The Lightning took care of some business on their back end yesterday when they re-signed Jan Rutta. Don’t be expecting their other pending UFA defensemen to follow suit quickly as Joe Smith of The Athletic reports (Twitter link) that the team has yet to start contract discussions with Anton Stralman and Braydon Coburn. Though Stralman had an injury-riddled season, he’s still likely to be viewed as a top-four blueliner on the open market which could make it difficult for Tampa Bay to re-sign him given their pending salary cap constraints. On the other hand, if Coburn is willing to take a big pay cut on his $3.7MM salary (a likely scenario given his limited role in 2018-19) he could make some sense to keep around as affordable veteran depth.
The Tampa Bay Lightning apparently liked what they saw in Jan Rutta down the stretch, as they have re-signed him to a one-year contract worth $1.3MM. Rutta was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Rutta, 28, signed a one-year entry-level deal with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2017 after developing into a top player in the Czech Republic, and ended up playing 57 games with them that season. The right-handed defenseman impressed the Blackhawks enough to earn himself a new contract worth $2.25MM for this season, but after bouncing up and down between the NHL and AHL, Chicago decided to flip Rutta to the Lightning in exchange for Slater Koekkoek and a draft pick upgrade. The fact that Rutta had cleared waivers just a month earlier made it an interesting deal for the Lightning, who could then use Rutta as some injury insurance without risking him to the rest of the league again.
Rutta ended up playing 14 games for the Lightning and 18 games for the Syracuse Crunch, but immediately seemed to fit in well with Tampa Bay’s fast, skilled style. Though he brings some size at 6’3″, the Czech defenseman’s game isn’t overly physical. He can however move the puck quickly and effectively, something that head coach Jon Cooper values. You could tell how much he trusted Rutta when the playoffs swung around and the defenseman was slotted in for all four games as the team dealt with injuries. That trust was rewarded today in the form of this new contract, which should result in some regular playing time next season.
The Lightning have several other defenders scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency this summer as the contracts of Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn are all set to expire. Rutta’s handedness is one of his most valuable assets given the depth that Tampa Bay has on the right side, and he should step into a full-time role if Girardi or Stralman aren’t retained.
While recency bias has hockey fans looking back on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s season as a failure due to their shocking early playoff exit, in reality the team was historically good, winning 62 games en route to 128 points and an easy President’s Trophy win. In general, most teams who enjoy that level of success would look to change as little as possible, even with the postseason disappointment. Last year’s Stanley Cup-winning Washington Capitals have become the standard for staying the course and, by all accounts, the Lightning expect to follow in their footsteps and avoid the temptation to make sweeping changes.
However, it’s not that simple. As Joe Smith of The Athletic writes, the Bolts will have to undergo a major makeover on their blue line. Tampa Bay is already committed to over $73MM for 16 players next season. That list includes top defensemen Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, as well as most core forwards like Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, J.T. Miller, and Yanni Gourde and starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. However, it does not include half of the eight defensemen used regularly by the Lightning this season: Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, Dan Girardi, and Jan Rutta. More importantly, it also doesn’t include sophomore breakout forward Brayden Point. Even with the salary cap expected to climb north of $80MM this off-season, re-signing Point will eat up most of that space and extending fellow RFA forwards Cedric Paquette and Adam Erne will add up as well. Without a considerable cap dump, it would seem re-signing even one of those UFA defensemen, nevertheless most of them, will be incredibly difficult.
So what does Tampa do about this situation? The aforementioned cap dump seems a near certainty, as veteran forward Ryan Callahan is expected to be traded or bought out this summer. A buy out could give the Lightning the wiggle room to re-sign one of the four pending UFA’s, while a trade could either open up cap space or allow the team to bring in a blue liner with a bad contract like Callahan’s. Yet, Callahan alone is not the only move that the Bolts could make before next season. Smith mentions Miller as the easiest forward to trade away, as his trade protection does not kick in until the new league year on July 1st. Johnson, Palat, and Alex Killorn all have full or limited No-Trade Clauses, making them harder to deal, but still expendable regardless. In moving any of those four valuable forwards – or even Point if negotiations reach an impasse – the Bolts would likely be able to land a talented defenseman in return.
