Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Lightning Card of the Week - Ryan Callahan 2015-16 MVP Green Parallel

2015-16 Upper Deck MVP Green Parallel Ryan Callahan

Welcome back to a semi-regular series on The Hopeful Chase – the Lightning Card of the Week. For this week it's everyone's favorite check-throwing forward, Ryan Callahan.

Callahan made the news yesterday when it was noted that he had successful surgery to repair a labral tear in his left hip. According to Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times, the well-paid forward had been struggling with the injury for most of the second half of the season and the playoffs.

After five minutes of research on labral hip surgery I feel a little better about his recovery and this not being the degenerative type of hip issues that has sidelined Bo Jackson and Albert Belle. As a fan I don't like hearing a player that is having issues with their hips, their backs or their feet. Those are three problem areas that never seem to get better.

However, it seems like this surgery involves repairing cartilage around the hip area. With a rehab time frame of 4-5 months Callahan should be back on the ice sometime around November. Will he be able to continue to play the same type of crash test dummy, aggressive forechecking style that fans love? That is the big question.

While the condition itself isn't anymore degenerative than pulling a hamstring or breaking a leg, it is something that can reoccur if you keep smashing your hip into other players and the boards. Think of a pitcher who tears the labrum in his shoulder. Surgery fixes it, but the very act of throwing a baseball could lead to it tearing again. The very act of Ryan Callahan being Ryan Callahan could lead to him doing more damage to his hip.

With him under contract for another four seasons that could be a bit of concern for Lightning fans. If Callahan can't play his style of hockey, is he any good for the team? He has been surprisingly durable for the Lightning having played in more than 70 games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2008-09 and 2009-10. He did chip in 24 goals in 2014-15, but fell off scoring only 10 last season. Of course, playing with a painful hip could be a reason he had the lowest goal output of his NHL career.

I think he can find a role with the team as a defensive forward who chips in 15-20 goals a year while slowing down the opposition's top line. I don't think he can ever stop being who he is and it will lead to more injuries along the same lines as his hip issue. That was one of the drawbacks of the long term, big-money deal he signed. When you have a player that throws his body around the ice game in and game out there is a chance the damage is going to catch up with him and cause his career to crater quickly.

The green parallel of last year's MVP set are available online only. Through Upper Deck's e-pack site you can purchase or trade packs of MVP cards. If you acquire 20 of one particular card you can merge them together for the exclusive green parallel. So far I've been able to trade for Callahan and Ben Bishop. I just had them sent to me and they do look pretty nice in person.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Cut The Check? Should the Lightning Buy Out Valtteri Filppula

Let’s get two things out of the way before we dive into this post:

1. I liked the Valtteri Filppula deal when it was signed.  Liked, didn’t love.  It was a year too long and a million dollars too much, but the Lightning were signing a creative, veteran playmaker who played responsible hockey and would slot into a top-six position.

2. I don’t like teams buying out contracts.  Done incorrectly it can lead to roster-strangling dead cap space and an endless cycle of overpaying (because, hey you can always buy him out when it goes sideways) for free agents. It might seem like small change, but it can add up.  Buying one player out at $1.7 million and then another at $2 million and then things escalate quickly.  Before you know it you have $4-5 million wrapped up in dead money.

Keeping those two things in mind,  I think the Lightning buying out Valtteri Filppula isn’t the worse thing in the world.  The Finnish forward with the filthy hands is owed $10 million over the next two years.  According to General Fanager if Tampa Bay buys him out before the window ends on June 30th they will save $3.34 million this season and next.  Of course, there are consequences.  For the following two seasons (2018-19 and 2019-20) they will take a $1.67 million cap hit.

Probably not his finest Lightning memory.

Three-and-a-third million dollars is a lot of money to play with on a roster that has a lot of young talent looking for raises.  Wouldn’t it be better to spend some of that money on locking up Nikita Kucherov and his consistent goalscoring as opposed to Filppula and his diminishing flashes of puck-handling brilliance?

I think Filppula has taken a lot of unwarranted flack over the past few seasons, but I’m also aware that he is a 32-year-old forward whose offensive numbers have been declining over the last three seasons. It’s getting harder and harder to justify rolling him out there for 18-20 minutes a game.

In the playoff run this season which forward led the team in ice time?

A: Kucherov with his 11 goals in 17 games?
B. The young Jonathan Drouin and his breakout performance?
C. The steady Tyler Johnson who quietly put up a point a game during the postseason.

The answer to this obviously leading question is - none of the above.

Filppula led all forwards with 20:45 of ice time throughout the playoffs.  Part of that could be explained by the fact that he won 52% of the faceoffs he had.  Coach Cooper threw him out there at the end of games, short-handed and every other time he had an important face-off. Those minutes rack up when you’re doing it game after game.

He did a decent job against the Red Wings and Islanders top lines.

He wasn’t actually that bad in the playoffs (at least until the Pittsburgh series).  He did put up 7 points overall, but against the Penguins his most glaring deficiency was exposed - he just isn’t fast anymore.  Watching him carry the puck into the offensive zone was like watching Jonathan Drouin in slow-motion.  The moves were there, the slick puck-handling was there, it was just at a slower pace.  Even if he was in the zone with numbers, the high-energy Penguins were able to chase him down.

