In my last article, I went over the departures of Ryan Callahan and J.T. Miller and what that means for the Lightning. In addition, I discussed the Andrei Vasilevskiy extension. Something we will get into with a bit more detail. The big question I ended with was who replaces Miller alongside Steven Stamkos on the top line?
The answer comes from Syracuse, leading me to my first bold statement of the 2019-20 season.
Volkov Makes Lightning Roster In 2019-20
Alexander Volkov came close to making the Lightning team a few times now but was eventually beat out by Mathieu Joseph. Joseph’s speed, tenacity, and penalty-killing abilities won him the depth assignment that was available. Now that there is a scoring role open, why not look at one of Syracuse’s best scorers over the last few years. He’s also had some preseason success when paired with Stamkos and Kucherov and I think that’s a big reason why I picked him over some other highly touted prospects.
Volkov is another shooting weapon at Stamkos’ disposal. The captain has become a playmaker maker since coming back from injuries a few years ago. Even when Jon Cooper pairs up Kucherov and Stamkos, and he likely will many times during the season, they still need a left winger to slot in. Joseph has had a shot at it, but I think he plays better in a grinding role. Unless he’s a glorified puck retriever like Zach Hyman playing on the top line for the Leafs, I think there is a better option here in Volkov.
Of all the Lightning prospects, he makes the most sense for a few reasons. He’s paid his dues in the AHL. In addition, he’s slotting in as a scorer and not being forced into a grinders role on the bottom line. It makes sense considering he’s put up back-to-back 23-goal seasons. His familiarity with the Lightning’s top line makes him a solid bet to make the team out of camp, but it’s up to him to show the coaching staff that he deserves the chance. For those asking about the likes of Barre-Boulet, Stephens, and others, more on that later.
Anthony Cirelli Has Breakout Season
His teammates call him Tony. I call him “Fat Tony” because of his mob boss mentality on the ice. He mobs that puck like he’s the only one on the ice with a loaded weapon. Now look, I’m already over the fence on whether he’s already officially broken out or not. The question is what is the ceiling for Anthony Cirelli?
It’s hard not to call this past year a breakout season for the young versatile center. For those who remember his role in the 2017-18 playoffs, many saw this type of season coming. He embodies the work ethic and responsibility needed from a teams third-line center and he’s far from shy in the offensive zone. Evident by his 19-goal, 39-point rookie season. To cap things off, he was named to the 2018-19 All-Rookie Team.
Showcased by Stanley Cup champion Jordan Binnington in goal, blue line studs in Rasmus Dahlin and Miro Heiskanen and franchise pillars Elias Pettersson and Brady Tkachuk, Anthony Cirelli rounds out an excellent rookie class from the 2018-19 season. Now, a few other rookie forwards did manage to outscore Cirelli’s modest 39 point output, but it was everything else Cirelli does away from the puck that earned him a spot to the All-Rookie Team. The way he carries himself on the ice you would be surprised to know that he was actually a rookie this season. Yes I know, he got his feet wet by playing 18 regular season games and 17 playoff games in 2017-18 (players still hold onto their rookie status until they play in 27+ regular season games) but its how he used his time in the NHL and transformed himself into a reliable two way threat in all three zones.
Cirelli saw his assignment grow and grow as the year went on. He started on the third line in a sheltered role, then soon became a mainstay on the penalty kill. A couple of flashes in 3-on-3 overtime also saw his role grow even more. After Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov had their turn, the Lightning threw out Cirelli in overtime because of his speed, his high IQ play and his puck-possession style of hockey. Look no further than this determination play by Cirelli against a strong-bodied Wayne Simmonds to win it in overtime.
As the year came to a close, it saw Tyler Johnson stapled to the wing, almost making him expendable in the lineup. If I was a betting man come time for the Seattle expansion, I would bet on Seattle born Johnson being lost in the expansion draft. If the Lightning can move Johnson’s contract or agree to terms with Seattle in the expansion, Cirelli looks to man the teams third-line center spot for years to come.
20 goals and 40 points seem like virtual locks this season, and if we see him continue to be trusted in all situations I could see him flirting with 25G-50P. One thing is for sure, the Lightning know how to draft with the best of them. A third-rounder from the Connor McDavid draft in 2015, Cirelli had to fight for recognition all throughout his young career. He has gone from being undrafted in the OHL, to scoring both goals for the Oshawa Generals and captaining his team to a 2-1 overtime thriller at the Memorial Cup Final, all the way to forcing his way onto the Lightning roster as an AHL rookie. Anthony has continued to leave his fingerprints all over his clubs success wherever he goes.
