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2016-17 NHL Season Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

2016-17 NHL Season Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

It still feels like the season just ended, but with the draft and free agency already behind us, it's time to look forward to the 2016-17 season. We will preview every team in the NHL throughout August and take a look at what the new season may hold.

Team: Tampa Bay Lightning

How they did last season: 46-31-5 (97 points); 2nd place in the Atlantic Division and 6th in the Eastern Conference. A year after losing in the Cup final, the Bolts fell one game short of returning to the championship round for a second straight season.

Notable acquisitions: C Cory Conacher and assistant coach Todd Richards.  

Notable departures: D Matt Carle; C Jonathan Marchessault; and assistant coach Steve Thomas.

When they will play the Caps: Dec. 3 in Tampa; Dec. 23 in Washington; and March 18 in Tampa.

Analysis: While the instate rival Florida Panthers opted to make several significant changes this summer, GM Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning took the opposite approach. Yzerman’s focus this offseason has been retaining his own talent.

Yzerman’s biggest move, of course, was signing re-signing Steven Stamkos a couple of days before the team captain was due to hit the open market. Stamkos’ eight-year, $68 million deal carries an $8.5 million average, a team-friendly cap hit. (Remember, there’s no state income tax in Florida, a fact that likely helped Stamkos decide to accept less in salary than fellow superstars Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar and Alex Ovechkin, to name a few.)

In the days after inking Stamkos, Yzerman also locked up Victor Hedman (eight years, $63 million) as well as Andrei Vasilevskiy (three years, 10.5 million) and Alex Killorn (seven years, $31 million). The Stamkos deal will help in future seasons, too, as other key players' contracts come up for renewal.

With Stamkos and others staying put, the Lightning will ice a very familiar lineup 2016-17. And why would they not? It’s pretty much the same core that’s mounted a serious challenge for the Cup the past two seasons.

There is, however, one question hanging over the Lightning with camp about a month away: when will Nikita Kucherov, a restricted free agent who potted 30 goals in the regular season and 11 in the playoffs, re-sign? He’s due a hefty raise from the $700,000 he earned last year; the Bolts have about $6.5 million in cap room, according to www.generalfanager.com, but all of that can’t go to the dynamic 23-year-old goal scorer. (A good comparable for Kucherov is Nashville’s Philip Forsberg, who signed a six year, $36 million extension.)

In the end, Yzerman will find a way to retain Kucherov and defenseman Nikita Nesterov, another RFA who, like Kucherov, will suit up for Russia in next month’s World Cup. Shoehorning them under the cap, though, won’t be easy and it could involve trading an existing cog to make room. So stay tuned.  

Season prediction: This team’s window of opportunity has been wide open for two years and it will remain so in 2016-17.

They’ve got dangerous goal scorers in Stamkos and Kucherov. They’ve got an elite blue liner in Hedman. They’ve got emerging talent in Jonathan Drouin, Vladislav Namestnikov and Vasilevskiy, among other talented youngsters. And between Vasilevskiy and Ben Bishop they’re plenty good enough in goal, too.

Qualifying for the playoffs shouldn’t be an issue given the talent on the Bolts’ roster. Instead, the next eight months or so will be about staying healthy, fine tuning the details (like fixing a power play that finished a disappointing 28th last season) and not peaking too early.

The hardest part for Stamkos and Co. will be almost exactly what the Alex Ovechkin and the Caps will be sure to expereince this fall and winter: attempting to stay dialed in while waiting for spring to roll around.

2016-2017 NHL TEAM PREVIEWS

Pacific Division
— Anaheim Ducks
— Arizona Coyotes
— Calgary Flames
— Edmonton Oilers
— Los Angeles Kings
— San Jose Sharks
— Vancouver Canucks

Central Division
— Chicago Blackhawks
— Colorado Avalanche
— Dallas Stars
— Minnesota Wild
— Nashville Predators
— St. Louis Blues
— Winnipeg Jets

Atlantic Division
— Boston Bruins
— Buffalo Sabres
— Detroit Red Wings
— Florida Panthers
— Montreal Canadiens
Ottawa Senators
— Toronto Maple Leafs (coming Aug. 22)

Metropolitan Division
— Carolina Hurricanes (coming Aug. 23)
— Columbus Blue Jackets (coming Aug. 24)
— New Jersey Devils (coming Aug. 25)
— New York Islanders (coming Aug. 26)
— New York Rangers (coming Aug. 27)
— Philadelphia Flyers (coming Aug. 28)
— Pittsburgh Penguins (coming Aug. 29)
— Washington Capitals (coming soon)

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Samsonov shines, the bottom-six was the difference and time to Panik?

Samsonov shines, the bottom-six was the difference and time to Panik?

Ilya Samsonov had his best NHL performance on Saturday in a big 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Capitals got contributions from players all over the lineup in a big win.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the win

Everyone is pitching in

Look at Saturday's game and Wednesday's game. Whatever the Caps needed, they were able to get. Against the Boston Bruins on Wednesday, they needed a key coach's challenge and the video coaches delivered. They needed someone to take over the game and T.J. Oshie delivered. They needed a big night from the penalty kill and Carl Hagelin and Co. delivered. They needed a response to Boston's tying goal and John Carlson delivered.

Now look at Saturday's game. Ilya Samsonov got the start and he delivered when the Caps had a slow start to the game. The fourth line settled everything down and Alex Ovechkin forced a turnover behind the net to give Washington the lead. The bottom-six scored twice to give Washington control, Oshie scored a quick response goal when Tampa Bay tried to battle back and the penalty kill delivered again.

