Sports

Can anyone catch the Tampa Bay Lightning?


FILE - In this July 7, 2021, file photo, the Tampa Bay Lightning team poses with the Stanley Cup after Game 5

After cutting two seasons short because of COVID-19 concerns and temporarily realigning its seven Canada-based franchises into one division for ease of travel, the NHL will be back to nearly normal this season. The previous divisions will reappear, with Seattle added to the Pacific and Arizona moved to the Central for 32 teams overall. Each team will play 82 games, but the season will be paused to allow players to represent their homelands at the Beijing Winter Olympics.

The flat salary cap, a product of reduced revenues, is putting a squeeze on many teams. But some are managing their talent better than others. Here’s how they look to start the season:

The Contenders

Tampa Bay right wing Corey Perry follows a play during a preseason game against the Florida Panthers on Oct. 7 in Tampa, Fla.
Tampa Bay right wing Corey Perry follows a play during a preseason game against the Florida Panthers on Oct. 7 in Tampa, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

1. Tampa Bay — Champions until dethroned. A finesse team that gained bite by signing right wing Corey Perry, who has lots of snarl left at 36. Salary cap concerns cost them their entire third line but they’ve got kids who are primed to step up.

2. N.Y. Islanders — They lost Game 7 of the semifinals to Tampa Bay. Signing forward Zach Parise, son of former Islander J.P. Parise, and 44-year-old defenseman Zdeno Chara doesn’t seem likely to put them over the top, but general manager Lou Lamoriello has earned the benefit of the doubt.

3. Colorado — They’re a popular Cup pick though they lost depth up front and lost goaltender Philipp Grubauer as a free agent. Defenseman Cale Makar is a gem, but the talented Avalanche must prove it can be a winning team.

4. Toronto — The Center of the Hockey Universe is still waiting for its first Cup since 1967. The Maple Leafs fell short again last season after squandering a 3-1 series lead over Montreal. Win this season or break up the core.

5. Florida — They’ve got some dynamic forwards and scoring punch among their top six and stability with Aleksander Barkov signing an eight-year extension. Defenseman Aaron Ekblad’s recovery from a broken leg will be key, as will the play of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.

6. Carolina — They revamped their defense after losing Dougie Hamilton as a free agent and assembled a new goaltending tandem headed by Frederik Andersen. There will be pressure on center Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was lured away from Montreal with a one-year, $6.1-million offer sheet.

7. Vegas — Choosing Robin Lehner as their No. 1 goaltender over Marc-Andre Fleury might have been a bad bet. Their inability to score was their downfall in their semifinal loss to Montreal and they didn’t do much to fix it.

8. Boston — They will miss playmaking center David Krejci, who went home to the Czech Republic, and they hope Charlie Coyle can step up to the No. 2 center role. With goalie Tuukka Rask out until December after hip surgery the duties will be split between Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark, both largely unproven.

9. Washington — The Capitals aren’t aging well: Nicklas Backstrom (hip) won’t be ready to start the season and left wing Alex Ovechkin (sixth in career goals with 730) sustained a lower-body injury late in training camp. This figures to be the core group’s last shot at another Cup title.

10. Edmonton — Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will put up astonishing numbers again but the Oilers still haven’t built a solid supporting cast. At some point they must take that next leap forward and make a long playoff run.

The hopefuls

11. Winnipeg—The Jets found good answers to their needs on defense by acquiring Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt. That should ease the burden on standout goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who has been durable and excellent.

Dallas Stars left wing Jason Robertson skates down the ice at an NHL preseason hockey game against the Colorado Avalanche
Dallas Stars left wing Jason Robertson, an Arcadia native, had 17 goals and 45 points in 51 games last season. (Richard W. Rodriguez / Associated Press)

12. Dallas — The return of Tyler Seguin (hip surgery) and Alexander Radulov (core muscle surgery) should boost their offense. Signing defenseman Ryan Suter, who was bought out by Minnesota, was smart. Watch for more growth from Arcadia native Jason Robertson, who had 17 goals and 45 points in 51 games last season and was second in rookie of the year voting.

13. Chicago — They look deep at center after acquiring Tyler Johnson from Tampa Bay and getting Jonathan Toews back from chronic immune response syndrome, but they’re thin elsewhere. Seth Jones will steady the defense. They could be an interesting team if they can avoid injuries that test their depth.

14. Pittsburgh — Evgeni Malkin (knee injury) and Sidney Crosby (wrist surgery) aren’t expected to be ready to start of the season. The Penguins have been eliminated early the past three seasons, so there’s urgency to win again before Crosby (34) and Malkin (35) become senior citizens.