Just turning 22 a few weeks ago, Cirelli is pushing his name away from underrated forward to slowly becoming a household name. While I do think some Tampa Bay players are due for a bit of regression next year, one spot I see for improvement is in Cirelli’s game and he will look to cement that statement this year.
Kucherov and Point See Decrease In Points, Stamkos Hits 100
Those due for the biggest regression next year are actually amongst the Lightning’s best players. It will take an absolute Gretzky-like season for Nikita Kucherov to put up another 128-point season or better. Chances are his point total dips but still remains above 100 points. McDavid will be gunning for another Art Ross Trophy, and a lot of things would have to go right for Kucherov to win it again.
A big part in me saying this, is hope that Jon Cooper takes a business-like approach to close out games instead of letting his top guys dash for the empty netter every night. Cooper let his team “have their fun” last year so to speak, as he gave his stars every opportunity to break records and set personal bests. The trio of Stamkos, Kucherov, and Point had their best seasons to date in 2018-19. And all of that success came crumbling down around them when things didn’t go their way in the playoffs. I think a more balanced approach by Cooper could reduce these point totals alone.
Brayden Point will no longer be able to live rent-free in the slot on the power play. Teams started to catch on at the end of the season, taking away the passing lane into the slot. Remember that Point led the entire league with 20 power-play goals over the likes of Stamkos (19 goals) and the always lethal Alex Ovechkin (18 goals). To hit that mark again is improbable. I am looking closer to an 82-point-per-game season by Point rather than another mammoth 90-point year.
Remember when Stamkos came back from injury in 2014 and put up 72 points and followed it up with 64 points the next season? He then broke his leg and missed all but 17 games during the 2016-17 season. At that point, everybody thought Stamkos was done. He came back healthy once again in 2017-18 and absolutely lit fire to the league posting his best year since 2011. Known as one of the leagues deadliest scorers, Stamkos evolved into a playmaker posting 27 goals and 86 points. His lowest goal total in a full season since his rookie campaign. Coming into the year, people were expecting much of the same. Stamkos surprised us again by potting 45 goals and setting a new personal high of 98 points.
It appears that Stamkos has found that shooters mentality again, and his overall game has vastly improved. His playmaking skills have become just as valuable as that marquee one-timer, and now that he adds both of these skill sets to his arsenal I think if Stamkos stays healthy he can flirt with 45-50 goals again and finally break the 100 point barrier.
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Vasilevski Stays Healthy, Still Only Plays 50-55 Games
One thing we are really starting to see these days is that it’s absolutely imperative to have a solid backup goalie in this league. The Toronto Maple Leafs found out the hard way last year, letting solid backup options in McElhinney and Pickard walk for the untested Garrett Sparks. Sparks has since been traded to the Golden Knights for guess who? You named it, David Clarkson! A team like the Boston Bruins, who represented the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final, figured it out the right way by managing workloads to improve the overall level of play.
Using the Player Comparison at www.hockey-reference.com to compare individual seasons, let’s take a look at the last four seasons from the Stanley Cup-winning goaltender.
The big number to look at here is games played. Notice how none of these goaltenders have been worn down or fatigued during the regular season. Gone are the Martin Brodeur days of starting 70+ games. Its a long and grueling season, and most teams need a solid backup to keep their No. 1 goalie fresh throughout the year. Look no further than Tuuka Rask and Jaroslav Halak as an ideal goalie situation. Tuuka was kept healthy and fresh all season long as Halak played about half the season for the Bruins. The result was a healthy and locked in Rask who came oh so close (approximately 43 minutes and 13 seconds to be exact if anyone was counting) to tasting victory.
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Of the top 10 most played goalies in the 2018-19 season, four missed the playoffs (Dubnyk – 68 GP, Price – 66 GP, Markstrom – 60 GP, and Gibson – 58 GP) and three were wiped in the first round (Andersen – 60 GP, Holtby – 59 GP, Hellebuyck – 63 GP). Only Sergei Bobrovsky, Martin Jones, and Marc-Andre Fleury made it to the second round, with Jones taking his team the furthest. Of all the goalies listed, Jones is arguably the weakest link but went farther than any other goalie. Further cementing my point that goalies are voodoo, and paying a goalie $10 million is a bad idea (sorry Price). Luckily, Vasy comes in at a hair under $10 million thus making the contract a fantastic one. It certainly won’t cause any problems for the Lightning, right? RIGHT!?
