- The Lightning will be without a pair of regulars as the team announced (Twitter link) that defenseman Dan Girardi is dealing with a lower-body injury while winger Adam Erne is dealing with an upper-body issue. Both players are listed as day-to-day. Tampa Bay has enough healthy forwards to cover Erne’s absence without requiring a move from the minors while blueliner Jan Rutta was brought up last night to give them six available defenders for tonight’s game against Detroit.
With the Montreal Canadiens losing last night – and in convincing fashion, 8-2 to the Anaheim Ducks – the Tampa Bay Lightning have become the first NHL team to clinch a 2019 playoff spot. The President’s Trophy favorites needed just 68 games to do so, the second-fastest team to earn the “X” in the salary cap era. Don’t expect the Lightning to coast the rest of the regular season, but with a 15-point lead over the Boston Bruins for the league, conference, and division crowns, Tampa Bay is in a pretty good spot. For the Bruins, Habs, and 28 other teams (even the Ottawa Senators have not been statistically eliminated) the hunt for a postseason berth continues and tweaks to the roster will accompany that pursuit. There are 24 teams in action today, more than half of whom are currently in playoff positions, so expect a flurry of activity as teams prepare for critical contests at this point in the year.
- After months of practicing with the team and weeks now of playing for their AHL affiliate, veteran forward Lee Stempniak will finally make his official return to the Boston Bruins. The Bruins announced that Stempniak has been recalled on an emergency basis, as Marcus Johansson and Jake DeBrusk remain sidelined with minor injuries. The 36-year-old winger was signed to a contract just prior to the trade deadline and has accumulated five points in seven games with the Providence Bruins this season. When he last played for the Bruins in 2015-16, Stempniak recorded ten points in 19 games; Boston would be ecstatic to get that kind of per-game production out of him again three years later. Stempniak spent the past two seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes, registering 49 points in 119 total games. Even that level of scoring may be wishful thinking, but this recall can at least be used to get the respected veteran of more than 900 NHL games back up to speed so that he can step in if needed in the postseason.
- CapFriendly reports that the Los Angeles Kings have given forward Carl Grundstrom his first call-up. After being a late scratch by the AHL’s Ontario Reign last night, it seems likely that Grundstrom is on his way to L.A. and could potentially be set to make his NHL debut tonight. Acquired in the Jake Muzzin trade, Grundstrom was a second-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016. A hard-nosed winger with great work ethic and defensive instincts, Grundstrom already appears capable of being an impact bottom-six forward in the NHL. How his offense comes along – he has 39 points in 55 AHL games this season – will ultimately determine whether his ceiling is any higher. Either way, the Kings are likely excited to get a look at a young player who should be a regular next season.
- Matt Read’s near-daily shuffle between the NHL and AHL continues. The Wild announced that the veteran winger has once again been returned to Iowa. He has been recalled and sent down four times already this month, something that is likely to continue as long as the health of some of their regular players continues to be in questions. His earlier recalls have been on an emergency basis so they haven’t been counting against their four post-deadline non-emergency call-ups.
- The Flames have returned center Curtis Lazar to Stockton of the AHL, per a team release. He was recalled back on February 15th but did not get into a game in his time with Calgary. The 2013 first-rounder (17th overall to Ottawa) has been productive with the Heat in the minors this season with 36 points in 46 games and with a qualifying offer of $1.05MM required this summer, he’s looking like a potential non-tender candidate in June.
- With the massing amount of injuries, the New Jersey Devils announced they have recalled Eric Tangradi and Brandon Gignac from the Binghamton Devils of the AHL. The 30-year-old Tangradi has played in 144 NHL games throughout his career, but hasn’t played in a game since the 2015-16 season when he was with the Detroit Red Wings. He has nine goals and 19 points this season in the AHL. Gignac will be recalled for the first time. The 21-year-old, who was a third-round pick in 2016, has 10 goals and 30 points in 54 games this year with Binghamton. With those two added to their roster, New Jersey now has 21 forwards on their active roster.
