If you are young, prepare to feel like the older generation is encroaching upon you. If you are old, prepare to feel much older. If you don’t feel young or old, chances are […]
If you are young, prepare to feel like the older generation is encroaching upon you. If you are old, prepare to feel much older. If you don’t feel young or old, chances are […]
Taking the NHL world by storm last season, Tampa Bay Lighting’s triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat was the most productive line during regular season play. No easy task for any trio but notable because the triplets consisted of two 24 year olds and a 21-year-old.
They weren’t even a line at the beginning of last season, but as fate and injuries are wont to do, Coach Jon Cooper was kind of forced to put the three together early last season and they jelled immediately. Much to his credit, Cooper kept the three youngsters together, increasing their ice time with each passing game.
As the playoffs approached, the triplets played like cagey post-season veterans rather than the two-year players each one of the three were. Johnson broke his wrist in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final yet led the NHL with 13 playoff goals.
Kucherov was bearing down on Johnson’s stranglehold for most goals as he ended the playoffs with 10 goals. To remove any doubt that the regular season success was no fluke, Palat, with eight goals was just two goals short of Kucherov.
Is it possible that this young NHL line coming off the amazing regular and post-season we just witnessed should continue to become even better? Why not? Based on most metrics, this troika is still a year or three from what should be their peak performance portion of their careers. What can this triplets line do for encore? As we approach the upcoming season, it is clear that these three amigos have set a pretty high standard individually and collectively thus far.
Conventional wisdom dictated that last season should have been difficult for at least two-thirds of the line. As finalists for the Calder Award in their rookie year in the season before last, Johnson and Palat along with Nathan McKinnon were the cream of the rookie crop. Not much harvesting required.
Last year there were no sophomore slumps for the Calder twins. Despite the honor of being Calder finalists, Palat and Johnson both improved their point totals during their second season. For good measure, Kucherov’s offensive improvements exceeded his two pals. Kucherov played in 30 more games, scoring almost 20 more goals and almost 30 more assists than in his rookie season.
The maturity level displayed by this line was evidenced by the confidence shown by their coach to play both sides of the special teams on top of their regular second line minutes. The regular season plus/minus numbers put up by the triplets was impressive. The three line mates were numbers one, three and four in the NHL. Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens was tied with Kucherov with a plus 38 for the league lead.
As they are about to begin their third NHL campaign, with two consecutive playoff appearances on their resume, the Lightning fan base has palpable excitement to go along with tremendously high expectations. Will their third year at the NHL level be the charm?
It would not be that hard to imagine these guys as a group, continue to up their game. Should this occur, the triplets will again score more goals and more points combined than any other NHL line. Even if they have the same kind of year as last year in plus/minus that will probably lead the league again.
The major challenge for them will be their success. They are entering this season as marked men. No longer will they take opposing coaches by surprise. There will be bulls eyes on their chests along with the pressure of lofty forecasts. Based on last year’s performances, they should see more of the other team’s top shutdown players. Without a doubt, the triplets must become fighters.
If they are to rise to the occasion, they must be prepared to fight the compete level opposing teams will bring. Now that Tampa is at or near the top of most experts lists of elite teams, the pre-season predictions have sealed this fate for the entire Lightning team and the triplets will be a focal point.
For this reason, I suggest the triplets line get the mindset to play like the TKO line. The triplets were new, exciting and fast. They befuddled opposing defenders with their no look passes. Cooper coined the triplets name because he claimed this threesome played like the Sedin twins. They passed the puck to where the other was going to be, not where the defense were playing them. The instinctual bonded brand of playing that takes other lines years to formulate.
For the good of the team, the triplets need to deliver the knockout punch to their opponents. The TKO (Tyler-Kucherov-Ondrej) line needs to come of age. The fellas from this triad must provide the difference for the Lightning during the grind of the 82 regular season games.
At center, Johnson should break the 30 goal barrier with relative ease after netting 29 last year and 24 the season before that. His goal output increases have been staples of his pre-NHL career. Prior to joining Tampa, Johnson played two years with the team’s AHL affiliate. In his initial year in Norfolk, he scored 31 goals followed by 37 goals for Syracuse a year later. Johnson also played four years in the WHL for Spokane and his goal production went from 13 to 26 to 36 to 53. Did I say 30 goals this year? He will probably end up closer to 40.
