fb-pixel Skip to main content

Lightning, Panthers among teams to beat in 2016-17

<?EM-dummyText [Drophead goes here] ?>

Despite lucrative offers elsewhere, Steven Stamkos signed an eight-year, $68 million extension to stay in Tampa Bay, figuring most likely it was his best chance to win a Stanley Cup.
Despite lucrative offers elsewhere, Steven Stamkos signed an eight-year, $68 million extension to stay in Tampa Bay, figuring most likely it was his best chance to win a Stanley Cup.Gene J. Puskar

The California trip once served as a much-needed midwinter boost for 27 teams. They could soak in the sunshine, shovel in fresh sushi, and play three cupcakes to stock up on energy and points.

This is no longer the case. The California trip ensures only headaches for visitors. The Bruins learned this the hard way in March, when they dropped three straight games to the Sharks, Ducks, and Kings to leave California with a zero-point result that stung more than their sunburns.

The tour of Florida will hurt visitors just as much as stops in San Jose, Anaheim, and Los Angeles.

Advertisement



Like their West Coast counterparts, the Panthers and Lightning used to be pushovers. Four points were as guaranteed as a rejuvenating dose of Vitamin C. Not anymore. In 2016-17, the 28 other teams will require a handful of aspirin to accompany their glasses of orange juice following what could be back-to-back poundings. Florida and California are now the toughest states in the NHL, which would never have been spotted in any crystal ball.

But that's the reality after the infrastructure that Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman built convinced Steven Stamkos the grass wasn't greener elsewhere, even if the dollars were. Stamkos left stacks of cash on the table by signing an eight-year, $68 million extension when he could have scored a double-digit average annual value on the open market.

Stamkos recognized the ring he's missed so far would be most likely to land on his finger if he stayed in Tampa. No other team in the Eastern Conference has Tampa's talent, experience, and hunger to push for a Stanley Cup. There is only so much money a 26-year-old like Stamkos can want, especially when the tradeoff is a lesser likelihood of lifting the Cup.

Yzerman would have paid Stamkos more if he had the free cash. But Yzerman set his ceiling because of two reasons. First, it's all he had. The Lightning have other players to pay to remain Cup competitive. Second, as painful as it would have been to see Stamkos walk for nothing, his departure wouldn't have buckled the organization. As singular an offensive weapon as Stamkos might be, the Lightning have other go-to players, from Jonathan Drouin to Nikita Kucherov to Tyler Johnson. The Lightning would have been diminished, not dismantled, had Stamkos said goodbye.

Advertisement



Instead, Stamkos's decision triggered a signing that could be just as important. Two days after Stamkos signed his deal, Victor Hedman agreed to an eight-year, $63 million extension. Hedman, the second overall pick from 2009, is a monster. The left-shot defenseman is a No. 1 in every category, from the way he carries the puck, how he supports the attack, and how aggressively he defends. There are not many tandems better than Hedman and Anton Stralman.

Yzerman's offseason work isn't finished. He will re-sign Kucherov, Alex Killorn, and Vladislav Namestnikov. Yzerman would be in better cap space to do so if he trades Ben Bishop, who has one year remaining on his contract. But wheeling the goalie this summer isn't automatic. The Lightning would be best served with Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy backstopping one more Cup push in 2016-17 before they part ways with the ex-University of Maine netminder.

A two-goalie net is the plan for the Panthers, who supplemented Roberto Luongo by signing James Reimer to a five-year, $17 million contract. It was one of eight deals the Panthers signed in an 11-day span. Between June 23 and July 3, the Panthers committed $203,600,000 in salary to Reimer, Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith, Jason Demers, Derek MacKenzie, Colton Sceviour, and Jonathan Marchessault.

Advertisement



General manager Tom Rowe wore out his hand while signing all the contracts. Owner Vincent Viola, meanwhile, monitored his checking account to make sure it wasn't overdrawn. It was a thunderous announcement by the Panthers: that a first-round playoff loss to the Islanders was only the beginning of their renaissance.