UPDATE: Smith reports that defenseman Anton Stralman is considered day-to-day with a lower-body injury. It’s not exactly an injury that screams play time for Rutta, so the newly-acquired defenseman is likely up in Tampa Bay as insurance for the time being. In the meantime, he can practice with the team and get the feel for his new teammates and coaches. If Stralman’s absence ends up being longer than expected, perhaps Rutta will make his return to NHL action.
It’s been a long time coming, but the moment is finally here. Defenseman Jan Rutta, acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in early January, has finally been called up by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, with whom Rutta has played exclusively since the deal was made, were the ones to break the news, but note that GM Julien BriseBois initially announced the move.
Rutta, 28, is in his second NHL season after coming over from the Czech Republic ahead of the 2017-18 season. The big, two-way defender played in 57 games for the Blackhawks last season, notching 20 points, and despite spending the last three months in the minors, has 23 NHL games to his credit this year as well, along with six points. In 26 AHL games this year, eight of which came with the Rockford Ice Hogs, Rutta has twelve points. Since joining the Crunch, Rutta has been a dependable defensive presence for the team and has logged an impressive +15 rating. While it helps that Syracuse is a good team this season with the second-best record in the AHL, Rutta has done enough to show that he can be an NHL asset and perhaps a contributor to a playoff run.
As for why the call-up has finally come, The Athletic’s Joe Smith notes that the timing is a surprise and to his knowledge no Lightning defenders are currently injured. Tampa Bay has had the cap space to recall Ruuta if need be, but lacked the roster space – part of the reason they traded Slater Koekkoek in the first place to acquire Ruuta. However, with the trade deadline passed and roster limits eliminated, Ruuta was free to be recalled. It remains unclear where he fits barring an unreported injury, however. The Lightning have seven defensemen who have played more than 41 games this season already and Ruuta is not about to replace any of them in head coach Jon Cooper’s blue line rotation. Yet, the veteran defenseman is probably content just to be back at the NHL level in a season that has surely not gone as he expected.
The Tampa Bay Lightning had a chance to clinch a playoff spot last night on the first Thursday in March. While it didn’t go their way, the Bolts are undoubtedly going to be the top seed in the Eastern Conference and are well on their way to a President’s Trophy with a 15-point lead on the next-best team in the league. That next team up is the Boston Bruins, who are second only to Tampa in both the NHL and within their own Atlantic Division. Riding an 18-game point streak, the Bruins’ playoff position is also in little doubt. The Toronto Maple Leafs, currently holding a top-five record in the league, are on pace to finish third in their own division and without home ice in the first round of the playoffs. Boston and Toronto seem destined to meet in that opening round, with the winner likely getting Tampa Bay as their reward for moving on.
As frustrating as the current playoff format may be for the Leafs – as well as the Bruins and Lightning – at least the three teams know where they stand in the postseason structure with a month to go in the regular season. The same can’t be said for the rest of the Eastern Conference contenders. Just eight points separate the New York Islanders, the current Metropolitan Division leaders, from the Columbus Blue Jackets, presently in ninth in the East and on the outside of the playoff picture, in the standings. Between the two are three more Metropolitan teams, as well as the Atlantic’s Montreal Canadiens. With all six of these competitors struggling to pull away from the rest of the group, it could be that each team’s schedule down the stretch determines where they end up by the end of the regular season. Three divisional spots and two wild card spots are up for grabs; who has the luck of the schedule on their side?
According to the strength of schedule numbers released by the NHL this morning, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ opposing points percentage of .555 is the most favorable of the group. That’s not to say the Pens face an easy slate, though. Pittsburgh faces eight current playoff teams in their final 15 games, not including tomorrow night’s tilt against Columbus, but end the year with a nice stretch that includes a home-and-home against the lowly Red Wings and a final match-up against the Rangers. The experienced Penguins team is a safe bet to stay in the playoff picture, especially if they can get healthy on the back end.