If there is one aspect of Johnson’s game that must see improvement, it is in his faceoff percentage. Winning only 48.7 percent simply isn’t good enough. Sure this line is good enough defensively to get the puck back but even three percentage points better and that puck possession will translate to more goals.
Kucherov, who tied Johnson last year with 29 goals after scoring only nine a season ago, should also blow by 30 this year. The Russian Rifle has an explosive snap shot. Ask Henrik Lundqvist. He saw it or I should say heard it whistle by him during the Eastern Conference Finals last May. As his minutes jump from just under 15 per game to let’s say, 18 or even 19 minutes a game and that will equate to more biscuits in the basket. Wouldn’t take much then to go from 29 to 35 or 36.
The bruiser of the line who could lay down the hammer both literally and figuratively is Palat. He plays five inches and 50 pounds heavier than his six-foot, 180 pound frame. He is the lunch pail guy on this line. He’ll dig out the puck in the corners, he’ll remind folks of Marian Hossa of the Blackhawks. Good offensive skills, very good defensive skills and amazing checking skills. While his goal production was down a bit from his rookie season, he tallied seven less goals but added eleven more assists.
It is time for the triplets to grow up and earn a more mature line nickname. For this season they will become the TKO line. Deliver the knockout punches to their opponents to secure the decisions. To weather the hits that is surely coming their way. Johnson, Kucherov and Palat must step up a level.
Johnson was selected as an all-star last year but now it is the other two that must be in the running for that in addition to Johnson. Palat, along with Johnson were Calder Trophy finalists. Who knows, if the Cup Final outcome was different, would Kucherov and Johnson be considered for the Conn Smythe?
The triplets arrived and to a certain extent conquered last season. This season the TKO line must take over and take on all comers to help get the Lighting to the championship. After finishing as the runner-up, only step up is the Stanley Cup.
Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) is a Wisconsin-native and longtime co-host of BaD Radio, which airs from noon to 3 p.m. on the radio home of the Dallas Stars, 1310 AM/96.7 FM The Ticket. Sturm came to Dallas in 1998 and hosted the Dallas Stars postgame show from 1998-2013.
“Hockey was always a part of my life, but it was usually in the form of college hockey through Wisconsin until 1990,” Sturm said. “That is when I finally moved to a place where the NHL was on TV and started following the league and playing Sega Genesis hockey. I did not follow the Stars except to know that they were a chief rival of the team I did follow due to geography, the Belfour-Roenick-Chelios Blackhawks of 1990-1997 or so. That seemed reasonable as the closest team to my home in Wisconsin, and their leader was a Badger great who my father-in-law had once arrested as a college student for public urination, Chris Chelios. I viewed Roenick/Hatcher through a different lens when the two collided the first time around.”
Sturm is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of sports and both his passion for and knowledge of the game of hockey are evident. With this in mind, The Hockey Writers asked Sturm to answer a few questions about the Stars’ upcoming season, their playoff aspirations and the lingering questions going into 2015-16.
The Hockey Writers: Let’s start broad; the Stars have gotten league-wide recognition for their offseason moves. Most see them as having traded, bought, and developed their way back into the postseason, even as members of arguably the league’s toughest division. Do they get in, and by how wide a margin?
Bob Sturm: Very difficult to say with any degree of confidence and, although I am accused of being a pessimist quite a bit, I will confess that this time of year I am dripping with optimism. I think the Stars will be in the playoffs (I said this last year, too), but, given the quality of the division and the conference, we better not fool ourselves into thinking it will be with great ease. In, but I can’t fool myself into thinking they will be a top-four seed. If they are in the 5-8 group, then it likely is a <5 pt margin.
THW: The fast, offensive-minded Stars of today are a far cry from the teams of the late 90s and early 2000s; while Antoine Roussel certainly plays with an edge and a handful of Stars can hold their own with the gloves off, it would be a stretch to say they have a definite physical presence. While that’s largely a product of today’s NHL, is that something they’re lacking, and did Jim Nill admit to that to some degree by demanding Stephen Johns in the Patrick Sharp deal?