Last season, the Panthers benefited from excellent goaltending, hot shooting hands at the right time, and excellent coaching from Gerard Gallant. In 2016-17, under a new management structure and an updated coaching staff, the Panthers do not expect to be one-and-done. It is a roster loaded to do more damage than the grizzly that pawed its way through Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant."

The Panthers are stout in net. No defensive pairing wants to bear the bashing Florida's top line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Jaromir Jagr can inflict. Trocheck, Smith, and Nick Bjugstad can chew through lower-tier opponents. Ekblad is already a franchise defenseman. Yandle and Demers will add a puck-moving element to the blue line.

Health, bad luck, and the unknowns of turnover — on the roster, behind the bench, and in the front office — are the only variables that will torpedo the surging Panthers.

Advertisement



NO LONGER REQUIRED

Thirteen players shown the door

By June 30, when the first buyout window closed, teams informed 13 players that they would pay them to go away: Jared Boll (Columbus), Matt Carle (Tampa Bay), Chris Higgins (Vancouver), Barret Jackman (Nashville), Lauri Korpikoski (Edmonton), Eric Nystrom (Nashville), Mason Raymond (Calgary), Dennis Seidenberg (Boston), Brad Stuart (Colorado), Fedor Tyutin (Columbus), Thomas Vanek (Minnesota), R.J. Umberger (Philadelphia), and James Wisniewski (Carolina). The buyouts were the last route the teams wanted to take. No organization wants to carry dead money on its books.

Even their market resets have not made some of them attractive players. Only Boll (Anaheim), Raymond (Anaheim), Tyutin (Colorado), and Vanek (Detroit) have resurfaced since previous employers tore up their contracts.

The Lightning, for example, have far better ways to spend $1,833,333 in each of the next four seasons than on Carle's buyout. They have players to re-sign, including Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov, who are already restricted free agents. After 2016-17, Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat will reach restricted status. Carle's number, while more palatable than his pre-buyout $5.5 million average annual value, would be more valuable being allocated toward one of his former teammate's raises.

The Lightning, however, were stricken by the temptation of unrestricted free agency. Carle was one of the seven members of the Buyout Club to be signed on the post-July 1 free market in their respective years. The others were Jackman (two years, $4 million), Korpikoski (four years, $10 million), Nystrom (four years, $10 million), Raymond (three years, $9.45 million), Vanek (three years, $19.5 million), and Wisniewski (six years, $33 million).

Advertisement



In hindsight, they were big-ticket UFA items with long-term red flags that were ignored.

ETC.

Much to be settled in arbitration

By July 5, 25 arbitration cases had been filed, all but one initiated by players. The Red Wings were the only team to file for team-elected arbitration, with Petr Mrazek, who now has the option for a one- or two-year deal.

Conversely, 24 players filed for arbitration: Michael Stone, Tyson Barrie, Mikhail Grigorenko, Jared Coreau, Danny DeKeyser, Jordan Schroeder, Petter Granberg, Calle Jarnkrok, Kyle Palmieri, Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, Dylan McIlrath, Jonathan Miller, Mike Hoffman, Brandon Manning, Brayden Schenn, Jordan Weal, Jaden Schwartz, Alex Killorn, Vladislav Namestnikov, Frank Corrado, Peter Holland, Martin Marincin, and Marcus Johansson.

Most of the cases will be settled before their hearings. For example, just one day after filing, Coreau agreed to a two-year, $1.225 million extension with Detroit, according to www.generalfanager.com. Coreau has not played a single NHL game. As such, his case had little chance of advancing to a hearing. On Thursday, the Devils re-upped Palmieri to a five-year, $23.25 million extension.

Several cases, however, could serve as the exceptions. Last year, Johansson's case went to a hearing, where an arbitrator handed down a one-year, $3.75 million award for the versatile Washington forward. It's possible that the same fate awaits Johansson this summer. In 74 games, he scored 17 goals and 29 assists for 46 points, one off his previous season (20-27—47).