15. New York Rangers — They’re all-in on the kids. They’ve got some good ones, led by 23-year-old Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox. Alexis Lafreniere, the No. 1 pick in 2020, is likely to get first-line minutes. New coach Gerard Gallant will have them playing an up-tempo style.

16. Minnesota — The Wild wrote off a double mistake by buying out Suter and Parise with four years left on each player’s 13-year deal. Rookie of the year Kirill Kaprizov (27 goals, 51 points) is their cornerstone now. He recently signed a five-year, $45-million deal.

17. Kings — It’s time for them to leave the rebuilding phase and enter the make-the-playoffs phase. Their top two centers, Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault, are defense-oriented and they’ll need kids to score. Gabe Vilardi appears primed for a breakout season.

18. St. Louis — The Stanley Cup window that opened for them in 2019 has just about closed. Worse: Vladimir Tarasenko requested a trade but is still with the team, potentially creating tension.

19. Montreal — The Canadiens will start the season without defenseman Shea Weber, who has leg injuries that might end his career, and goalie Carey Price, who entered the NHL/NHL Players’ Assn. assistance program because of mental health issues. Wishing them both better days.

20. Vancouver — Center Elias Pettersson and defenseman Quinn Hughes missed part of training camp because of contract issues and might have slow starts. San Diego-born goalie Thatcher Demko is a star but he will need more support than the Canucks’ defense can give him.

Wait ’til next decade

21. Seattle — Trivia: The Seattle Metropolitans of the now-defunct Pacific Coast Hockey Assn. became the first American team to win the Stanley Cup when they triumphed in 1917. The expansion Kraken won’t be terrible but they won’t be as good as the expansion Golden Knights, who reached the Cup final in 2018.

22. Philadelphia — Carter Hart wasn’t the solution to the Flyers’ decades-long goaltending problems so they’ve signed Martin Jones as a backup. They might go from bad to worse.

23. Nashville — Trading defenseman Ryan Ellis and winger Viktor Arvidsson suggests they’re looking to the future, but they haven’t fully committed to it. They’ll have a tough time making the playoffs in the Central Division.

Ottawa Senators' Thomas Chabot carries the puck across the blue line as Columbus Blue Jackets' Nathan Gerbe defends

Thomas Chabot (72) is one of the talented young players who provide hope for Ottawa. (Jay LaPrete / Associated Press)

24. Ottawa — The Senators have some talented kids (including productive defenseman Thomas Chabot) so there’s hope on the horizon. But they haven’t been able to sign restricted free agent Brady Tkachuk, and that’s a problem.

25. New Jersey — Goalie Mackenzie Blackwood isn’t vaccinated, which would prevent him from playing games in Canada. He has said he’s considering getting the vaccine at some point. Hamilton, signed as a free agent, is the cornerstone defenseman they needed but their scoring potential is limited.

26. Calgary — They will have a full season of coach Darryl Sutter. Whether that’s a good thing will become clear; the Flames were 15-15 after he took over for Geoff Ward. They’ll need more from Sean Monahan (10 goals, 28 points in 50 games) and they’ll miss Giordano on defense.

27. Columbus — They made massive changes that included trading Jones and replacing taskmaster coach John Tortorella with Brad Larsen. They’re in the early stages of rebuilding.

28. Ducks — Forward Trevor Zegras and defenseman Jamie Drysdale are potential studs. They’ll grow up fast on a team that was last in power-play efficiency and scoring. Goalie John Gibson deserves better support but won’t get it.

29. Detroit — The Red Wings need scoring help too. They also need newly-acquired goalie Alex Nedeljkovic to prove his small-sample-size success with Carolina last season wasn’t a fluke.

30. San Jose — They have $26.5 million in payroll tied up in defensemen Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who had terrible seasons in 2020-21. The Sharks will be in full-on rebuild mode.

31. Arizona — The Coyotes were told they’d be kicked out of Gila River Arena after this season, another distraction in a long run of mishaps and mistakes. They’ve been shifted from the Pacific Division to the Central so Seattle could play in the Pacific. They traded standout defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to Vancouver to stockpile prospects and draft picks and rebuild yet again.

32. Buffalo — The dispute over Jack Eichel’s treatment for a herniated disk in his neck has blown up. The only resolution involves trading him, but his injury is serious enough to warrant conditions related to his ability to play again. Fans in Buffalo deserve better than the mismanagement they’ve gotten for too long.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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