The Montreal Canadiens have a similarly easy schedule, a .575 opposing points percentage, but with a dramatically different ending. Fighting for just one of two wild card spots, the Habs will face eight current playoff teams themselves, again not including a game against the Blue Jackets, but only three of those contests are within their next nine games. Montreal may get a nice boost over the next couple of weeks, but face a daunting final stretch; Columbus, Winnipeg, Tampa, Washington, and Toronto await them in their final five games. How they fare against those Cup contenders could determine whether they make or miss the postseason.
With just seven current playoff teams on the schedule from here on out, not including two run-ins with Columbus, the New York Islanders are in good shape with a .567 opposing points percentage. The team also avoids any road trips of longer than two games for the rest of the season. While a regular season finale against the Capitals could prove critical, the Islanders look as if they should be able to hold on to their playoff spot. The health of Robin Lehner could be a game-changer, though.
Things have not gone as expected since Jarmo Kekalainen and the Columbus Blue Jackets went all out at the trade deadline. The team sits outside of the playoff picture currently, two points back of the final wild card spot, and there is no guarantee that things will get better. The Jackets have a .581 opposing points percentage, including ten games against current playoff teams, and play just six of their final 15 games at home. Perhaps the one saving grace will be trips to Buffalo, the Rangers, and Ottawa in three of their last four games, but Columbus has their work cut out for them.
The Carolina Hurricanes have a similarly tough schedule, but benefit from having a game or two in hand on their playoff berth competition. In their final 16 games, the ’Canes will face opposition with a .586 points percentage, ten of which are playoff teams. They also have three sets of back-to-back games remaining. However, with the cushion of extra games and dates with the Devils and Flyers to round out the year, the red-hot Hurricanes are on pace to erase their league-worst nine-year playoff drought.
Finally, there are the defending champs. The Washington Capitals not only have the most difficult remaining schedule in the East’s wild card race, but in the entire NHL. At a .599 opposing points percentage, the Caps are about to go through the ringer in their final 15 games. Ten playoff teams are on the docket for Washington, including three games against the powerhouse Lightning and five playoff teams among their final six competitors. Fortunately, the team does play more than half of their remaining match-ups at home, but there’s little else to find comfort in. If any team in this race is at risk of a dramatic fall from their current playoff position, it is the Capitals, especially if the extra work of last year’s Stanley Cup run starts to catch up to them down the stretch.
Whenever the idea of an offer sheet is brought up, the two teams used most as potential targets are the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets. That’s mostly because they have several pending restricted free agents and will be facing almost insurmountable cap issues this summer, making them seem more vulnerable. There’s another team in that same situation though and they have the added benefit of being the best team in the NHL. The Tampa Bay Lightning already have more than $73MM in cap hits committed to the 2019-20 season and still have to reach agreements with several RFAs.
The biggest name among those pending restricted free agents of course is Brayden Point, who has taken another incredible step forward this season and now ranks tenth in league scoring with 81 points. The 22-year old forward is already in contention for the Selke Trophy as one of the league’s best defensive players, and leads the entire NHL with 19 powerplay goals. His star is bright, and should be the target of offer sheets if they are truly coming this summer as some are starting to believe.
Lightning GM Julien BriseBois isn’t worried. In fact, when speaking with Craig Custance of The Athletic (subscription required) this week at the GM meetings, BriseBois explained his confidence that the team can get a deal done with Point and stated he thinks “it makes sense for both parties.” The Lightning of course have plenty to sell a player like Point on, and even more if they end up going all the way to the Stanley Cup this season.
Tampa Bay is 17 points ahead of the next best team in the NHL and will almost assuredly lock up the Presidents Trophy in the coming weeks. They have an incredible +87 goal differential on the season and have lost just 12 contests in regulation. Any team extending a big offer sheet is likely one in the midst of some sort of rebuild, meaning Point would be taking a considerable step backwards in terms of competitiveness. Add in that Florida already enjoys some of the best tax rates available, and the Lightning have a lot going for them.