Despite his lack of foot speed it is obvious that he is a player that Coach Cooper trusts.  He is somewhat responsible in the defensive zone and can (at least theoretically) generate offense.  Over at Raw Charge, loserpoints is reviewing the team with a slant towards enhanced stats.  Those numbers place Filppula place just off-center and the writer sums up his season simply saying, “Valtteri Filppula is declining as would be expected of a player his age”.  So…yeah.

Barring injury to other players he is not cracking the top-six next season.  With the Triplets coming back, Alex Killorn, Jonathan Drouin and (hopefully) an extremely rich Steven Stamkos filling out the top of the roster, at best Filppula is going to be looking at another year as a third-line center.

Do the Lightning have someone on the roster that can replace Filppula?  After all, if he’s bought out, someone has to fill that spot. It could be Jonathan Marchessault.  The 25-year-old center is an unrestricted free agent, but could be brought back at a reasonable (under $2 million) salary.  While he doesn’t have the same offensive promise that Filppula brings to the table, he wouldn’t be a total train wreck playing 15 minutes a game.

Also, it might open a spot on the roster for a young player in the organization like Adam Erne or Yanni Goude.  Also, while the free agent market might not be deep, there are third-line forwards available at reasonable prices (P.A. Parenteau maybe?)

Something else to think about that could affect the team a little farther down the road is that Filppula has a no-movement clause in his contract and is signed through the 2017-18 season which means the Lightning would have to protect him in the Las Vegas expansion draft.  Wouldn’t you rather protect Vlad Namestnikov or JT Brown instead of Filppula?

So I just spent a page and a half laying out a case for buying him out.  Should Mr. Yzerman cut him a check and wish him well?  Yes, but after next season.

I think they can get one more serviceable season out of him without handicapping the team out of contention.  Mr. Yzerman should be able to get all of his business done with Stamkos and his restricted free agents and still stay under the cap.  He can then apply the cap savings to Victor Hedman’s extension (let’s start putting the positive vibes out there now) and longer term deals for Johnson and Ondrej Palat.

The Lightning GM has played the buyout game pretty well so far. The only contracts he has bought out have been Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Malone, both of them were compliance buyouts that didn’t count against the salary cap. He did retain some salary when the Lightning flipped Sam Gagner to the Coyotes for a 6th round pick.  That salary, as well as the cap hit from Vlacav Prospal’s buyout (done under the Brian Lawton regime) fell off this season.

Thirty-one points from a center that can win faceoffs and kill penalties isn’t the worst thing in the world. He has been relatively healthy over his Lightning career (something that was a bit of a worrying point when he signed the deal) and can still contribute.

So don’t trade in those “51” jerseys just yet.

I will miss those platinum locks when he's gone.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Trading Time - Bringing in Some New Cards

Sometimes I set goals just so that I can't meet them and then feel somewhat crappy about it (trade 5,000 cards in a year). Other times I set goals that are easy to meet so that I can feel good about it (create a list of things to do that starts with “create a list”). Most of the times I pick something in the middle.

This summer I'm looking to crack 100 trades on Zistle. I started at 79 so it's not inconceivable that I can knock out 20 over the next couple of months. In fact, in the span of about 2 weeks I've completed 4. Let's look at trade number 83:

I reached out to user Sdre31 looking to unload some extra 2015 Topps base cards I had sitting around. In exchange he sent the following:

2000 Topps Will Clark

Yes, Will the Thrill played parts of two seasons with the Birds. Over 156 games he hit .302 with 19 home runs. I really enjoyed the Topps 2000 set. It was simple yet effective.

2010 Topps Randy Wells and 2010 St. Louis Cardinals

Two more base cards for a set I have a looooong way to go before completing. As in, almost the entire series two portion. Not sure why I choose this set to complete as I really don't care for it that much.

1989 Topps Joe Orsulak

That's right, another Smokin' Joe O card. A somewhat interesting note about this card. The action portion shows Orsulak wearing the 1988 uniform with the cartoon bird on the helmet. The superimposed head shot is of him wearing the ornithological correct bird which was introduced in 1989. I was never a fan of that hat.

2008 Upper Deck Documentary Orioles Cards

Perhaps one of the most ambitious sets ever created. The 2008 Documentary set totaled 4,890 cards. Each team had 163 cards depicting each game they played in 2008. That was not the best year to document the O's as they finished 5th in the AL East with a record of 68-93. The best thing that happened in 2008 happened before the season started when they dealt Erik Bedard to the Mariners for Adam Jones, George Sherrill, Chris Tillman (forgot he was in the trade), Tony Butler and Kam Mickolio in what has to be the greatest non-Frank Robinson trade in club history.

The cards I received kind of play out the fact that they weren't that good. Of the 5 cads, 4 of them documented losses:

Game 84 –5-2 Win against the Royals. Danial Cabrera with the complete game win! So why is Jeremy Guthrie pictured?  Who knows?  That was part of the fun of the set.  The cards didn't always match the games described.

Game 85 – 10-7 Loss to the Royals. Who gave up those 10 runs? Why it was Garret Olson, Adam Loewen (actually pictured on the card), Chad Bradford, Lance Cormier and Fernando Cabrera. Look the O's pitching staff has been a disaster for years!

