman thing, as Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, J.T. Miller, Ryan Callahan are all out.

Some losses hurt more than others, of course, and some change was inevitable. Really, the biggest omission would be Brayden Point if he misses any regular season games waiting for a new contract.

Also, the Lightning did mitigate some of their losses with another former Ranger: Kevin Shattenkirk. The Bolts lost some firepower this offseason, but still made savvy moves, especially if Curtis McElhinney continues to be a diamond in the rough as a strong veteran backup goalie.

Strengths: With Point, Kucherov, and Steven Stamkos, the Lightning deploy some of the most powerful offensive players in the NHL, and Victor Hedman provides elite offense from the backend. They’ve also done a marvelous job unearthing overlooked talents to buttress those more obvious stars, with Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph being the latest examples. It’s pretty easy to see why Miller was expendable, even beyond cap reasons.

The Lightning also figure to have a dependable, if not outright fantastic, goalie duo in Andrei Vasilevskiy and McElhinney.

Weaknesses: That said, there have been times when Vasilevskiy has been a bit overrated, although last season’s Vezina win was fair enough.

 

The Lightning remain a bit weak on the right side of their defense, and some would argue that this team is too small to stand up to the rigors of the playoffs. I’m more concerned with the former issue than the latter, personally speaking.

Generally, you have to strain a bit to emphasize the negative with this team, though.

[MORE: Cooper under pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Jon Cooper is one of the NHL’s brighter coaches, but he’s not perfect. Could he have settled the Lightning down during that sweep, particularly to maybe keep Kucherov from losing his cool and get suspended? Either way, expectations are high, and blame will skyrocket if the Lightning fall short again. Let’s put it at a seven.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Sergachev, Shattenkirk, and Point.

Remember when people constantly teased the Canadiens about the Sergachev – Jonathan Drouin trade? That mockery has died down as Sergachev’s been brought along slowly in Tampa Bay. Could this be a year of big progress for a defenseman with intriguing offensive skills?

Shattenkirk was a flop for the Rangers, but deserves something of a mulligan for at least 2017-18, when he clearly wasn’t healthy. If handled properly, he could be a budget boon for the Lightning; that said, his potential for defensive lapses could also make it awkward to hang with Cooper.

Whether Point enters the season with a contract or finds his negotiations linger into when the games count, there will be more eyes on him than ever.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and lofty expectations for a deep run.

Frankly, I’d argue that the Lightning should have been more aggressive in resting their stars when it was abundantly clear that they were about 20 steps ahead of everyone else. If they’re in a similar position in 2019-20, maybe they’ll try that out? For many, anything less than a Stanley Cup win will be perceived as a failure for the Lightning. Few teams carry such expectations, but then again, few teams are this loaded in an age of salary cap parity.

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

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.

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.

NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: Most underrated player

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NHL players love Aleksander Barkov.

That’s what we learned during the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago earlier this month. When we asked a number of the attendees who, in their eyes, is a player who deserves more love and attention, the Florida Panthers star was a popular choice. (Does this no longer make him underrated?)

We tried to push the players to give us an underrated choice away from their own teams, but a few broke the rules, and that’s OK. 

Here’s who we were told is most underrated around the league when we asked, “Who’s an NHL player who deserves more recognition?”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “He’s starting to come into that light but Aleksander Barkov — a lot of guys would probably say him. His skill is unbelievable. I remember last year he battled one out of the air against us on his backhand, puck was probably going three, four feet wide but somehow he came across and tipped it in. He’s just an all-around solid player.”

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes: “There’s more and more undercover guys that are starting to get recognition. I think a guy like Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg, Barkov. These guys are getting more but I believe that they should be getting more than that. On the other side of it, a guy on my own team that I’m a little biased with that doesn’t get as much is Nik Hjalmarsson. He’s a very underrated defensive defenseman that maybe doesn’t as much credit because his stats don’t really show up on a gamesheet afterwards other than blocked shots.”