Look, anyone judging the contract right now will say its an overpay and that no goalie should make this much money. While I slightly agree, I do think that in 2-3 years this deal will absolutely fall in line with the games top goalies. John Gibson jumped in front of the pack last year signing a seven-year extension with an AAV of $6.4 million. An absolute steal of a contract, as I have Gibson in my ‘elite’ category as a Top 5 goaltender in the NHL. The fact he comes in $3 million cheaper than Vasilevskiy and $4 million cheaper than Price speaks volumes to the change in salary cap in just over a year. Bobrovsky broke the market the second he came within distance of Carey Price’s contract. I find it hard to believe that if Gibson was a UFA this year instead of last, that he would sign for anything less than $8 million.
As mentioned earlier, a top goalie in the NHL is sometimes not enough. A viable backup option is essential to success in today’s NHL. Another reason why solid backups are necessary is that injuries can and will happen. When Corey Crawford and Gibson went down to injury last year, their teams took a nose dive down the standings and killed any playoff hopes without a viable option in net. When Vasilevskiy went down to injury, Louis Domingue stepped up big time and carried his team to an astonishing 21-5 record. Domingue wasn’t perfect, but he didn’t have to be. He came up with timely saves and gave his team a chance to win every night. That’s pretty much all you can ask for from your backup. Which is why the signing of 36-year-old Curtis McElhinney in free agency was such a curveball in the roster plans for next season. What else did Domingue need to prove to keep that backup job? McElhinney can’t possibly be signed with the intent of starting in Syracuse, so that means there is another move likely to happen with Domingue expected to be at the forefront. However it pans out, the Lightning backup should be in line for about 25-30 GP.
I can remember down the stretch in 2017-18 Vasilevskiy was dealing with fatigue during his first full NHL season. He ended up playing in 65 regular-season games and 17 games during the playoffs. 82 games in a season are far too many games for a goalie to play if you ask me. I think its absolutely imperative to monitor his playing time throughout the season. As the evidence will show, 62 wins mean nothing during the regular season. It’s important to have as fresh a goalie you can start in the playoffs. If Murray and Binnington can barely play 20-30 games and have the energy to compete late in the playoffs to win a cup, let’s keep Vasy healthy and fresh and see how he bounces back in 2019.
Sergachev Stays On Top Pair, Sets New Career Highs
Mikhail Sergachev has been slowly developing on the Bolts back end. His usage during his rookie season allowed him to put up 40 points, outscoring his trade partner Jonathan Drouin for most of the season. He took a step back last year, but continued to grow defensively and also saw a transition from the left side to the right. A difficult change of scenery for any NHL defenceman.
I have a rule when grading defenceman in the NHL, give them 200 games before making any underlying assumptions. Victor Hedman was always a steady presence, but it wasn’t until his 250th or near 300th NHL game where he truly evolved. I look at Morgan Rielly and Matt Dumba not hitting their ceiling floor until about the same mark. Sometimes its more than 200 games. Defencemen take longer to develop and don’t often hit the ground running offensively. And those that do, likely have some defensive liabilities. The point is let these players hit that mark before we start evaluating what kind of player they will be. Sergachev will hit that magic number in stride this season.
One of the shiftier defencemen in the NHL, he is not afraid to dance on the blue line and he can stutter-step you out of your boots. However, he needs to continue to learn when and when not to use his skill set. At times, this has led to some odd-man rushes when he gets caught. The potential and capability is there, it’s choosing his times that will dictate his success.
His wrist shot has such a smooth release, it’s hard to know when the puck actually leaves his stick. He needs to continue to work on his shot selection, knowing when to pass and when to shoot. I wish he would trust his shot a little more because he has a quick-draw laser-beam cocked and loaded. The young Russian defender averaged close to two minutes more per game than teammate Brayden Coburn. However, he only had 15 more shots on goal for the entire season. A number we can all hope increases exponentially this season.
Coburn can barely hit the net. It’s Sergachev who has a weapon and he will need to start using it more. That being said, it took a while for Sergachev to break out of his goal slump. He was missing shots by a hair, ringing the bar and his confidence wasn’t at as sky-high as it was last year. It took 40 games into the season before he netted his first goal. It was a frustrating first half of the season for Sergachev because he was doing all the right things and he just wasn’t being rewarded for it. With another year behind him, and his confidence peaking at the right time leading into the playoffs (1G, 1A in 4 games), Mikhail is bound to see an increase in production on luck alone.
