Blackhawks

Cooper: Lightning's starting goalie still unknown

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Cooper: Lightning's starting goalie still unknown

TAMPA, Fla. – Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was surrounded by a massive media group when he was asked who is goaltending idol was.

“I liked how 'Bish' played,” the young Russian, referring to normal starter Ben Bishop, said to laughs.

The question is, will Vasilevskiy be starting for his goaltending hero for a second consecutive game?

Bishop did not practice with the Lightning on Friday, one day before they’ll host the Blackhawks in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. Vasilevskiy played well in the Lightning’s 2-1 loss in Game 4 and admitted that even he didn’t know if he’s playing on Saturday night. He’ll be prepared for anything including, if he plays, seeing more than the two first-period shots the Blackhawks threw at him on Wednesday.

“[The] guys did a very good job and think about our net,” Vasilevskiy said. “That's why we (allowed) just 19 shots.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for Game 5, Blackhawks fans!]

It’s still unclear what’s ailing Bishop but the goaltender taking Friday off was planned, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said.

“Bish, don't be alarmed that he's not out there,” Cooper said. “I'm not going to sit here and commit as to whether he's going to play Saturday. He's feeling better with each day. When we made the decision not to play him the other night, the decision just wasn’t made, ‘Oh, we're not going to play him.’ It's, ‘we're not playing you and you're taking the next three days off.’ This was all in the plan. We'll have a better indication tomorrow at the morning skate.”

Vasilevskiy, who’s still learning English, has asked there be no cameras be present when he conducts interviews – “Yeah, I still speak not really good for cameras. But for writers, yeah; for you, you can change words.” His comfort level in net was fine on Wednesday. It probably helped that he came in during a very tense time, the third period of Game 2, when Bishop first had issues with his undisclosed injury.

[PRO HOCKEY TALK: Everybody's watching the Stanley Cup Final]

So if Vasilevskiy does play on Saturday, he’s ready.

“I think I'll have more confidence,” he said. “I got some experience right now in Stanley Cup Final. That's it. In my head right now, mentally, I got more power right now. When you play, you get good feeling, more fun. I think next game, if I will play, I will feel much better.”

The Blackhawks had their goaltending questions in the first round, although those didn’t revolve around one being injured. The Lightning still don’t know who their guy is on Saturday. It’ll either be Bishop, or the backup who looks up to Bishop.

“I don't know sitting here today if Ben Bishop is playing on Saturday. I hope he plays. I don't know if he's going to,” Cooper said. “He's got to get back on the ice. If he's not in the pregame skate tomorrow, that's a pretty good indication of whether he's going to play or not.”

Do the Blackhawks have room to sign John Tavares?

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USA TODAY

Do the Blackhawks have room to sign John Tavares?

The NHL Draft is over. Farm systems have been restocked and now the focus has shifted to free agency, where the fun is just beginning.

The biggest fish on the market is John Tavares, a franchise-changing center in the heart of his prime. For a little bit, it seemed like the loyal New York Islanders captain was ready to move on after they took another step back by missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

But then Lou Lamiorello became available and was snatched up by Long Island. His first order of business was relieving GM Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight of their duties, the first real sign that significant changes were coming. The next was securing Barry Trotz as head coach after he couldn't agree to terms on an extension with the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

For the first time in a while, there appears to be structure in the front office and coaching staff.

Yet, Tavares has remained committed to visiting with reportedly five teams in Los Angeles during the free agent negotiating window that opened Sunday. And he's absolutely earned that right. San Jose and Toronto are believed to be two of the teams. The rest is unclear.

When asked by NBC Sports Chicago's Pat Boyle at the end of the draft on Saturday, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman wouldn't confirm nor deny that they were one of the teams scheduled to meet with Tavares.

"I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise, right?" Bowman said with a smile.

Whether or not they are, could the Blackhawks realistically even make it work?

They actually have the cap space to do it. Or at least they can make room without shuffling too many cards.

As of Sunday, the Blackhawks have $9.225 million in open cap space to fill out six roster spots. If you can find a trade partner for Marian Hossa's contract, that creates an extra $5.275 million, which brings the total up to $14.5 million. That's without subtracting any real bodies from the roster. 

Tavares is likely to command in the $10 million range for average annual value over the next seven years, and the latter part is key. While it would certainly be challenging to have three players eating up at least $10 million each in cap space — with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews at $10.5 million — they could make it work in the short term.

But signing Tavares to a seven-year deal would probably get in the way of the Blackhawks' longer-term goals, which includes re-signing Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz when their entry-level deals expire and even Vinnie Hinostroza when his new two-year contract ends.

Are the Blackhawks willing to risk that?

For Tavares, maybe. But Toews is 30, Kane is 29 and Tavares will be 28 by the time this upcoming season starts. At some point, an infusion of youth would be required to remain competitive for the long term.

Stan Bowman plays coy when asked about pitching free agent John Tavares

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USA TODAY

Stan Bowman plays coy when asked about pitching free agent John Tavares

The unrestricted free agent market opens up for the NHL on July 1. Five-time All-Star John Tavares is will reportedly be meeting with five different teams to talk about the possibility of leaving the only team he's played for his entire career, the New York Islanders. 

After a highly disappointing 33-39-10 finish to the 2017-18 season, many expect Chicago general manager Stan Bowman to be very aggressive this offseason. When asked by NBC Sports Chicago's Pat Boyle if the Blackhawks would be one of the five teams going after Tavares, Bowman gave a very reticent answer.

"I woudn't want to spoil the surprise, right?" Bowman said with a smile. 

"No, I'm not going to comment on that, but I know we're gonna have a lot of discussions over the next five or six days and we'll see where it goes."

Reports indicate that the Islanders and Tavares had been trying to work out the terms of a long-term extension, but with so many attractive options out there, it will be a tough decision for him. There are several teams coming off of playoff runs expected to go after Tavares, including Tampa Bay, Las Vegas and San Jose. In addition to those teams, his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to be in play as well.

But Chicago's rough year was so out of place for a team so used to winning consistently, that one can imagine their pitch will be enticing.

Elliotte Friedman of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada had this to say about the Blackhawks potential pursuit of Tavares: "They're not going to tolerate being that bad again, they're going to try something. I think they'll make a run at John Tavares too. I do, I think they'll ask, is there any way we can get him here?"

When taking all of this into account, it is sure to be an extremely exciting free agency period for the Blackhawks. The team is in full "re-tool" rather than "rebuild" mode, and there have been discussions that Kane may be becoming the more vocal leader of the team. But the addition of Tavares to a core of Kane, Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford could boost the Blackhawks back into Stanley Cup contention.