My favorite part of being in the SBNation network is getting to collaborate with the other team sites. This time, it was reaching out to Raw Charge to get their perspective on the Blue Jackets’ playoff opponent, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Thanks to Alan, aka @loserpoints (a great Twitter follow if you’re interested in hockey analytics, by the way) for taking the time to answer our questions:
The Cannon: It’s been a huge season for Nikita Kucherov. He’s always been great, but what has made this season different? Has he added something to his game?
Raw Charge: I wouldn’t say Kucherov has added anything major to his game. He’s gotten a little bit better in lots of areas like he does every offseason. But the big changes are in the team around him. The emergence of Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos being healthy all season gave him two high end finishers to take advantage of his passing. Adding Point to the slot on the power play made a huge difference and was a big reason why both Point and Kucherov had career years together.
TC: We’re familiar with Kucherov, Stamkos, Point, Hedman, McDonagh, Vasilevskiy, etc. What under-the-radar player should we look for in this series?
RC: The depth players to get to know are Anthony Cirelli and Erik Cernak. Cirelli has been one of the best defensive forwards in the league all year and he sprinkles in enough offense to have top six potential for most NHL teams. He anchors the third line in Tampa and we already saw how great they can be in game one. They were the best line on the ice. Cirelli is always joined by Alex Killorn on that line and then a rotating cast of wingers. Last night, it was JT Miller. At other times, it’ll be Mathieu Joseph or Yanni Gourde. That line has been a secret weapon for the coaches all season because of its versatility and Cirelli is the primary reason for that. Cernak is a defense first righty who forced his way on to the team a year early this season and has paired with Ryan McDonagh taking the toughest minutes and putting up excellent numbers.
This Tampa team appears to be nearly perfect on paper. Is there any weakness that has you worried? What is the “exhaust portal” on this particular Death Star?
I don’t think the Lightning have any glaring weaknesses. The biggest one is probably in net. Andrei Vasilevskiy was a top ten goaltender this season but like all goalies, he has his ups and downs. The most likely way the Lightning get eliminated is that he has a couple rough games in a series and the team can’t overcome it.
Finally, looking ahead to the summer it seems like the Lightning may face a bit of a cap crunch. Kucherov and Gourde have raises kicking in next season, Brayden Point is a RFA, and half the blue line are UFAs. How do you think the front office will approach the summer? Will they look to trade a player to free up some space?
I’m not sure the front office needs to make any huge changes to get through this offseason. They’ll almost certainly move on from Ryan Callahan somehow. Either via trade or buyout. If they can move him without it costing too much to get another team to take the last year of his deal, they probably do that. If not, they’ll probably use the buyout option. On defense, I expect they’ll re-sign one of their veteran free agents and probably Jan Rutta. So that will give them six NHL D on the roster. And then they’ll hope Cal Foote is ready to make the jump with one other player from Syracuse, possibly Dominik Masin, as the 8th defensive option when injuries happen.
Thanks again to Alan for taking the team to talk with us. Be sure to check out Raw Charge for more coverage of the series from Tampa’s perspective.