BS: I think that there is a great divide in thinking between organizations about where this league is headed with regards to “physical presence” vs “puck possession.” I think the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks have taught us you better be able to strike a balance. You better not have a blue line of knuckle-draggers or small puck-movers. You need a balance and preferably players that can do both and handle whatever the game brings. But, I did think the Stars were on the brink of getting too small a few years back and tried to make sure they curbed that quickly with the infusion of players who were both bigger and more abrasive. Right now we are at a pretty good spot, especially if Johns is ready. I still am not crazy about teams taking runs at Klingberg and Seguin, but the better the team gets, the more we should be prepared for teams to deal with the Stars’ skill the old-fashioned way. I don’t think they are lacking “toughness,” but I also think they should expect to be challenged to prove they can answer those challenges. Very little actually means fighting, but you better have remedies available for those physical attacks. Losing Seguin for a dozen games means the playoffs.
THW: With Val Nichushkin coming back into camp healthy, where does he slide in? What does he need to show in camp and preseason for Lindy Ruff to run him alongside the thoroughbreds on the top line as he often did during his rookie season, and how do you see his year playing out?
BS: It is obviously a huge year for Val, and I hope he is prepared. The sky is still the limit, and the idea of him next to Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky is fun to imagine, but it is “go” time for him to start showing that he can score at the top level. On one hand, we must all show great patience, but on the other hand, his money situation is going to require the Stars to determine his ceiling quickly. Do you give him the big cash to secure his future? Only if he distinguishes himself in short order.
THW: While the defense is often the object of fans’ displeasure, the goaltending last season was nothing short of dismal. How short is Kari’s leash, and will Nill’s two-goalie system play out the way it’s predicted to on paper?
BS: I think he is on an exceptionally short leash. This team is done waiting on Kari Lehtonen. Antti Niemi is here to push him, starting in October. I have no problem with Niemi being No. 1 right away if the team feels the need. The contract is given and signed. But, the season should be about the best man between the pipes, and I start the year with them on equal footing. May the best man win and get 55 starts.
THW: Can Hemsky rebound and play an effective top-six role this season, or is he destined to be a footnote when the history of the Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin era is written?
BS: I think his hip’s health will go a long way to help him make a better impression. He showed flashes for sure. But, the Stars won a Cup with Dave Reid as a second-line winger, so I don’t feel too heavily leveraged on Hemsky either way.
THW: Which prospect is more likely to be called up this season: Julius Honka or Esa Lindell?
BS: I hope they are properly patient with Honka, so I will vote Lindell. I think Lindell seems close anyway.
THW: We know you’re high on Johns; does he crack the lineup and make an impact this year?
BS: I prefer he does. But, with Klingberg, Jason Demers, Alex Goligoski, Johnny Oduya, and Patrik Nemeth, I suppose it boils down to Johns/Jordie Benn/Jyrki Jokipakka. If I have that right, he has his work cut out for him if everyone is healthy. In fact, they might try to get him 25/30 minutes [with the Texas Stars] until somebody gets hurt. But, I hope they show some faith in him. Jordie is a seventh for me, so then we are debating Jokipakka vs. Johns. I think Johns has a higher ceiling, but Joki has a huge head start because he was solid last year.
THW: Who are your “just spitballing” defensive pairs coming out of training camp?
BS: Goligoski and Klingberg, Oduya and Demers, and Nemeth and Johns.
Hmmm, not sure even I agree with that.
BS: I assume by destroying anything in his path. Little concerned with this hip, but can’t wait to see his encore.
THW: How real is Seguin’s shot at the Richard Trophy as long as Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos exist in this league?
BS: Those two live in their own universe. 91 passes too much for this, I think, but that makes him more dangerous. I think Seguin is a fantastic player, but the Richard trophy might not be his best way to play.
THW: Klingberg has been a revelation on the blue line, and the seven-year contract he signed seems to be mutually beneficial. How high is his ceiling? Does he have what it takes to be a true No. 1 defenseman over the course of a career?