Still, a long-term extension for Point might be difficult to fit in without at least moving someone out. The Lightning have three veteran defensemen coming off the books in Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn, and could potentially get out from under Ryan Callahan’s last season by finding the right trade partner. Still, the team must consider the fact that Andrei Vasilevskiy is approaching his own payday after his current deal expires in the summer of 2020, while the rest of the core is under contract long after that.
Again, there is little reason to believe the Lightning are in trouble and BriseBois certainly doesn’t think an offer sheet will be coming for Point. As New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero points out to Custance in the same piece, the player actually needs to be interested in signing the sheet too—it can’t be arbitrarily used as a predatory tactic.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images
The Vegas Golden Knights will not be taking part in the upcoming Seattle expansion payout that the other 30 teams will receive, and because of this will not be required to give up a player in the expansion draft. That has raised plenty of questions over whether the Golden Knights will be involved in other ways, perhaps even as some sort of extra protection list for teams to use just through the draft process by trading players there, only to get them back later. That kind of circumvention isn’t going to happen under the watchful eye of Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, as he told Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic (subscription required) that you won’t be able to “park” a player on Vegas during the process.
LeBrun pressed on just how the league might avoid such scenarios without clearly laying out rules, but Daly channeled his inner Justice Stewart by telling the insider “I’ll know it when I see it.”
- Tampa Bay Lightning goaltending prospect Connor Ingram has been demoted to the ECHL despite apparently being healthy enough to continue playing. Ingram hasn’t suited up for the Syracuse Crunch since February 26th, but still leads the entire AHL in save percentage and shutouts, while carrying the second best goals against average in the league. Joe Smith of The Athletic tweets a response from Lightning GM Julian BriseBois who called it an “internal matter,” while Mark Divver of the Providence Journal notes that he had heard Ingram was available at the deadline for a draft pick. The 21-year old goaltender was selected 88th overall in 2016.
- Brayden Schenn has been activated from injured reserve by the St. Louis Blues, giving the team another weapon for their game tonight with the Anaheim Ducks. The Blues are currently in third place in the Central Division but with several teams hot on their heels they can’t afford to drop many more games down the stretch. Schenn has 39 points in 55 games this season but is in danger of failing to reach the 20-goal mark for the first time since 2014-15.
When Steve Yzerman shocked the hockey world last fall by announcing that he was stepping down as Tampa Bay Lightning GM, many believed it was to take some time with family before his next opportunity—perhaps even one with the Detroit Red Wings. Julian BriseBois took over the Lightning front office and Yzerman was officially moved to a “senior advisor” role, but it wasn’t clear what kind of impact he would have on the Lightning through the rest of his contract, which ends after this season. BriseBois cleared that up this week when speaking with NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika at the GM Meetings in Boca Raton, Forida:
He’s missed maybe a handful of home games. He’s been at pretty much every home game. Usually when we’re home for a home stand, he comes in from Detroit. He’s been at some of our road games. I went and scouted with him to a number of (American Hockey League) weekends, junior games. So, he’s been very involved.
BriseBois goes on to say that he speaks to Yzerman daily and that the Hall of Fame player was involved heavily in the Lightning’s plans for the recent trade deadline. Some of that involvement may come as a surprise to those who are convinced Yzerman is heading back to the Red Wings after his contract is up, given that the two teams currently reside in the same division. The Tampa Bay GM wasn’t biting when asked about his advisor’s plans, and actually explained that if Yzerman wants to stay with the Lightning he will welcome him back with open arms.
The Lightning have been built into a powerhouse under Yzerman and BriseBois, including three trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and one Stanley Cup Finals appearance. The team has an incredible 51-12-4 record this season and are 17 points ahead of the next best team in the NHL. A Presidents Trophy is nearly a guarantee at this point, and anything short of a Stanley Cup would seem disappointing. With all of that success there is surely reason for Yzerman stay involved with the team going forward, though no decision is clear at this point.