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks: “I like Barkov. He had a great season, doesn’t really get talked about that much. I don’t know if it’s the Florida market or whatever, but he was one of the best players in the league last year and you don’t really hear about him too much.”

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche: “My answer to this is usually Mark Giordano, but now he’s won the Norris so he’s not underrated anymore.”

Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders: “Jordan Staal is a pretty underrated player in the league. Playing against him in the playoffs and playing against him in the Metro, I don’t think I’ve beat him on a faceoff in two years. He’s tough to play against and has got a great skillset for a big guy. He’s a really good player.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “A player that jumps out at me is Josh Anderson on Columbus. He’s a guy that battles hard, plays hard, is tough, but can score goals as well.”

Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens: “Barkov in Florida. He’s very, very good.”

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers: “Brayden Point. He’s a really good player and he deserves to be talked about.”

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “Probably this guy [pointing to Jonathan Marchessault]. He’s kind of a sick player, eh? I would say him or Nick Backstrom.”

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “Obviously Barkov, Huberdeau, I think you don’t hear [about] them enough. They’re super good in Florida.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “Probably Kyle Connor. I was with him in Winnipeg and he’s an elite player. He’s really good.”

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “I think Roman Josi. We only play against them twice a year so we don’t see much of them. I was able to skate with him a couple weeks ago for four or five days in Florida. He’s a guy that probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves even being the captain for Nashville. Just being on the ice against him, being on the ice with him, he’s a really special player and he does it all out there.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “One guy I’ll talk about and I think he’s going to get there is Thomas Chabot. I think he’s got a Norris Trophy in his future. Because of the way things finished in Ottawa last he kind of flew under the radar. Start of the season he was top-two in scoring for defenseman for the first third of the year. I think he’s a guy we’re going to hear a lot about coming up.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “Mark Stone. People know he’s good but I think people don’t realize how good he is because maybe he’s not as silky as Matthews and those guys. When you look at everything he does out there it’s special. The takeaways he does. The way he plays in his own zone, the way he plays in the offensive zone. Those are the special things that not many players have in this league.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “He’s got it now, but a guy that I thought was a good player but I didn’t know he was this good was Ryan O’Reilly. He’s put up numbers, for sure. This year he took himself and the team to a whole new level and he’s a big part of what they did last season. He’s doing well.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “Probably my boy Mikael Granlund. I definitely know his skill and how talented he is. Obviously you have to earn that and earn that ability to play more and have that new trust with a new team. I think they’ll see, they’ll understand in Nashville what they got this year. This guy’s got vision. It’s fun to talk hockey with him.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “I’ll stay in-house and look at a guy like Miro [Heiskanen]. I think playing in a small market he didn’t get the respect that he deserved. He’s going to be a tremendous player.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “It’s Barkov from Florida. He’s always underrated and I love how he plays.”

P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devils: “Now he’s getting more, but Nathan MacKinnon is a very, very good hockey player. In my opinion, he’s been in the top five forwards in the league for a little while. I’d like to see him get a little bit more. I just appreciate his work ethic, how he plays the game, and the way he impacts the game. It’s very difficult to do it the way he does it, with the speed, the skill, his power, [the way] he protects the puck, his ability to make guys around him better. There’s only a few players in the league like that that have that big of an impact. We know about [Connor] McDavid, we know about [Sidney] Crosby, but MacKinnon makes everybody on the ice better. I’d like to see him get some more love.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day
2019-20 sleeper team
Change or keep current playoff format?

————

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

NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: Commissioner for the day

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When NHL players descended on Chicago earlier this month for the annual Player Media Tour NBC Sports bestowed upon them the power of league commissioner for a day. Putting themselves in Gary Bettman’s shoes, we asked the players what changes they would make to the game on or off the ice. Escrow was an obvious choice, but we wanted the players to get a little more creative than that.

Changing overtime and the offside review were popular answers, but there were also some interesting ideas to come out of the exercise, like what Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews had to say.