Barrie could be another candidate for a hearing. The right-shot defenseman is the type of offensive-minded player who could score big in arbitration. Last year, Barrie scored 13 goals and 36 assists for 49 points, just two off P.K. Subban's pace.

Barrie is coming off a two-year, $5.2 million bridge deal. Under normal circumstances, he would be due for a long-term, big-bucks extension. But like Subban, Barrie might have to attend a hearing to get his deal.

In 2014, after a hearing and before an arbitration ruling, Subban and the Canadiens agreed to an eight-year, $72 million blockbuster. We all know how that ended. No such tension exists between Barrie and the Avalanche. But teams are monitoring their negotiations in case the franchise decides trading Barrie is a better alternative than conducting a hearing or settling on a long-term extension before the case is heard.

Killorn will be another player to watch. The Harvard graduate is an important player for the Lightning. Killorn was Tampa's fourth-leading scorer in 2015-16, with 14 goals and 26 assists for 40 points. But the 26-year-old is reaching a stage of his career where the cap-stressed Lightning would prefer younger options. They have to re-up Nikita Kucherov, who is the priority because of his age (23) and explosiveness (team-best 66 points). So while they'd like to keep Killorn long term, it might not be possible. An arbitration hearing, never pleasant for either side, may be the most efficient manner in which to determine Killorn's short-term worth.

Emotions play into Lucic signing

After one year in Los Angeles, Milan Lucic landed in Edmonton with his former boss Peter Chiarelli.
After one year in Los Angeles, Milan Lucic landed in Edmonton with his former boss Peter Chiarelli.Harry How

Taylor Hall is a better left wing than Milan Lucic. He's four years younger. Hall and Lucic both make $6 million annually. But Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli determined Hall was his best trade chip to acquire Adam Larsson because he had a good idea that Lucic was up for a reunion. Chiarelli was right, as Lucic said no thanks to Montreal and signed with Edmonton, partly because of the lure of manning Connor McDavid's left flank. As for Chiarelli, he didn't have a connection with Hall, the player for whom losing almost seemed baked into his identity. It wasn't so with Lucic, who helped Chiarelli lift the Cup in 2011 and nearly powered the Bruins to a second title in 2013. Chiarelli was in the house for almost all of Lucic's 566 regular-season games as a Bruin and his 96 postseason appearances. A GM can't help but feel a powerful emotional connection to a winner such as Lucic, who was one of the horses who pulled his teammates onto his shoulders in Game 7 against Toronto in 2013.

Rivalry renewed for good cause

Stanley Cup champions Nick Bonino and Brian Dumoulin will be among the participants in the second annual Commonwealth Avenue Charity Classic, which will take place on Friday, July 15, at Boston University's Walter Brown Arena. While Bonino (BU) and Dumoulin (Boston College) pulled on the chain together for Pittsburgh, they will be engaging in the perpetual rivalry between the Terriers and Eagles. Other NHLers scheduled to play include Charlie Coyle, Brian Strait, Adam Clendening, Noah Hanifin, Steve Gionta, Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes, Johnny Gaudreau, and Ben Smith. Proceeds will benefit Compassionate Care ALS and the Travis Roy Foundation. To buy tickets or to donate, visit www.ccals.org/2016-cacc/.

Jackets suit McRae

The Blue Jackets made an important hire on Wednesday by naming Basil McRae, one of their former scouts, as their director of player personnel. McRae spent the past two years as general manager of the London Knights, the OHL powerhouse that blitzed through the CHL playoffs to win the Memorial Cup. With help from McRae, the Knights assembled a roster of future NHLers, including recent picks Olli Juolevi (No. 5, Vancouver), Matthew Tkachuk (No. 6, Calgary), and Max Jones (No. 24, Anaheim). McRae will serve as a valuable resource for team president John Davidson, GM Jarmo Kekalainen, assistant GM Bill Zito, and director of amateur scouting Ville Siren on the pro and amateur sides. While the Jackets remain tight against the cap because of some of their expensive contracts, they have pocketed good young players. It's a process that has to continue.