BS: I don’t know. A true No. 1 for me is your best D-man on both ends of the ice. Is he merely your best offensive D-man? If so, that is great. But, to be a Norris guy in a non-Canadian market, you better be able to play 27 minutes against the top line they throw at you. That is his next test but, again, if he just plays like he did in his rookie season, they got a great deal, in my opinion.
THW: More than a few people speculated that Jamie Oleksiak could be on his way out in a trade this offseason, but he settled for a one-year deal and stayed put. With prospects in the pipeline maturing and a his career off to a lackluster start, what does he need to do to earn a place on this team beyond a seventh defenseman?
BS: Try to play up here like he is not a deer in headlights. That is very tough for certain players, and he may be in that group. He just always looks like he is thinking through everything, rather than playing with instincts and confidence at this level. He has to shake that but, often, that comes with a change in scenery. I really want him to be good here, but the organization looks like they are done waiting, and now his only path here is breaking the doors down on merit. They won’t rely on his future any longer.
THW: Lindy Ruff was brought in to be a critical part of turning this team back into a contender, and the events of last season were largely out of his control (poor goaltending, injury, etc.). If the team doesn’t live up to expectations this season, how much faith does the organization continue to show in him?
BS: I imagine, due to the expenditures and the expectations, that his seat could get hot if the results are not there quickly. It seems ownership and management have tried to remove every excuse. I believe in Lindy, but I don’t think he can survive a 10-seed. So, I do not rule out an uncomfortable spell if they underachieve.
THW: Any bold predictions for 2015-16 or final thoughts?
BS: Given that this team is now a “cap team” thanks to an owner that has kept his end of the bargain, my only prediction is that this is a playoff team with high aspirations, and I am legitimately excited (more than usual) for the puck to drop. I can’t wait.
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The Montreal Canadiens made an effort in the off season to boost their offense by acquiring Zack Kassian and signing Alexander Semin. In addition, the team has several offensively gifted prospects looking to push for a spot in the NHL such as Charles Hudon, Sven Andrighetto, Daniel Carr and Christian Thomas.
The top two lines are interchangeable as most of Montreal’s best offensive players have played together before. The bottom six is a little more crowded as there are several players who will be fighting for minutes. Below are line projections for the upcoming season.
Head coach Michel Therrien loves to juggle his lines so the probability of any line that isn’t scoring staying together is slim. This potential first line has Montreal’s best offensive threat in Pacioretty, its best centre in Plekanec and the heartbeat of the forward corps in Gallagher.
After suffering a knee injury in the off-season, it is still unknown if Pacioretty will be ready for the start of the year. If he is, he will be a threat to score 40 goals while continuing to be a fixture on special teams and be a strong possession player. He has become more consistent with his maturation as a player and carries a heavy burden as Montreal’s top scorer.
Plekanec is Montreal’s most well rounded centre and despite the desire to put Alex Galchenyuk in this spot, Galchenyuk has just spent the last three seasons as a winger so putting him as a top line centre taking on other team’s best lines might be too much at this point. Barring any unforeseen drop off, Plekanec will continue to be a solid two-way player and be a pillar for Montreal up front.
Gallagher earns the top line right wing spot with his work ethic and solid offensive game. 30 goals and 50 points is well within reach for Gallagher as his game continues to evolve. He will work for every inch of ice and he is a big part of making a line work with his ability to grind it out and frustrate teams.
Desharnais is finally moved to the wing in this scenario, taking him away from frequent linemate Pacioretty. Desharnais is criticized for being in a role not meant for him but it’s hard to complain about him being a top six winger. He possesses good offensive skill and he began to shoot the puck more when he was separated from Pacioretty. He carries the puck reasonably well and has enough creativity to be a centre but since he isn’t better than Plekanec and Galchenyuk needs a chance, Desharnais lands here.
Galchenyuk is finally put at centre on a line oozing with offensive skill but he and Plekanec can switch lines if necessary. His playmaking ability down the middle could be lethal alongside Semin. As the second line centre, he doesn’t have to face any heavy defensive assignments but he is still getting good ice time in a more challenging role.