Here’s what the players told us when we asked them, “You’re NHL Commissioner for the day. What change, on or off the ice, would you make and why?”

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “Get rid of the escrow. That’s an easy one. And get rid of the offside [review].”

P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devils: “I’d like to see less penalties. I’m a little bit biased, I like the older school game. When I sit back and watch the old NHL and watching guys like Pavel Bure and [Sergei] Fedorov still put up the numbers that they did with guys draped all over them, sometimes in the league we forget what those guys had to go through to earn the numbers and the seasons that they put together. I think sometimes we go a little bit too far this way. But nobody’s perfect. … Maybe just let the guys play a little bit more, let a little bit more stuff go. Every game there’s a controversy of some sort and it doesn’t need to be that way.”

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “I’m pretty happy for the refs to get a little bit more help, to be able to watch replays so it’s a fair game for everyone. After that, just make sure you have a good relationship with the players. I think that’s a big thing that they’re respectful from both sides and both parties. That’s something which I think we have with [the league].”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “I’d probably get rid of the trapezoid.”

Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues: “I would take away the offside challenge because now every time you score a goal you’re looking at the referee [waiting for a signal] and you jump on the bench still waiting, waiting. They can cancel it at any moment. That’s not good, especially in intense games. Sometimes you score a goal and [the team] challenges and there’s a TV timeout and it just kills the speed of the game and kills the momentum, too. I know it’s helping sometimes but I don’t think it’s supposed to be like this, when you score a goal and you’re still waiting for the ref to decide if it’s allowed or not. You can’t really get the full emotions of scoring a goal — especially if you get a 2-on-1, for example, and you have a pass from behind and you don’t know how your feet were [crossing the blue line]. I don’t think it makes sense.”

Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: “I always say, just because our travel has been so ridiculous these last bunch of years, I would change the schedule into little weekend series, similar to baseball. Let’s say you go to Winnipeg, you play them three times. You go to Dallas, you play them three times and you don’t go back there. We’ve had so many road trips going somewhere, coming back, going somewhere, coming back — just one game here, two games there, one game there. We’re always practicing, driving to the airport, flying. To me, that’s one of the things maybe other teams, at least in the East, don’t deal with as much as we do.”

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes: “As a centerman let the offensive center on a power play get to choose what circle he gets to take the draw on, and that’s after the team has already put their guys on the ice. Maybe you can catch more centerman on their off side.”

Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets: “I would change no offside, so no blue lines. I think that would make the game a lot more fun, especially if you’re an offensive guy. I think the fans would like that, maybe a lot more goals, open up the game a little bit more.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “I would probably [remove] the offside [review]. It slows the game down. It takes momentum away from the game. It’s a fast game and they’re trying to slow it down.”

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres: “I’d put more than just two games in Sweden. I would have probably around 20 games.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “The Olympics. For small countries like where I’m from, Denmark, it’d be an honor to play in the Olympics one day. We’ve never made it. I think we have a very good chance to make it next time and not being able to play in those [games] if we were to make it would not be fun.”

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning: “Smaller nets, bigger equipment for the goalies. Five-on-five overtime, six-on-six.”

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “I would change the dress code. It wouldn’t be no dress code, I think it would be more casual. You don’t have to wear a suit and tie every game, kind of like the NBA a little bit. Probably more like the NFL.”

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks: “[Auston Matthew’s] a stylish guy. Me, I’m not that stylish. I like wearing suits. [I’d like to see] for some of the guys to express more of their personality. You see the basketball guys walk in, some of them wear suits, some of them wear those fun outfits that really gets people talking. That might be a good thing to implement.”

Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings: “I would extend 3-on-3 overtime to 10 minutes.”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “Longer overtimes. I think 3-on-3 is super exciting, and shootouts are exciting, too, but 3-on-3 comes with so many opportunities and so many chances. I think if you extended it even a couple of minutes you’d have more games decided in OT rather than having it go to a shootout.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “I’d make the nets bigger so I can score more.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Most underrated player
2019-20 sleeper team
Change or keep current playoff format?