Outside of Callahan though, the Lightning do not have to make other trades to form a capable defense. Internally, they already have a promising top-four in veteran stars Hedman and McDonagh and promising young rearguards Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak. AHL standout Cal Foote will also challenge for a job in camp, while the team will almost certainly target a defenseman with the 27th overall pick in the first round this year, who could push for an NHL spot right away if they’re lucky. Moving Callahan, if salary does not come back in return, could enable the team to re-sign Rutta, likely the cheapest option of the four, or perhaps Coburn or Girardi on hometown discounts. It is hard to imagine Stralman being within their price range or any two returning. Yet, affordable options will also exist on the free agent market, as many players may be willing to sign for less for a shot at the Cup in Tampa Bay. Veteran UFA options who could come in under $2MM or so include Michael Del Zotto, Adam McQuaid, Ben Lovejoy, and Roman Polak, among others.
The only certainty when it comes to Tampa’s defense this season is that it will not look the same as it did last year. There is simply no financial way for the team to maintain the depth and balance on the blue line that this unit had, but some savvy moves this off-season could still keep the defense just as strong. How the team handles Point, Callahan, and the free agency and trade markets will be one of the more intriguing story lines this summer and could dictate whether the Bolts are able to follow the Capitals’ model and stay the course toward a championship following postseason disappointment.
With cap problems fast approaching and plenty of extensions kicking in (as well as the contract of RFA Brayden Point to worry about), the Tampa Bay Lightning will have lots to worry about. Even with the expiring contracts of Braydon Coburn ($3.7MM), Dan Girardi ($3MM), Jan Rutta ($2.2MM) and Anton Stralman ($4.5MM), most of that money will go towards the new extensions for Nikita Kucherov, Yanni Gourde and Ryan McDonagh, which will likely force the team to find other ways to save money.
One contract that the Lightning will likely try to get rid of will be that of forward Ryan Callahan, who still has one year remaining on his contract at $5.8MM. The 34-year-old forward only appeared in 52 games this year and while injuries have been part of the problem, Callahan has also found himself a healthy scratch often this year, especially after the all-star break, as his skills seem to be on a decline. Diana Nearhos of the Tampa Bay Times suggests that the team might attempt to trade him off, despite having a modified no-trade clause. The team would almost have to retain some of his salary to make a deal work, but there is also a legitimate chance they will buy the veteran out.
- In an interview with Detroit Red Wings new general manager Steve Yzerman, The Athletic’s Craig Custance (subscription required) asked multiple questions about the team’s sixth-overall pick in the upcoming 2019 NHL draft. When asked about Russian winger Vasili Podkolzin, whose draft stock seems to be dropping due to signability issues, Yzerman made it clear that he wasn’t worried about that and wouldn’t be scared to draft him. “It hasn’t in the past,” said Yzerman. “The really good Russian players all come over. Maybe they wait a year, two years, but eventually you get them. (Evgeny) Kuznetsov, (Vladimir) Tarasenko, (Andrei) Vasilevskiy. (Nikita) Kucherov waited a year. The really good ones are coming over. You have to be prepared, potentially, to wait. I don’t really know what his contract status is.”
- The Athletic’s George Richards (subscription required) writes that this offseason will be a big one for Florida Panthers forward Henrik Borgstrom. The 21-year-old struggled this season in his transition to the NHL, scoring eight goals and 18 points in 50 games. One of new head coach Joel Quenneville’s new responsibility is to get the most out of Borgstrom, who will likely be expected to shift to the center position and be the odds-on favorite to take over the third-line position. “I definitely want it,” Borgstrom said. “That’s the spot I want to take, and it is up to me to take it. I feel like I have to be ready for it, work hard for it. Hopefully, when the time training camp comes, I will be totally ready to take it.”
The finalists for the Hart Trophy, given to the player most valuable to his team, have been announced. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the three finalists are Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov and Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid.
Kucherov is considered to be a favorite for the award after putting up a tremendous year. The 25-year-old took his game to another level as he has already captured this year’s Art Ross Trophy for leading the league in total points. He finished the year with 41 goals and 128 points, the most in the league since the 1995-96 season. His totals are also the most-ever by a Russian-born NHL player. Kucherov has also been nominated for the Ted Lindsay Award, awarded to the most outstanding player and voted on by the players. Kucherov led his team to the Presidents’ Trophy, given to the team with the best regular-season record.
Crosby had an impressive season as well. Often forgotten when talking about the league’s best players, Crosby helped lead the Penguins to the playoffs this year and did it by breaking the 100-point mark for the first time in five years. On top of that, he was 18-points better than any other players on his team, making his season quite valuable for a Pittsburgh franchise that struggled to get into the playoffs this season.