Game 98 – 5-1 loss to the Tigers. Justin Verlander scattered 3 hits in working 8.2 innings against the O's. Nick Markakis did not get one of those hits (but someone named Guillermo Quiroz did).  When you talk about the doldrums of the major league season, this is the type of game you're referring to as the teams went into the game with matching 48-49 records and well out of the playoff hunt.

Game 103- 6-5 Loss to the Los Angeles Angels. Look it's Melvin Mora! Mora played a decade in Baltimore. Over those 1,256 games he hit .280 with 158 home runs. He really was a solid player for some very bad teams. In 2015 he was inducted into the team's Hall of Fame.  Well deserved I think.

Game 140- 11-2 Loss to Athletics. Adam Jones is pictured with the caption “Rookie is one of few bright spots for the Orioles”. On the back of the card the rookie referenced is – Lou Montanez! A month earlier Montanez had hit a home run in his major league debut

There was some actual talk of Montanez being a prospect for the team based on his play at the end of 2008. Sadly he was never able to duplicate the success and after two more seasons with the O's organization he signed as a free agent with the Chicago Cubs. He spent the 2011 season in the Windy City and hasn't been seen in the majors since.

Thanks for the trade!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Some Thoughts on the Upcoming Draft

The finals are trickling down to NBC’s preferred money shot of Sidney Crosby raising the Stanley Cup over his head one more time.  Once that happens (which should be sometime in the next three weeks based on the Finals scheduling) it’s time to truly look at the off-season. And what an off-season it will be for the Lightning!  Between free agents, dwindling salary cap space, a possible expansion draft and a couple of restricted free agents that other teams may actually tender a contract to, Steve Yzerman isn’t going to be spending too much time on a golf course this summer.

 First up, live from the First Niagara Center in beautiful Buffalo, New York, the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.  Not only is it the day that hundreds of young Canadians realize their lifelong dream of getting drafted by a NHL team, it’s also one of the last moments for General Managers to meet in one room and talk about swapping each others bad contracts.

If things hold as they are now the Tampa Bay Lightning will be drafting 27th, just after the Washington Capitals and before the St. Louis Blues.  The downside of a successful team is that it’s kind of hard to get excited about the draft. Really, the only thing that I’m looking forward to is if anyone drafted shakes up BoltProspects rankings.

They will most likely draft a kid that will spend at least one more year in junior hockey and then spend a year or two in Syracuse (or maybe Kalamazoo!). By the time they’re ready to crack the NHL squad who knows what the team will look like? Steven Stamkos could be enjoying his third season of missing the playoffs with Toronto.  Nikita Kucherov could be earning tens of millions of mob-related money in the KHL.  Ben Bishop could be backstopping the Las Vegas Aces to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Draft = NHL Combine = Awesome Photos like this. #NeverForget

That’s why, more than any other league, teams should draft the best available player, not for any special needs.  Yes, the Lightning might be light on defensemen in the system right now, but will they be in three years?  Who knows?  Take the best talent and let the cards fall as they may.

Would Mr. Yzerman be tempted to leap up in the draft this year?  He has more reason this year than any other during his regime.  Losing Steven Stamkos in free agency would leave a glaring hole in the top six and he has a pretty lucrative trade chip in his pocket in Jonathan Drouin.  Edmonton is known to be interested in moving down from their spot at number four in the draft.  Would they take the talented, but mercurial Drouin for that spot?  Would Matthew Tkachuk, Alex Nylander or Jesse Puljujarvi be worth it to the Lightning?

In all likelihood Mr. Yzerman will not trade up. In fact, he is more likely to trade down like he did last year. If it looks like their player is going to be available in the second round why not trade down and pick up a couple of assets?  In order to do that, I think he would have to work out a deal with someone who has a top five pick in the second round.  If you look at last season they traded out of the 28th spot for two second round picks.  They then used one of those picks to take Mitchell Stephens third in the second round.  In essence they moved down 5 spots.

Could they have drafted Stephens in the first round?  Of course, but then they wouldn’t have picked up an extra second round draft pick.  Mr. Yzerman likes to acquire assets and if he can get the player he wants AND an extra draft pick, chances are he’s going to do it.

The Lightning have held the 27th pick once before during the Yzerman Era.  In 2011 they drafted a young Russian who had been playing in the OHL by the name of Vladislav Namestnikov.  He was the first of three Russians drafted by Mr. Yzerman that year being followed by Nikita Kucherov and Nikita Nesterov.  Oh and he rounded off his day by drafting a Czech kid by the name of Ondrej Palat in the 7th round in what might have been the best draft in team history.

Somehow he looks older in this draft photothan he does now. #RussianBieber

If he does decide to keep the pick, who are they going to draft?  I don’t really know. Once you get past Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine I have no idea how good the rest of the draft is.  So to get a gauge on how the Lightning might go I went to the internet and delved into the wonderful world of mock drafts or as I like to say - it's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.

Kid, I've seen drafts from all over the galaxy and there is no way Yzerman is trading up.

Let’s take a look at what some of the sites had to say about who the Lightning might draft:

Allen Mitchell - The Bleacher Report

Nathan Bastian - C/RW Mississauga Steelheads

 A 6’4” 200 lb forward who is a two-way forward?  Well that sounds intriguing.  While he might not light up the scoreboard he sounds like the responsible sort of player that would thrive under Coach Cooper.  A question mark could be his size.  He is one of the bigger forwards in the OHL and uses his size to gain control of the puck.  Will that skill transfer to the NHL when he’s battling people his own size or bigger?