————

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.

Could Marner signing open floodgates for Laine, other star RFAs?

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As people anxiously awaited the RFA logjam to finally collapse, the belief was that the dominoes might start to fall whenever Mitch Marner signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs — at least if that impasse would clear up before the season.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Maple Leafs signed Marner for a hefty sum just as training camps began (Friday, to be exact), so now we must wonder if Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point, Kyle Connor, and other key RFAs will start following like dominoes.

We’ve already enjoyed a taste of that with RFA defensemen. The Blue Jackets really got things rolling with a bridge for Zach Werenski, while the Flyers locked up Ivan Provorov long-term and the Jets got a proactive extension done with Josh Morrissey.

Of course, every situation is different. The Bruins haven’t inked Charlie McAvoy yet, for instance. With that in mind, let’s enjoy a quick refresher on some of the most important RFA situations that may speed up now that Marner got paid.

[MORE: Maple Leafs sign Mitch Marner to big six-year deal]

Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor

Cap Friendly estimates the Jets’ cap room at about $15.45M, and even if Laine and Connor ask for less than Marner’s reported $10.893M, it’s tough to imagine them combining for less than $16M. Perhaps Winnipeg will gain newfound momentum to move a contract, such as Mathieu Perreault ($4.125M AAV for two more seasons)?

TSN’s Frank Seravalli details why the Jets have extra incentive to sort out the Connor and Laine situations before the regular season begins. Winnipeg’s already faced a tough offseason, but this can’t be easy. Maybe Kevin Cheveldayoff could turn lemons to lemonade by convincing both to come in at a reasonable cap hit, though?

Brayden Point

Entering the summer, it seemed like Point joined Mitch Marner as one of the most logical offer sheet targets, being that, like Toronto, Tampa Bay already has a lot of commitments to big-name, big-money players.

Of course, the Lightning also have those Florida tax breaks, that Florida climate, and a heck of a roster (playoff sweep or not), so the rumor is that Point brushed off any offer sheet interest quickly, and may be the latest Bolt to take less money than he’s truly worth.

Still … you wonder if Tampa Bay might want to take this down a notch or five.

Cap Friendly estimates Tampa Bay’s cap room at a bit less than $8.5M.

Mikko Rantanen

Frankly, there are quite a few analyses that put Point and Rantanen in Marner’s neighborhood.

In both Point’s case and that of Rantanen, their respective teams have one argument that the Maple Leafs lacked with Auston Matthews and John Tavares: “Hey, you can’t make more/too much more than Star Teammate X!”

Elliotte Friedman made a point along those lines regarding Rantanen versus Nathan MacKinnon, stating that the Avalanche would rather Rantanen not make $4M more than MacKinnon’s insultingly low $6.3M. The thing is, Colorado has about $15.6M in cap space, so Rantanen could certainly argue for about $4M more than MacKinnon, especially since that would still be less than Marner’s $10.893M.

Matthew Tkachuk

Tkachuk is a rung or two lower on the ladder than some of these bigger stars (he’s probably there with Connor, but we’ll see come negotiating time), but he still might want more than Calgary’s estimated $7M-ish in space. That could be a decent neighborhood for a compromise, however, as Johnny Gaudreau carries a $6.75M AAV.

Brock Boeser

With the Roberto Luongo weirdness costing them for about $3M and expensive additions like J.T. Miller and Tyler Myers, the Canucks only have about $4.1M in cap space. That could get … awkward, huh?

Travis Konency

Considering the money Chuck Fletcher threw around in making over the Flyers, you’d think Konency would want his piece of the pie. It’s not as high stakes as situations like Laine, but getting good value is crucial in this league. Cap Friendly puts Philly’s cap space at about $6.67M.

There are some other names floating out there, but the above situations are the biggest. Feel free to discuss players like Andrew Mangiapane in the comments.

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

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.