Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Why Lightning fans should scout the Nashville-Anaheim series

TAMPA — If you're a Lightning fan, you should pay attention to this Predators-Ducks Western Conference final.

Specifically, keep an eye on the blueline.

GM Steve Yzerman said a priority for next season is getting more offensive punch from his defensemen. And Yzerman said giving up too many scoring chances in the first 50 games was a big reason Tampa Bay missed the playoffs.

The Predators and Ducks could provide an answer to both, if they become trading partners with Tampa Bay this summer. Both have a glut of quality defensemen, so you can bet this series will be closely watched by the Lightning brass.

Look no further than Nashville to sense the value of getting offense from your "D." Ryan Ellis entered Friday with points in seven consecutive playoff games, one of three defensemen to be among the Predators top-five playoff scorers. Ellis' nine points in 10 playoff games were as many as Lightning defenseman Jason Garrison mustered in 70 regular-season games.

You take away Victor Hedman's career-high 72 points (33 coming on the power play), and the rest of the Lightning defensemen scored 61. There's a reason Andrej Sustr used Britney Spears' "Oops! ...I did it again" as his goal song.

"I'd like to get more production out of our blueline," Yzerman said. "Whether that's with the group we have or look to change, we'll see what we can do. I can't make any guarantees or promises. But we'd like to generate more shots, more scoring chances."

There's a reason the Lightning tried to acquire Kevin Shattenkirk from the Blues, a deal reportedly nixed in January by the pending unrestricted free agent; wing Jonathan Drouin was rumored as being part of that package heading to the Blues. Shattenkirk, a coveted right shot, will be available July 1, but he'll be pricey, and said he wants to be a No. 1 defenseman. Bet he ends up hitting the jackpot with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

The Lightning is more likely to go the trade route, and could take advantage of defensemen-rich teams who can't protect everyone leading up to the June 21st expansion draft. The Predators will likely use the eight skater protection option (as opposed to the seven forwards, three defenseman alignment) to keep their top four of Ellis, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm. The Ducks have to pick from Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen and Cam Fowler, hoping Kevin Bieksa waives his no-move clause so another young defenseman can be protected. That means right-shot Brandon Montour could be available.

And if the Lightning dangles a strong enough package, whether it involves Drouin or dipping into its deep prospect pool of forwards, who knows what impact defenseman it could land?

"It's my responsibility to go out and look at all areas," Yzerman said. "I can't sit here and say I'm trying to trade for this or trade for that, because I don't know what is out there. But we'll explore it. I can't guarantee we can do anything, but we've got to find out what options are out there, we've got to find out what the cap is, and make decisions based on that."

Slap shots

* Hearing that Lightning forward prospect Nikita Gusev has no immediate plans to return to North America; he has one year left on his contract for Russia's SKA and plans to re-negotiate an extension. Gusev, a seventh round pick in 2012, is a dynamic, 5-foot-10 forward and one of Nikita Kucherov's good friends, with both playing for Russia at the world championship. Tampa Bay has previously offered Gusev an AHL-only deal or a two-way deal, but he's getting a top-six role in KHL.

*Speaking of Lightning prospects, five will be playing in this week's OHL Memorial Cup, with forward Anthony Cirelli (Erie) a legitimate contender for another playoff MVP.

ODDS AND ENDS: The Eastern Conference final will include a battle between former Lightning coaches, Ottawa's Guy Boucher (assistant Martin Raymond) and Pittsburgh's Mike Sullivan/Rick Tocchet. … Yzerman said he has no plans to make changes to his coaching staff. The Hockey News compiled its projected protected lists for teams, and had Vladislav Namestnikov protected and Alex Killorn not; can't say I'd be surprised if that happens. … Looks like G Andrei Vasilevskiy has picked up where he left off, boasting a shutout streak of 120 minutes for Russia at the world championship. …

Great to hear local sports radio dean Steve Duemig will be back on the air Monday on 620-AM as he continues his cancer fight.

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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