Adam Kimelman -

Vitaly Abramov - Gatineau Olympiques

Russian - check
Undersized - check
Pretty good skill set - check
Sounds like a dream pick for Mr. Yzerman.  A fast skater with a good shot is always worthy of a first round pick.  If he’s available at 27 I think it would be hard for the Lightning to say no.

Consensus - My NHL Draft

Samuel Girard - Shawinigan Cataractes

Keeping with the undersized theme, but switching from offense to defense, Girard is a puck moving defenseman with strong skating skills and “excellent vision”.  At 5’10” he won’t tower over opponents like the rest of the Lightning’s blue liners several report mention his “strong lower” body and willingness to play the body.  After another season of watching the Lightning struggle to pass it out of the defensive zone it would be nice to see someone other than Victor Hedman who can actually skate it out.

Bill Placzek -

Pascal Laberge - Victoriaville Tigers

Laberge sounds like a more traditional offensive player with decent size, shifty skills and an elusive shot. When reading scouting reports the usual draft clich├ęs seem to apply - needs to get stronger, needs to be more responsible in his own end.  His ability to make plays and willingness to get in the corners to dig out pucks could make him an intriguing pick up.  A high-skill grinder could fit in well if paired up with a pure-goal scoring sniper.

Craig Button - TSN

Will Bitten - Flint Firebirds

Another under-6’ tall center who plays a strong two-way game.  It seems that the prognosticators thing Mr. Yzerman has a type of player he likes.  I do enjoy hearing the term “tenacious” when describing a forward playing defense, but do you take someone who sounds like a 3rd line center with a first round, even if it’s late in the first round, pick?  He sounds like someone who will be available in the second round.

It looks like there is absolutely zero consensus on who the Lightning will pick at 27.  Which is normal for a pick that late in the draft.  I’m sure the organization itself is still hammering out their final short list of players that they want.  Personally I would think they lean towards picking up an offensive player in the first round as there seems to be a deeper well of talent than for blue liners.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Game Whatever: The One With All of the Awards

The official morning period has passed.  How do I know that?  Because people who know that I’m a Tampa Bay Lightning fan no longer start off conversations by saying, “Man, sorry about the Lightning.  Are you OK?” I also feel like I can write about the season with a little bit of objectivity. Let’s face it, it was a tough season for the team and their fans. The injuries, the suspensions, the contract negotiations (or lack thereof), the Matt Carle being Matt Carle made for one long slog of a season. Yet there they were back in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Imagine jumping back to September and someone telling you that the Lightning would have portions of the season where Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palet, Anton Stralman and Steven Stamkos would miss significant time.  They also told you that there was legitimate debate if Jonathan Marchessault should be playing or not. If you heard that, would you think they were one win away from making the Stanley Cup Finals?  I surely wouldn’t.  I would be hoping they would be battling Toronto for the rights to Auston Matthews.

But the Lightning survived the regular season.  They survived the first two rounds of the playoffs and they almost survived the Penguins.  After the big Game 5 win against the Penguins I tweeted this out:

There was so much talent on this squad that it was inconceivable that scoring would be the thing that they struggled with.  Yet there we were watching them struggle to 2-1 losses to Colorado in October and Detroit in November.  Or, hey how about that 1-0 OT loss to Chicago during that stretch as well?  Who would have thought that defense would have kept the team in the hunt over the first half of the season?

Yet, somehow they made it to the playoffs and pretty much breezed through the first two rounds thanks to timely goaltending, the individual greatness of Nikita Kucherov and favorable match-ups.  Despite having to rely on a 21-year-old backup goalie against the best team in the Eastern Conference they held their own against Penguins.  So for me the season was a success.  A struggling success, but a success the whole time.

I felt, especially after watching Game 3 live, that they were a team that just ran out of gas at the end of the season. While they managed to scrap out wins in Games 4 and 5 with their backs against the wall, the sluggishness and sloppy play returned with a vengeance in Game 6 and in Game 7 they were just outplayed by a better team.

To wrap up the playoffs in true Hopeful Chase fashion lets hand out some poorly thought out postseason awards:

Post Season MVP:  Nikita Kucherov

Eleven goals in 17 games is going to get him paid. While none of them were game winners, several were game-tying goals which were just as important.  There were times in the Islanders series where it seemed like he couldn’t not score when the puck was on his stick. He displayed some of the selfishness that all good scorers need as he led the team with 51 shots and the chemistry he had enjoyed with Tyler Johnson last season returned.  While the Pens did a decent job of slowing him down, he still had his moments against them.

Post Season LVP: Nikita Nesterov

I know, I know.  How did Matt Carle lose this award?  Let’s not let his regression against the Penguins detract from how well he played in the first two rounds.  He wasn’t just “not bad” he was good.  So that leaves Mr. Nesterov.  At some point you have to wonder if a player is going to be able to cut it at the NHL level.  Nesterov shows flashes of ability, but when the pressure is on he just isn’t reliable.  With the emergence of Slater Koekkoek and Anthony DeAngelo waiting in the wings, Nesterov’s tenure as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning might be drawing to a close.