Detroit on the other hand are in the midst of a rebuild, and still have GM Ken Holland under contract through the 2019-20 season. It would be closer for Yzerman, who resides in the area, but there is no guarantee he will be handed the keys this offseason. For now, he’ll keep working with the Lightning and try to help the team capture their second Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Now that the calendar has turned over to March, we’ll see plenty of teams reaching out to junior and college free agents with contract offers. Entry-level contracts can now be signed that start next season. That’s exactly what happened with undrafted free agent Jimmy Huntington, who the Tampa Bay Lightning have signed to a three-year entry-level deal. Huntington is an overager playing for the Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL, on a line with potential 2020 first-overall pick Alexis Lafreniere.
Huntington, 20, isn’t the same type of offensive powerhouse that Lafreniere is, but has still had an excellent season for Rimouski. He ranks second on the team with 83 points through 60 games and actually leads the team in goals with 38. The 6’1″ center is extremely hard working and will routinely drive the net both with and without the puck, using strong body positioning to create chances.
While his offensive ceiling may not be extremely high, the Lightning have had success in the past with undrafted forwards out of the QMJHL. Yanni Gourde and Danick Martel immediately come to mind as examples of overlooked talents that have found their way to the NHL in Tampa Bay. Joining an organization with that kind of history is obviously attractive, even if there is no guarantee he’ll be able to make that kind of impact at the professional level.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are sitting pretty at the top of the NHL with 98 points, 15 points ahead of any other team in the NHL. There seems to be little need for the Lightning to be involved with any trades with the way they are playing. In fact, Joe Smith of The Athletic reports that head coach Jon Cooper said he isn’t going to lose any sleep if the team doesn’t make a trade.
“It’s not make a trade to make a trade,” Cooper said. “We like our group… Whatever happens, it’ll be good for us. And that could be nothing”
Regardless, Fox Sports’ Andy Strickland contends that a rumor that the Lightning have been talking to the Buffalo Sabres about acquiring defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen won’t go away. Ristolainen, who had been considered the franchise’s No. 1 defenseman until this year when they drafted Rasmus Dahlin, could be a valuable trade chip and might be sought after, especially considering that Tampa Bay have three defensemen who will be unrestricted free agents this summer. Ristolainen has three more years at $5.4MM and could be a good fit in Tampa Bay.
- With Ottawa already having moved on from Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, who were both separately traded to Columbus in the last two days, many eyes have focused on the third member of Ottawa who is expected to be traded in Ryan Stone. The market for the 26-year-old is starting to heat up and the Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch writes that as many as eight teams are considered to be serious suitors for Stone’s services. Sportsnet’s Pat Steinberg reports that the price for Stone is still considered “ridiculously high.”
- Sportsnet’s John Shannon reports that a Philadelphia Flyers’ source reports that Wayne Simmonds has probably played his last game in Philadelphia. “Likely but not 100% decided yet.” Simmonds is one of the most targeted players in the league at the deadline behind Stone as the 6-foot-2 winger could give a playoff team that needed physical player they can play anywhere in their lineup.
- With multiple reports suggesting that teams are asking the Calgary Flames for young defenseman Juuso Valimaki, Sportsnet’s Dean Molberg reports that fans don’t need to worry. He reports that Valimaki is as close to untouchable as any player on the team. The 20-year-old has played sparingly for the team this year, making him an interesting trade chip, but the 2017 first-rounder is considered to be a big part of the team’s future. He’s played in 22 games this season for Calgary, posting two points.