A decrease in power-play minutes resulted in a decline in power-play points for Sergachev last season. He had 13 power-play points in his rookie campaign compared to just six points last year. Although, we did see an overall increase in most major categories. He had more even-strength points this year which is a good indication of his overall play. In addition to a rise in hits, blocks, TOI, plus/minus and fewer penalty minutes compared to last year. All while switching from the left to right defensive position.
The Bolts need to make a decision this year. Keep Sergachev sheltered on the third pairing (where he would still be playing on the right side anyways as Coburn is not a versatile switch) or thrust him into a huge role besides Hedman where there is an open hole for a top-four defenceman.
It should be a no brainer, as the other options at right defense are Eric Cernak, who has been a staple next to Ryan McDonagh on the second pairing, or Jan Rutta and Luke Schenn. I’ll take Sergachev, please. However, it’s not that simple. The Bolts staff need to truly believe Sergachev is ready for not only a top-four role but a permanent spot beside No. 77 on his opposite playing hand. Using Sergachev on the third pairing can sometimes be advantageous as he can be given more room playing in sheltered minutes against lesser competition. There will be no hiding on the first pair. Hence the big decision at hand here for Cooper and company.
Cal Foote is the prized right defenseman in the Bolts system but he is likely a year or two away. So if those are the options, give me Serg all day. If Sergachev can man the right side with poise as he was beginning to show alongside Hedman for the whole season, he will see his time-on-ice continue to grow, and with that opportunity, I think Sergachev will score 10+ goals for the first time and set a new career-high with over 40+ points.
Fan Mail Question
“Love to hear your thoughts on any prospects that have a chance to crack the roster this upcoming season or next. Volkov, Raddysh, Stephens, Barre-Boulet, Katchouk, etc. Sure is a stacked stable”.
Answer: Although there is no true elite prospect waiting in the farm (depending on how you view Barre-Boulet or Callan Foote) the Lightning have plenty of capable up and comers. It will be important for the Lightning to efficiently use these players on their ELCs as the Lightning will have to recycle more bodies next year to make room for Mikhail Sergachev and the newly minted Vasilevskiy contract. My bet is on Alex Killorn finding a new home after next year when his modified NTC kicks in. With that comes new opportunities for some Lightning prospects.
Volkov, as mentioned above, is my pick to break through with the Lightning club this year. As far as the other prospects, the only other spot left to compete for is the aforementioned 13th forward spot currently belonging to Martel. I do think that spot will be battled for, but it will take a huge camp and preseason for the Lightning to rush one of their prospects along.
So who possibly fits that bill?
I’d like to see another year of development for both Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk. They played so well together on Team Canada a few years ago, the Soo Greyhounds made a big pitch to the Erie Otters to acquire Raddysh and the Soo would make it as far as the OHL finals, losing to Hamilton in six games. Both players reported to Syracuse for the 2018-19 season and both players found a new home as rookies. Raddysh found his way a little easier with a sold 18G, 46P season, good for 9th amongst all AHL rookies. Katchouk had a tougher season. Scoring just 11 goals and 12 assists. Neither player looks ready for the jump, and could both use another year of seasoning putting them in line for a job opportunity in 2020-21 assuming the Lightning vacate a few roster spots.
Barre-Boulet is a very interesting option. The kid can flat out play. And we can’t forget about Mitchell Stephens either. But if I see anyone fighting for that 13th forward spot over Danick Martel, it’s actually Carter Verhaeghe. I think Barre-Boulet and Stephens would be the first phone call in the event of an injury in the top nine, but there is no sense in holding back their development to sit as the teams extra forward. Now Verhaeghe is an interesting case. He led the AHL in points last season with 82 in 76 games and tied for the league lead in goals with 34. Tying none other than fellow teammate and AHL rookie of the year, Barre-Boulet.
Verhaeghe seems to have graduated the AHL (or so it seems) and if there is someone the Bolts need to plug into the lineup here or there, I think Verhaeghe is perfectly cast for the role and I would much rather see him in the lineup than Martel. ABB and Stephens are likely in the fight with Raddysh, Katchouk, and even Nolan Foote for that spot in 2020 unless we see a slew of injuries.
Follow me on Twitter @KyleOHowe for more NHL and Lightning coverage.