McDavid’s name is not surprising either, other than the fact that the Edmonton Oilers didn’t have a very impressive season and while they weren’t mathematically eliminated from the playoffs until late in the season, they were never truly considered to be a playoff threat this season. In fact, McDavid is just the sixth player in NHL history to be a Hart finalist from a non-playoff team. McDavid, however, who won the Hart Trophy in the 2016-17 season when he tallied 30 goals and 100 points, continues to improve on each season as he tallied 41 goals and 116 points to reach new career highs.
The finalists for the Jack Adams Award have been announced, given each year to the NHL’s best head coach. The three coaches are Craig Berube of the St. Louis Blues, Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Barry Trotz of the New York Islanders. The award was given to Vegas Golden Knights’ head coach Gerard Gallant in 2018, and Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella in 2017.
In 2016, Trotz won the award when he was still coach of the Washington Capitals after a 56-18-8 season. Two years later he would lead the Capitals to his first Stanley Cup, before moving onto the Islanders organization this season. Trotz has completely turned around those Islanders, changing them from one of the worst defensive teams in hockey to one of the best in short order. He put together a 48-27-7 season to get his club into the playoffs despite losing their captain John Tavares in the offseason, and has them in the second round after sweeping his old rivals from Pittsburgh. Trotz is one of the most successful regular season coaches in hockey history, with 810 wins to his name.
Cooper meanwhile is on his way to that same level of regular season success. Through his first 508 games he has authored a record of 305-159-44 (.644 winning percentage) including a historic 62-16-4 record this season with Tampa Bay. Unfortunately his Lightning were swept out of the first round of the playoffs, an occurrence that is not considered for this award given that the broadcasters vote before the postseason begins. Cooper has never won the Jack Adams before.
Neither has Berube, who amazingly is still not actually the permanent head coach of the Blues. The former Philadelphia Flyers bench boss was named interim coach when Mike Yeo was fired early in the season, but he found a way to turn things around dramatically and form St. Louis into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. There is little doubt that he will be named the head coach after taking a Blues team that was in last place on January 2nd to the second round and beyond. Berube doesn’t have an extensive history as an NHL head coach, but it has been a successful one, as he now holds a 113-77-34 record in his career.
Some other names that were likely considered are Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet, who dealt with endless injuries but still almost got his team to the playoffs, and Carolina Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour who finally got his team back there after nearly a decade.
If you had asked a crowd of hockey fans before the playoffs began to put down a bet on who would win the Stanley Cup, there would likely have been one resounding favorite. The Tampa Bay Lightning had just completed a historic 62-win season and had everything you would want in a team. Top scorers, including potential Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov who led the league with 128 points this season. Shutdown defenders like Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, both playoff-tested from years of postseason play. One of the best goaltenders in the world in Andrei Vasilevskiy, a Vezina finalist for the second consecutive season.
None of that mattered though, after the Columbus Blue Jackets erased a 3-0 first period lead in game one and never looked back. Tampa Bay was swept out of the first round, and weren’t the only favorite to be overcome. All four division leaders were knocked out this season, the first time that has happened in the history of the NHL. The Calgary Flames (107 points), Washington Capitals (104) and Nashville Predators (100) all saw their playoff run end early. Even other 100-point teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins were ousted, though this time by even better regular season teams that were forced to face higher seeds than in playoff formats of the past.
The second round started last night, with the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues taking early series leads. Are they now the default favorites to go all the way? What about the upstart wild card teams like the Colorado Avalanche and Carolina Hurricanes who have more young talent than they know what to do with?
If that same crowd were asked today to name a favorite, it might not be as easy. Cast your vote below and make sure to leave your thoughts in the comment section!
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The National Hockey League Players’ Association has named the three players up for their most prestigious honor. The Ted Lindsay Award is presented each year to the “most outstanding player in the NHL”. Unlike the Hart Trophy though, the Ted Lindsay is voted on by the candidates’ peers themselves, the NHLPA’s member players. This year, the three named as finalists are the Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov, and the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid.
McDavid is no stranger to the Ted Lindsay; the Oilers’ superstar has won the award in each of the past two seasons. Generally, the players put less stock into team success than do voters for the Hart, making McDavid an easy choice despite Edmonton’s struggles. The last player to win the award before McDavid was none other than Kane, who took home the honor in 2015-16. Not only has Kucherov never won the award, he is a first-time finalist.
Yet, Kucherov would seem to be the favorite to receive the title this year. Tampa’s top scorer led the league in scoring with 128 points, 12 more than McDavid and 18 more than Kane. He also finished first in assists and power play points by a wide margin, as well as among the league’s best in goals, plus/minus, and shots. Also, if team performance does come into play in voting, Kucherov’s Lightning had a record-setting regular season, winning the President’s Trophy with 128 points, 21 more than the next-best team. Kucherov seems to have on overwhelmingly strong case for the Ted Lindsay (and Hart), but the final result won’t be revealed until the NHL Awards on June 19th.