The “How do you like dem apples” award: Jonathan Drouin

In the most surprising showing of the postseason , the Prodigal Son showed everyone, including his GM, why he was a top draft pick. Even in the Game 6 loss he scored the prettiest goal of the game, cutting across the front of the net, shooting against the flow of play and picking the top corner of the net.  From his feistiness in  Round One to being one of the few Lightning players that could match the Penguins speed in the Conference finals, Drouin showed his entire range of skills.

The “Why didn’t he play more” award:  Vlad Namestnikov

The Russian Bieber played all 17 games in the playoffs, but often found himself on the bench during the later stages of the games.  He picked up 3 points playing mostly on one of the least used lines (things were so jumbled that the concept of first and second lines were lost).  To me, it would have made more sense to see him playing in Val Filppula’s role against the Lightning.  Despite the Finn’s depth hand at face-offs, his lack of speed against the Penguins was quite telling. I’m hoping this turns into another one of Coach Cooper’s long cons, where mysterious line usage in the present pays off in the future.

The “Congratulations on making next year’s team” award:  Slater Koekkoek

Maybe it was the fact that he had fresh legs on a team that was physically worn out by the end of the playoffs, but in Games 6 and 7, he was Tampa’s most noticeable player on the ice when he had the puck. Sure, he had a few turnovers in toward the end of Game 7, but those are bound to happen when you’re pushing for a goal.  His play led to the benching of Matt Carle in Game 7 and most likely will lead to him being penciled in as one of the starting 6 blue liners for the 2016-17 season.

The “You played really, really well, but man I wonder what would have happened if Ben Bishop was healthy” award:  Andrei Vasilevskiy

I don't think we could have expected more from the 21-year-old Russian. He stopped 92.5% of the shots that came his way.  Which is good, but look at the number of shots he faced.  Bishop played 148 more minutes (roughly 2 and ½ games) than Vasy, but only faced 30 more shots.That's phenomenal! The Penguins peppered him all series long and for the most part he was up to the task.  Yet I couldn’t shake the thought that if Bishop was healthy for Game 7 the outcome might have been different.

My favorite save of the postseason.  

The “Hey, he had a pretty good post season too” award: Tyler Johnson

In what was a tough season for the diminutive center, Johnson finished second on the team in post-season scoring as he finished with 17 points and 3 game-winning goals (including one of his back).  That was roughly half of the amount of points that he put up in the regular season. Hopefully he gets to rest this offseason and won’t require any medical work so that he can start off next season with a fresh slate.

The “I don’t want to say anything, but maybe he should have sat a little longer” award: Anton Stralman

I get it, I really do. When you’re patching your defense together with duct tape and Matt Carle, having your second best defenseman back in the lineup makes sense. He just wasn’t the same when he came back from the broken leg.  Whether it was because his hockey instincts were a little rusty or he just wasn’t up to playoff game speed, Stralman just looked out of sorts.  Getting caught in between making a play and defending on the Sidney Crosby overtime goal was indicative of how his series went.

The “Thanks for trying to give us one more great memory” award: Steven Stamkos

Even as we sit one month away from the free agent frenzy, I don’t know if Stamkos is coming back to the team.  In my hopeful mind, the fact that he played shows that he does indeed want to be a Bolt for life. After all if he was planning on taking the first money train to Toronto would he have risked playing in Game 7? No one would have thought less of him if he didn’t play.

And while in the end he didn’t have much of a factor in the game, there was that brief moment in the third period where he found the puck on his stick and a step on the defense.  He wound back, unleashed a howitzer that seemed to actually go through Matt Murray but then, as was the case with every puck it seemed, it trickled wide of the net.  If he scores there, man would that have given the team and their fans a boost of adrenaline.

But wait, didn't I just argue that playing Stralman hurt the team? How was playing Stamkos different? Because it's my column, that's why.  Look, if Coach Cooper had sat Steven Stamkos, one of the premier goal scorers of this generation, in Game 7 after the the doctor's cleared him, he would have regretted it every day of his coaching life. You'd don't go into that game without loading that bullet in the gun.

I think that time will also dull some of the pain of this season and we’ll look back fondly on the emergence of Kucherov as an upper tier talent and Victor Hedman building his legacy as future Norris Trophy winner. The Lightning proved that they weren’t a one-season fluke and that they will be a contender in the East for the next few years.  Hopefully Mr. Yzerman can navigate the difficult waters that lie ahead this offseason and keep that Cup window open for a few more seasons.

Combine their ages and they still aren't as old as Jagr

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

An Old Friend Stops By With Some Thoughts on Games 1 and 2

I'm not going to lie. Thanks to prime time programming and a busy week at work I've watched a total of about 25 minutes of Games 1 and 2 live.  So, in order to get a feel for how the series has been going, I've recruited friend of the blog and fellow hockey wanderer Jason (aka Link), a Penguins season ticket holder, to help out. While I’m jetting down to Tampa for Game 3, we had a little email conversation to see how he feels about the series so far.

Justin G: So. How’s your heart?  Quite a few overtime games for you and your Penguins so far.  We talked a little before the series started and we were both excited at the match-up.  It hasn’t quite been the goal fest we were expecting, but what are your initial thoughts after two games?