Some bad news on one player could turn out to be a blessing in disguise in regards to another. The Philadelphia Flyers have announced that rookie sensation Carter Hart will be out at least ten days with a lower-body injury. Hart has been playing phenomenally this season and his absence could end what little hope the Flyers had of reaching the postseason this year. However, it will force the team to start Brian Elliott tonight in their Stadium Series game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philly’s final game before the deadline. Recent acquisition Cam Talbot is still new to the team and unable to jump in net just yet. However, Talbot’s presence makes Elliott expendable and the Flyers are known to be shopping him. The team tried to move Elliott to the Edmonton Oilers as part of the Talbot return, but ended up trading away the younger Anthony Stolarz. However, with playoff-bound teams like the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights in need of reinforcements in net, Elliott is very much still in play. A strong performance on a grand stage tonight could be enough to convince those kicking the tires to take a shot on Elliott. Moreso, the injury news on Hart could be the final straw for new GM Chuck Fletcher, as he is still allegedly unsure of whether to sell or not at the deadline. With Elliott, Wayne Simmonds, Michael Raffl, and several others drawing interest, Fletcher should be more encouraged to part with those pieces now that his stud goaltender is out for what could be weeks.
- The New York Rangers are one of the most talked-about teams as the deadline approaches, as rentals Kevin Hayes, Mats Zuccarello, and Adam McQuaid and even term players like Chris Kreider and Vladislav Namestnikov are drawing considerable interest. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks writes that the Nashville Predators are one of the teams in talks with the Rangers, but it appears that one of their best assets may be off the table. Brooks reports that the Predators will not trade 2017 first-round pick Eeli Tolvanen for a rental this season. Nashville does not have interest in Hayes, but has looked into Zuccarello, however they won’t offer up Tolvanen to land him. Brooks believes Tolvanen would only be available to the Rangers in a deal for Kreider. The talented Finnish forward has only seen limited NHL action thus far, but is still coveted by sellers – not only the Rangers – for his potential. In this scenario, it’s the sellers who may have to ante up with a signed player to get the prized prospect. As for the Rangers, they may have better luck getting a top return for Zuccarello elsewhere. Brooks states that the Calgary Flames and Pittsburgh Penguins are among the teams pursuing the veteran winger, while a report yesterday stated some contenders are willing to pay the price to package Zucarello and Hayes together.
- Meanwhile, the price for McQuaid has gone up significantly today following the trade of Ben Lovejoy to the Dallas Stars. McQuaid is arguably the top rental defenseman left on the market, currently ranked No. 21 overall on TSN’s Trade Bait List. With the trade statuses of Alex Edler, Niklas Kronwall, Cody Ceci, and others still unclear, McQuaid looks like the top target for defense-needy teams versus the likes of Michael Del Zotto and Bogdan Kiselevich. McQuaid is by no means a star or season-changing acquisition, but he is likely the best available defenseman even as just a physical, stay-at-home defender. If the New Jersey Devils can draw a third-round pick and young roster player for Lovejoy, the Rangers are suddenly looking at second-round territory with McQuaid. To protect their top trade assets, New York will not play McQuaid, Zuccarello, or Hayes today, reports Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.
- Many have felt that the allure of the free agent market for Matt Duchene and Mark Stone and the caliber of return the Ottawa Senators could get for trading them left Ryan Dzingel as the most likely of the trio to re-sign with the team. That certainly isn’t going to be the case. The Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch reports that Dzingel recently turned down a five-year extension offer worth more than $20MM, a significant pay raise over his current $1.8MM cap hit. After that, the team made the definitive decision to trade him before the deadline. Garrioch adds that Stone also rejected the Senators’ last offer, and eight-year pact of unknown value, but the team has not yet completely closed the door on a new deal. They continue to take offers on the star winger though, as Garrioch writes that the Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, Boston Bruins, and Tampa Bay Lightning are the team’s most involved in Stone talks. He believes the Bruins are also interested in Dzingel. It remains to be seen who ends up with Stone or Dzingel and how the returns compare to that of Duchene, but one way or another the Senators are walking away from the deadline with a complete lack of star power on the roster, but a massive influx of picks and prospects to show for it.