Bruins done with buyouts

The Bruins are not eligible to execute additional buyouts this summer because they will not have any arbitration hearings involving their restricted free agents. Colin Miller, Joe Morrow, Chris Casto, and Brian Ferlin will sign extensions via standard negotiations. Torey Krug could have done well in arbitration, but neither side wanted to advance to a hearing. The only time the Bruins exercised a buyout after the 2004-05 lockout in the second window was eight years ago. They bought out Glen Murray on July 23, 2008, because Dennis Wideman had filed for arbitration, which the sides avoided.

Job with Blues is music to Berube

Ex-Flyers coach Craig Berube was a close watcher of the Blues' development camp this past week. The Blues hired Berube as head coach of the Chicago Wolves, their AHL affiliate. Ex-Thrashers coach John Anderson, now an assistant in Minnesota to Bruce Boudreau, previously held the Wolves position. One of Berube's AHL charges will be Conner Bleackley, formerly Colorado's first-round pick in 2014. Bleackley, however, reentered the draft in 2016 when the Avalanche declined to sign the forward. The Blues took a flyer on Bleackley with a fifth-round pick. Bleackley scored 13 goals and 33 assists for 46 points in 55 games for Red Deer in his final junior season.

Loose pucks

Chris Kelly, who left the Bruins to rejoin the Senators, was injured and missed most of last season — including the Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium.
Chris Kelly, who left the Bruins to rejoin the Senators, was injured and missed most of last season — including the Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium.John Tlumacki

The Bruins will return to Buffalo in September to participate in a rookie tournament for the second straight season. Last year, the Bruins, Sabres, and Devils competed in a three-team tourney that introduced Zach Senyshyn, Jack Eichel, and Pavel Zacha, among other prospects, to NHL pace . . . Cheers and good wishes for Chris Kelly, who went back home to Ottawa on Thursday by signing a one-year, $900,000 contract. The two-time Senator concluded the Black-and-Gold segment of his career by scoring 43 goals and 58 assists in 288 games. On the ice, Kelly played a critical role as a versatile left-shot center who could play wing, kill penalties, check, and fight when necessary. Off the ice, Kelly was a vocal presence who was very much missed in 2015-16, when he was limited to 11 games. Kelly gave retirement the middle finger even after suffering a career-threatening injury because of his age . . . Blues prospects participated in a cooking competition as part of their team-building activities in development camp. On Thursday, following their on-ice session, the prospects split into 10 groups of three in a cook-off. Spies report that cheaters were discovered when a rack of ribs tasted curiously similar to those from Pappy's Smokehouse.

High Hart rate

Tom Brenner

With Patrick Kane (above) taking home the Hart Trophy, the Blackhawks have had five different players win NHL MVP honors, matching the Bruins for second most behind the Canadiens, who have more than twice as many as another other team. Six franchises in all have had at least four different players win the Hart.

Canadiens with 13: Howie Morenz (3), Jean Beliveau (2), Guy Lafleur (2), Toe Blake, Herb Gardiner, Bernie Geoffrion, Aurele Joliat, Elmer Lach, Carey Price, Jacques Plante, Maurice Richard, Babe Siebert, Jose Theodore

Bruins with 5: Eddie Shore (4), Bobby Orr (3), Phil Esposito (2), Bill Cowley (2), Milt Schmidt

Blackhawks with 5: Bobby Hull (2), Stan Mikita (2), Max Bentley, Patrick Kane, Al Rollins

Red Wings with 4: Gordie Howe (6), Sid Abel, Sergei Fedorov, Ebbie Goodfellow

Penguins with 4: Mario Lemieux (3), Sidney Crosby (2), Jaromir Jagr, Evgeni Malkin

Rangers with 4: Andy Bathgate, Mark Messier, Buddy O'Connor, Chuck Rayner

Perhaps the Bruins should get credit for one-quarter share of the Hart Trophy won by Joe Thornton in the 2005-06 season; Thornton played his first 23 games (9-24—33) with the Bruins and the final 53 games (20-72—92) with the Sharks.

COMPILED BY SEAN SMITH


Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.