Jason L: The heart rate is doing ok, but going into the third period last night I felt that if the Penguins lost, the series would likely be over.  I am surprised the Penguins haven't been able to get great scoring chances.  Their best chances have come off of rebounds and scrambles in front of the net.  The Penguins best lines have been the Matt Cullen and Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel lines.  Crosby and Malkin continue to struggle 5 on 5 and I think it is only a matter of time until they are paired together. 

The Lightning are really fast.  The Penguins have been skating teams out of the building for the past 4 months but Tampa is just as quick if not quicker.  Their ability to block shots has impressed me as well as their transition game.  I am surprised how poorly they have done in the faceoff circle.  The won Game 1 despite getting destroyed in the circle.  Its one thing to lose a draw but the Penguins have won draw after draw cleanly.  Both team split the faceoffs in game 2 primarily because Tampa started winning draws in the 3rd.  This is an area of concern for the Bolts and it could prevent Tampa from playing their A game against the Pens.

JG: I saw you posted on Facebook in Game 2 that you were a bit worried that Matt Murray looked a little shaky.  Luckily for you the Pens shut down the Lightning and limited their shots.  Is he still your guy moving forward?

JL: I am a Marc Andre Fleury guy.  I think he is vastly underrated throughout the league and this year he is the reason the Penguins weren't twenty points out of a playoff spot before they caught fire.  The question I ask myself is who is your best goaltender?  Matt Murray may be the answer in a few years but right now the answer is Fleury.

best at blowing bubbles maybe

Fleury may be the most athletic goalie in the league while Murray is positionally sound on every play. Unlike the last series where battling traffic was the key to success, in this series the Penguins need a more athletic goalie to counteract the Tampa offense.

Sullivan is in a no win situation.  I feel as if he is waiting for Murray to have a bad game.  Game 2 was Tampa's chance to expose the young netminder but the Lightning failed to generate shots, let along scoring chances, against the Penguins.

JG: Everyone (by that I mean Twitter) thought that Ben Bishop’s leg had detached from his body in Game 1.  Now it looks like not only is it still on his body, but may be healthy enough to go in Game 3.  In his absence young Mr. Vasilevskiy has played quite well.  You’re John Cooper.  What do you do?

JL: I was watching Game 1 from my season ticket location in section 205 and I thought Bishop was done.  Everyone in the arena thought the same.  I have attended close to 500 hockey games and I have never seen a goalie leave on a stretcher.  I am not a big Ben Bishop fan.  In my opinion Ben Bishop is just a really big goalie who plays on a talented team.  Vasilevskiy is the better goalie.  Don't let  age fool you, he has the game that can take the Lightning to the cup.  He just needs the opportunity.

it was a hell of a stop

JG: The match-up game switches as we head to Tampa.  Now that the Lightning have the last line change, who should they put Hedman on?  In other words, as a Pittsburgh fan, which Pens line is the most dangerous?

JL: I would put Hedman against the Kessel-Bonino-Hagelin line.  This has been the Penguins best line in the playoffs by far.  The key to beating the Penguins is making them play a 200 foot game.  The HBK line has been great and creating neutral zone turnovers and using their speed to back off opposing defenseman.  This is going to sound odd, but trust me on this one.  Hedman against the HBK line is a must.

JG: Before his overtime goal, Sidney Crosby had been held goalless in 9 games.  From what I saw, Coach Sullivan tried to shake things up by putting him on a line with Evgeni Malkin.  It almost worked as Malkin fed Crosby for a one-timer that Vasilevsky made a fantastic save on.  What’s up with Sid?

JL: The reason you saw this happen more than once late in the 2nd and during parts of the 3rd period was that Conor Sheary was benched or hurt.  I don't think Sheary has been the same since the Tom Wilson knee on knee hit in Game 1 of the Washington series.  In Game 2, the Penguins had to rotate 11 forwards and when that happens you will see Crosby & Malkin together.

I think this strategy is one the Penguins need to employ a lot more going forward in the series.  As for Crosby I think you saw his best period in a while in the 3rd but a lot of his scoring issues has to deal with the Penguins lack of success on the power play.  The Penguins just haven't been bad on the power play since round one, but they have been dreadful.  When the Penguins power play controls the action the Penguins feed off of it, even when they don't score.  I think it is no coincidence that the Penguins have a tendency to give up goals following uninspired power plays.

JG: You’ve now seen the Lightning in back-to-back playoff games.  Anything strike you as different than regular season Lightning?  Who has been their best player?

JL: Drouin has been their best player.  He was everywhere on the ice in the first two games.  When he had the puck I feared him.  I still think Yzerman/Cooper were nuts for playing him on the 4th line and then sending him to the minors.  Drouin although young is a top NHL talented forward.  If you are not going to play him 15+ minutes a game you are doing him a disservice.

Look at the butt on that. He must work out.

The Lightning are at their best when they use stretch passes against the Penguins.  The Killorn breakaway goal in the first period of Game 1 was evidence of that.  They continued to use this during Game 1 and I think it was a big reason the Penguins defenseman were on their heels.

As a team what impresses me the most if their ability to get into the shooting lanes.  No one talks about the Lightning forwards defensively but they do a great job and clogging the shooting lanes.

JG: How worried are you about the return of Steven Stamkos?  Anton Stralman came back in Game 2 and scored a goal (granted he was also on the ice for the overtime winner, but that’s not important).  Do you think Stamkos makes a difference?