For anyone hoping to see Adam McQuaid face off against his former team this postseason, you’ll have to wait a while longer. As the Columbus Blue Jackets departed for Boston today to face the Bruins in their second-round series, Brian Hedger of the Columbus Dispatch reports that neither McQuaid nor fellow defenseman Ryan Murray made the trip. There is no clear timeline for either’s return, but they will at least miss the first two games in Boston.
McQuaid, 32, has yet to play this postseason after suffering a concussion late in the regular season. The veteran defender was acquired by the Blue Jackets from the New York Rangers at the trade deadline, but many still remember him most from his time with the Bruins. McQuaid, ironically a Columbus draft pick, spent the first nine years of his career in Boston before he was traded this past off-season. At the time, Boston was dealing from a position of strength, but ended up struggling with injuries on the back end all season and could have used McQuaid. Now, they could face the physical stay-at-home defender in the playoffs, that is if he can get healthy. Not only would McQuaid sure up the Blue Jackets’ bottom pair and provide insight into the Bruins’ inner workings, he would also provide the playoff experience sorely lacking from the roster. McQuaid has appeared in 68 playoff games and two Stanley Cup Finals, including winning it all with the Bruins back in 2011.
Murray, like McQuaid, is no stranger to being injured. The 2012 No. 2 overall pick has only played in more than 66 games in a season once in his six-year NHL career and finds himself on the sidelines again this postseason with a back injury. Murray has actually had a career campaign, recording 29 points in just 56 games and +20 rating that led all Columbus defensemen. Yet, Murray has been out since early February and it grows harder to imagine a comeback with each missed game. If Murray is able to return versus Boston or perhaps later in the playoffs, it would give the Blue Jackets a major boost and make them an even more dangerous puck-moving team.
Fortunately, Hedger notes that Markus Nutivaara did make the trip and is not expected to miss any further time with the upper-body injury that cost him the final two games of the first round sweep. He joins Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, and David Savard as a very capable top-four unit for Columbus. However, with McQuaid and Murray still out, the Blue Jackets could struggle matching up their bottom pair against the Bruins. Scott Harrington played very well against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but will have to keep up with that level of play if he and Dean Kukan (or Adam Clendening or Vladislav Gavrikov) want to defend against a deep Boston team.
The Arizona Coyotes missed out on the postseason this year by a mere four points. While a success overall for the rebuilding club, the Coyotes struggled greatly on offense. The team’s 209 goals for were tied for third-worst in the NHL and their 16.3% power play success rate was sixth-worst. Behind stellar goaltending from Darcy Kuemper and strong team defense, the team largely got the job done, but they need to improve their scoring if they want to take the next step.
It’s thus no surprise that both Richard Morin of Arizona Republic and Craig Morgan of The Athletic write that Arizona will be looking to add a prominent scoring forward this summer. GM John Chayka would seem to agree:
I think to understand what we need to do to improve is pretty simple: We need to score more goals. I think anytime someone’s going through and trying to diagnose what you need to do to take that next step, that’s not the complicated part or complex part. I think what we need to understand and work through is, how do we score more goals? How do we create more offense, while maintaining that fundamental foundation of being a good stingy, defensive team.
Among the top options – albeit unlikely – for the Coyotes on the free agent market would be Columbus Blue Jackets stars Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, Buffalo Sabres’ standout Jeff Skinner, or any of the New York Islanders’ trio of Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, and Brock Nelson. All of these forwards are prime talents, but may not be available to Arizona. Both Skinner and Lee are expected to re-sign with their current teams, as could Eberle or Nelson, while Panarin and Duchene are likely outside the Coyotes’ price range. More accessible free agent scorers could include Ryan Dzingel, Gustav Nyquist, Wayne Simmonds, or Brett Connolly, one or two of which would be a major boost to Arizona’s offense.
Morgan also adds that several cap-strapped teams could be forced to move talented forwards, leaving the Coyotes in places to scoop up valuable players at a discount. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, and Tampa Bay Lightning are all in a tough spot, leaving the likes of Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mathieu Perreault, Ondrej Palat, J.T. Miller, or Alex Killorn possibly up for grabs.
Either by signing or trade, the Coyotes are likely to add a prominent forward or two and are expected to target wingers rather than centers. Arizona will be a team to watch this off-season as they target several of the aforementioned top names.