For Semin, he is on a cheap one-year deal looking to prove himself after a bad year in Carolina that ended with him being bought out. In his prime, Semin was one of the best goal scorers in the league and the hope is any wrist issues are behind him so he can score some goals for an offensively starved team. If Semin is going to succeed, he needs to play in a top six role with offensively minded players and Semin could benefit immensely here lining up with two players who love to pass.
#Habs Therrien on how to motivate Alexander Semin: “It’s not like the old days when it was ‘my way or the highway'” 1/2
— John Lu (@JohnLuTSNMtl) August 11, 2015
2/2 MT says keys to motivating Semin are communication, the athlete’s own pride and peer pressure, citing how committed #Habs already are.
— John Lu (@JohnLuTSNMtl) August 11, 2015
De la Rose impressed in the back half of the season, showing a defensive acumen that belied his young age. He doesn’t have much of an offensive game but he could find himself in critical defensive situations this season. As a favourite of Therrien, it’s hard to envision De la Rose going back to the AHL. To really make a difference, hopefully De la Rose is able to add more of an offensive bent to his game to make himself more of a threat.
Eller will continue his role as the third line centre and is a good bet to chip in 30 points this season. Inconsistency is an issue with Eller so it is why he is a third line centre as opposed to a top six one. His defensive game and possession stats continue to be strong but his offense leaves people wanting more. Perhaps playing with better players this season will help.
Kassian is the X-factor on this line. A big player who plays a finesse game, Kassian has a ton of tools but is running out of time to glue it altogether. His previous teams tried to turn Kassian into a big mean power forward who plays physical but he just isn’t that kind of player. Kassian is a player who likes to make plays and score goals. If Kassian can iron out his inconsistency issues while receiving a fair shot from the coaching staff, he could turn out to be a steal for the Habs.
Smith-Pelly came over from Anaheim and failed to make much of an impression. Smith-Pelly can be a wrecking ball who is capable of scoring the occasional goal when he is on his game. But he fails to bring it on a regular basis and his inconsistency is frustrating. He will get a fresh slate in training camp but he needs to show he is worth taking a chance on. Other players could easily be in Smith-Pelly’s spot but Montreal management will be wanting to see what they have in him first.
The hometown boy Mitchell comes back on a three year deal to be the fourth line centre. He brings experience and speed to the bottom six and is an upgrade on Manny Malhotra.
Weise has made a name for himself in Montreal as a jack of all trades player who can play up and down the lineup. He inexplicably found himself on the top two lines too often last season but with new depth at right wing, it won’t be a problem. He has more of an offensive knack than most fourth liners but that’s what makes Weise a valuable player. He has also shown an ability to score big goals for Montreal in the playoffs.
Some of the forwards on the outside looking in are Michael Bournival and Brian Flynn. Bournival went from a player who looked like a third line lock to the doghouse to the minors in a short period of time. Injuries didn’t help his case and with a one-year contract in his pocket, he will be looking to push his way onto the roster. Flynn was acquired from Buffalo and signing him was a depth move. He is at a disadvantage already despite having a one-way contract. He doesn’t bring anything special to the table to warrant the team keeping him on the roster when that spot could be given to someone younger.
Some of the aforementioned prospects Thomas, Hudon, Andrighetto and Carr could force Montreal’s hand and start the season in the NHL. Nikita Scherbak could surprise in training camp as he looked good in spurts alongside Galchenyuk. Michael McCarron had a very good season in junior after winning the Memorial Cup but barring an outstanding camp, he will start the season in the minors.
No doubt the lines Therrien has in store will likely look different than these ones or Bergevin can make a trade that will throw the lines completely off. However, these combinations have the potential to be very good for Montreal. A lot of the forwards have already played alongside each other before (new faces aside) so it’s a matter of chemistry and putting players where they belong best. Hopefully the freedom exists for more players to use their talents to their advantage.