JL: Honestly I was more worried about Stralman than Stamkos.  I think Stamkos will offer the Penguins more chances on the counter attack.  Do I think he could be a threat on the power play? Yes, but I also wonder if he will disrupt the Lightning team chemistry.  Stralman is a Penguins killer and he gives Tampa a big threat on the blueline besides Hedman.  He has scored 4 goals in 5 games against the flightless birds this season and is someone I truly fear as a Penguins fan.

JG: With the exception of the power play goal in Game 1, all of the Lightning goals have been scored in transition.  How is Pittsburgh going to stop that?

JL: I don't think the Penguins can stop the Lightning transition game other than to keep control of the puck.  The Penguins engage their defense and they do it well, but when it doesn't work it leads to chances the other way.  The Lightning are the one team in the league who can make the Penguins pay.

In the second half of Game 2, the Penguins won the battles along the wall and prevented the Bolts from leaving their zone with speed.  This is the key to the series.  If Tampa successfully gets into transition they will win the series.  If they don't, they will raise another banner at the Consol Energy Center.

There ya go.  Many thanks to Mr. Link for taking the time to answer my questions.  Despite his lifelong affiliation with the Steel City he's a good man.  Check him out on Twitter at @Linkes25.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Some Thoughts on Round Three

Buried somewhere in the archives of this website I’m pretty sure there is a prediction where I said the Tampa Bay Lightning would probably bow out in the second round of the playoffs, and that I was O.K. with that.  As with most of my predictions I was wrong.  Guess what, I‘m O.K. with that!.  After a horrible first game, the Lightning came roaring back and dispatched the New York Islanders in four straight games to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

Tampa Bay will look to defend their Eastern Conference title against NHL cover boy Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh Penguins.  The Penguins advanced by defeating their fellow Pennsylvanians Philadelphia Flyers (their fellow Atlantic Division rivals, the New York Rangers)in the first round and then handing the Washington Capitals their latest playoff disappointment in the second round.

This is the second time the two teams have met in the post season with the first being during the opening round of  the 2011 playoffs. That was a weird seven game series that featured the Lightning winning Game 5 8-2 and Game 7 1-0. Despite being just five seasons ago only  Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos remain on the team from that series.  Even odder, for the Penguins only Marc Andre Fluery and Chris Kunitz played against the Lightning in 2011.  Both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were injured.

Remember how I rambled on in my last preview about how I had no feeling for how the Islanders were as a team?  Well, that’s not a problem in this round.  The Penguins are offense. Plain and simple they like to score goals.  It helps when you have two of the best players in the league in Crosby and Malkin. Oh and it doesn’t hurt when you add 40-goal scorer and hot dog aficionado Phil Kessel in the off-season. Throw in guys like Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin and it’s easy to see why the Pens sport such a high flying offense.

A lot has been made that the Lightning have “only” played 10 games so far in the playoffs.  Well, the Penguins are right with them having advanced through two round while only playing 11 games.  And, sorry Lightning fans, they faced a little better competition in doing so.  I haven’t looked yet, but I’m assuming a lot of the national pundits are picking the Penguins to win the series.  After all, they were the ones that declared the Pens/Caps series the true Eastern Conference Finals.

So, if the Lightning are underdogs for the first time this postseason, and are finally the road team in a series, how can they win four of their next seven games and advance to the Finals?

1. Create a goaltender controversy

Penguins goaltender Matt Murray has been the surprise star of the playoffs so far. At one point this season he was the 3rd string goalie for Pittsburgh. Now, he’s leading them to a possible Stanley Cup. Since taking over for Jeff Zatkoff he’s gone 7-2 with a 2.05 GAA and .935 save percentage. Those stats mirror his regular season performance where in 13 games he went 9-2 with a 2.00 and .930.  Huh, maybe he’s just a good goalie.

This kid should have a paper route not a chance to go to the Stanley Cup Finals.

However, sitting on the bench is Stanley Cup winning Marc Andre Fleury. The longtime Penguins net minder is finally healthy and ready to play. Everyone, even coaches, loves experience in the playoffs.  Fleury has 98 games of playoff experience compared to Murray’s 9.  If the Lightning can light up Murray in one of the first two games, coach Mike Sullivan could have a difficult choice on his hands.  Hope the kid bounces back or go with a goaltender who has done it in the past, but has been sitting on his hands for the last month.

Having to deal with goaltending questions in the playoffs can be a big distraction (see Detroit series) and when every game matters, if the Lightning can steal one because the “wrong” goalie is playing could swing the tide in the series.

2. Keep the scoring mix going

Coach Cooper loves tinkering with his lines.  Whether it’s before the game or during the game, you know at some point he’s going to switch things up.  While his manipulations didn’t pay off in round one, it did lead to slightly more balanced scoring against the Islanders.  While Nikita Kucherov still seemingly scored at will, Val Filppula, Jason Garrison, media darling Victor Hedman, and Vlad Namestnikov all picked up their first goals of the post season.

If these guys start filling the net with pucks, the Lightning have a chance.

Having the defense start contributing offensively (especially the monster series by Hedman) against the Islanders was one of the best things  to come out of that series. Tampa Bay is at their best when the blue line is playing aggressive and finding ways to get their shots on net. Yes, it does lead to the occasional 2-on-1 break the other way, but that’s why you have a Vezina-finalist goalie in net.