The Caps are not being carried by Ovechkin, it's not a hot goalie or a dominant blue line, it is a complete team effort and it is extremely impressive to watch.

Samsonov had his best NHL game

We knew Samsonov and Braden Holtby were going to split the weekend's games for the dad's trip. I expected Holtby would get the tougher game in Tampa Bay, but instead Todd Reirden went with Samsonov. The rookie had three brilliant saves in the first five minutes of the game. Tampa Bay was the better team for the first two periods and Samsonov only gave up one goal in those 40 minutes. This was a big boy offense and some big boy hockey. Samsonov was up to the task.

Good penalty kill, too many penalties

The Lightning entered this game with the second-best power play in the NHL. Limiting penalties was a big key to the game for Washington and...they did not do that. The Caps gave up five power play opportunities to Tampa Bay, just daring the Lighting offense to take fire. Tampa Bay was only able to cash in only once.

On the one hand, it's great that the penalty kill is playing so well. On the other hand, the Caps must stop taking so many penalties.

Time to Panik?

I have stressed the importance of patience for Richard Panik who is not only adjusting to a new team, but who had an injury and missed 10 games on LTIR. Now, however, it seems like patience is starting to run out.

Panik played a team-low 8:10 on Saturday. Players who get that little ice time are usually either fourth line players or players who do not contribute to special teams. Panik is supposed to be a penalty killer, but despite five penalty kill opportunities, he registered only 14 seconds of shorthanded ice time.

Panik's offensive struggles have been well documented (he had an assist on Saturday), but if he is not contributing on the penalty kill either...well, that's an issue.

Turning point

Tampa Bay looked like the better team for the first 40 minutes. Thanks to Samsonov, the game was tied at 1 at the start of the third. These two teams boast some of the top offensive stars in the NHL, but it was Washington's bottom-six that gave them the edge as Lars Eller scored early in the third and Garnet Hathaway added a second goal just 45 seconds later.

Suddenly the Lightning were on their heels after looking in control for the majority of the game.

Play of the game

Just when the Caps took the one-goal lead, Hathaway came swooping in to make it 3-1.

Stat of the game

The Caps' PK had a success rate of only 78.9-percent last season. This is a dramatic improvement.

Quote of the game

John Hathaway, father or Garnet, stole the show between the first and second period:

"I think as parents, we try to teach them like two lessons as kids growing up. It's like, if you can dream it, you can do it and never, never, never give up. The dads are here tonight and I think they're not only so proud of their sons, but they're happy for their sons because they know that they had big dreams, they dared to dream big and they never gave up."

Fan predictions

Hey, two for two.

No Ovechkin goal, but you got the score right.

Eller with a big goal tonight assisted by Panik.

Backstrom had only two, but just a few games removed from returning from injury, he looks like he hasn't missed any time at all out there.

This bit will never get old to me.

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Samsonov weathers the Lightning in shutdown performance

Samsonov weathers the Lightning in shutdown performance

Ilya Samsonov got the difficult assignment on Saturday of playing on the road against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He proved to be up to the challenge with a brilliant performance in net, leading the Capitals to the 5-2 victory, their second win over the Lightning in 16 days.

Here is how Washington won.

Ilya Samsonov

There's no question who the player of this game was. Samsonov was brilliant in this game. He had an immediate impact as the Lightning came out firing. Samsonov robbed Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev all in the first five minutes of the game.

Samsonov did not fade down the stretch either. Tampa Bay dominated in the second period and Samsonov turned aside 10 of the 11 shots he faced. For the game, he stopped 26 out of 28.

The fourth line and top line team up

The Lightning were all over Washington at the start of the game and Samsonov was the only reason Tampa Bay did not take advantage. A really strong shift by the fourth line for Washington seemed to settle everything down. Soon after, the Caps were celebrating a 1-0 lead.

Defenseman Jan Rutta had the puck behind the net. Ondrej Palat came wheeling around for the handoff and Alex Ovechkin saw him coming. As Palat wheeled one way, Ovechkin came charging the other. That forced Rutta to flub the pass and the puck bounced right in front of the net to a wide-open Nicklas Backstrom who fired it into the net.

Incidental contact

Tampa Bay thought they had the tie early in the second when Carter Verhaeghe finally got one past Samsonov, but the goal was immediately waved off for goalie interference.

Mathieu Joseph and John Carlson were battling in the defensive zone when Joseph was skated into Samsonov. He was not necessarily pushed, but he and Carlson battled their way into the Caps' netminder, which did not allow Samsonov the chance to defend against Verhaeghe's shot.

You never know what can happen with a goalie interference call, but in this case the referee got it right. It was no goal for incidental contact and no penalty for goalie interference.

The bottom-six

These two teams boast some of the top offensive stars in the NHL. But that's not all it takes to win in the NHL and the Caps' showed off their depth in the third period, which really proved to be the difference.

With the game tied at one, Dmitry Orlov made a great play at the offensive blue line to get the puck over to Richard Panik despite the immediate pressure he faced. Panik set up Lars Eller who one-timed it past Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Just 45 seconds later the fourth line came streaking down the ice and Brendan Leipsic teed up Garnet Hathaway, who took it in on net and chipped it through Vasileskiy.

Those two quick goals suddenly turned the game on its head. To that point, the Lightning had been the better team. After that, the Caps were dominant.

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