Christian Ehrhoff and the Los Angeles Kings agreed to a one-year deal while goalie Peter Budaj signed a professional tryout contract with the team this last week to bolster the depth of the Kings roster. But the timing and relevance to these deals draw uncanny comparisons to successful moves Kings GM Dean Lombardi has done in the past, signing a veteran defenseman coming off a concussion to help solidify the blue-line and a veteran backup goalie being offered a professional tryout when goaltending should not be a question.
In 2010, following a first round loss to the Vancouver Canucks, Lombardi would sign veteran defensive defenseman Willie Mitchell. Mitchell was limited to 48 games the season before after suffering the third serious concussion of his career. With 12 years of NHL experience at the time and Lombardi’s awareness that there is a risk involved with any player signed, Mitchell solidified a Kings’ defense and helped the team eventually win two Stanley Cups.
With the announcement of Ehrhoff and the Kings agreeing on a one-year deal on Aug. 23, the signing immediately draws comparisons to that of Mitchell’s. Ehrhoff only played 49 games last season due to a concussion, but has 10 years experience in the NHL and has been to the Stanley Cup Finals before with 73 games of playoff experience.
And while age and injuries could have been a considered a warning sign for Mitchell, and the same warning signs can be applied to Ehrhoff, Ehrhoff was cleared to play in April and has had a clean bill of health, according to his agent. Ehrhoff only missed three games the year before while playing with the Buffalo Sabres and has only missed 20 games the last three seasons.
Ehrhoff has not played a full 82-game season since 2006-2007 with the San Jose Sharks, but has still played in 78 percent of the 868 games available for him to play in. To have over 740 games of NHL experience is a great accomplishment in the NHL and at just 33 years of age, the efficient puck-moving defenseman should be able to provide the Kings with a top-four defenseman they desperately needed. Signed at only $1.5 million is an incredible bargain considering other veteran defensemen like Francois Beauchemin and Kevin Bieska were signed to contracts worth over $4 million per year this offseason.
In the inevitable loss of budding young goalie Jonathan Bernier in the summer of 2013, the Kings acquired a serviceable backup goalie in Ben Scrivens along with other assets (a second-round draft pick and Matt Frattin) in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Scrivens had played 32 games with the Maple Leafs before being traded to the Kings and before the 2013 season, was thought as the sure backup to play behind Jonathan Quick until Lombardi invited goalie Mathieu Garon to training camp on professional tryout basis before the season started.
Much like Garon had done that year and years before, Budaj has settled into the role as a backup goalie and is trying to establish himself back into the NHL as Dustin Tokarski has taken over the role as backup goalie for reigning Vezina, Hart, Ted Lindsay and William M. Jennings Trophy winner Carey Price in Montreal where Budaj played last. Budaj will have an uphill battle competing for a job against a younger and more-invested Jhonas Enroth.
Enroth, much like Scrivens before the start of the 2013, was sure to be the backup goalie playing behind Quick at the start of the season. Enroth and the Kings agreed to a one-year/$1.25 million deal on the first day of free agency and has put up modestly good numbers in his time with Buffalo and Dallas.
And much like Scrivens did, Enroth will have to beat out an older, more experienced goalie for the backup role before the start of the regular season. The competition was a challenge Scrivens accepted honorably as he won the backup job out of preseason and Garon was released in late September before the start of the season. Scrivens put up great numbers in Los Angeles with a save percentage of over 0.931 and a 1.97 goals against average in 19 games before being traded to Edmonton.
At the beginning of August, much of the Los Angeles Kings 23-player roster looked to be set. On defense, one of Jeff Schultz, Jamie McBain and Derek Forbort looked to be competing for the sixth defenseman that would begin the season on the Kings’ opening night. Now with the addition of Ehrhoff, the Kings top-six looks much more formidable. Enroth was already written on the white-board in the coach’s office as backup goalie, but now that Budaj will see time at training camp and most likely preseason, Enroth will have to prove it to the coaching staff (and management) that they can rely on him.
With an entire offseason to rest and prepare for the upcoming season after missing the playoffs, the Kings are in a position they have not been in since 2009. But with the recent additions of Ehrhoff and Budaj, it is nostalgic reminder that Lombardi and staff are looking for affordable ways to improve a championship team, even if it is less than a month away from training camp.