The Lightning are not going to win these games 2-1 or 1-0, they need to score goals.  On paper, there should be more room on the ice for their offense. The Penguins have been giving up over 32 shots per game so far this post season.  That’s a lot of opportunities for the Lightning forwards (and blue liners) to cash in.  They have to focus on getting the puck on net and not trying to be too cute in passing the puck around.

It is likely that Coach Cooper will keep going with his beloved 11-forward/ 7 defensemen lineup, especially on the road.  That gives him a chance to mix-and-match a fourth line throughout the game that could keep the Penguins off balance.  It also lets him protect a couple of the younger defenders that are guarding the blueline.

He might move away from that set up if Steven Stamkos comes back at some point in the series.  In this type of matchup I would rather see another sniper added to the lineup even if it forces him to play Slater Koekkoek or Luke Witkowski more than he would like. And yes, I believe both of those guys have moved passed Nikita Nesterov on the current depth chart.

They need to keep getting contributions from all three of their main lines if they are going to match the firepower that the Penguins bring to the ice.  Heck, if anyone remembers the 2011 matchup, it wasn’t Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier scoring the goals, it was Sean Freaking Bergenheim. So look for the difference makers to be someone along the line of Filppula or Ryan Callahan.

I believe this is the one save MAF made against Bergenheim in the series.

3. Rely too much on Ben Bishop

Let’s face it.  The Penguins are going to get their chances.  They are too good on offense to be shut down.  Plus the Lightning always have those spastic moments where they completely forget how to clear the puck out of their own zone.  When that happens, they have to hope the big man in the net comes through.

Bishop had a great regular season and was basically the only reason they didn’t dig a hole so deep they couldn’t climb out of it.  What he’s done in the post season has been even more impressive.  Eight wins in ten games, two series-clinching shutouts, a .938 save percentage and a 1.89 GAA.  Those numbers aren’t too shabby.

There will be at least one game that he absolutely steals for the Lightning. Something along the lines of a 3-1 win where he stops 45 shots in regulation.  Those type of games can be series-turning, especially if they happen on the road.

Hard to score when the goalie knocks you on your ass.  Photo by Getty Images

They also need him to stop all the stoppable shots.  It seems like a simple concept, but it is extremely important when playing Pittsburgh.  The Penguins are going to score, they are going to score in ways that make you say, “WOW”.  If Bishop can limit them to those types of goals the Lightning have enough offense on their own to win the series. However, if he starts letting in some soft goals, I don’t know if the Lightning can keep up.

4. Special Teams

Don’t take penalties and score when you have the extra man.  This game is easy, isn’t it?  One thing the Penguins haven’t done well is kill penalties.  Their current success rate is 83%.  Not great, but not terrible.  They have, however, taken a lot of penalties.  They’ve been shorthanded 42 times in their 11 games.  If they keep that rate up, the Lightning have to find a way to score when on the power play.  Putting Brian Boyle in front of the net and Jonathan Drouin on the point seems to have worked.

On the other side, the Lightning themselves have been shorthanded 43 times in their 10 games.  Luckily, thanks to Bishop and the less-talented teams they’ve played, they’ve only given up 5 power play goals.  They can’t take 4 penalties a game against the Penguins or they will get lit up.

5. Hide Malkin’s Equipment

If there is one player I fear in this upcoming series it sure isn’t Ian Cole, it’s Evgeni Malkin. He’s been tearing up the Lightning his entire career. He has 19 goals and 23 assists in 31 regular season games against the Bolts (he has yet to face them in the playoffs) and of those 19 goals half are highlight-reel worthy.

Malkin has been O.K. during the playoffs so far.  After missing the end of the season with an injury he has played 10 games in the post season and  scored 3 goals while tallying 6 assists. He is nominally on their 3rd line with Chris Kunitz and Eric Fehr.  However, much like the Lightning, the 3rd line is more of another offensive line than a checking line.

Of course, the big question for the Lightning is going to be who do they match Hedman against? Will it be the Malkin line or the Crosby line? Tampa Bay has “held” Crosby to only 14 goals and 27 assists in 41 games over his career (again, he hasn’t faced them in the playoffs). So it’s kind of a coin flip.

If Anton Stralman does come back, most likely it would be in Coach Cooper’s best interest to match him up with Jason Garrison so that it gives him two above average pairings to send on the ice.  Hedman has played well with Braydon Coburn so far in the post season….of course he could play well with a traffic cone at this point…so perhaps you put that pairing on Malkin and Stralman’s pairing on Crosby.

If Stralman doesn’t come back….well….good luck with that.

Even if you can shut down Malkin and Crosby, you still have to worry about Phil Kessel who is the actual scoring leader on the team.  The Penguins offense is deeper than the Mariana Trench.

In the end I have a feeling that this is going to be a really good series.  You have two teams that would rather score goals than stop them.  Both teams have depth. With the exception of a few elbows, both teams play a pretty clean game.

The big question for the Penguins will be if Matt Murray can continue his outstanding play.

The big question for the Lightning will be if they can contain the Penguin’s scoring depth.

I say that home ice plays a big role and despite the return of Steven Stamkos in Game 5, the Penguins win the series in seven.