Lightning’s biggest challenge: Staying out of their own damned way

Leaning against a wall outside the visitor’s dressing room at KeyBank Arena, Jon Cooper nodded at the suggestion that he and his coaching staff have their work cut out for them.

As crazy as that may seem, with the Tampa Bay Lightning owning a double-digit point lead in mid-January in the chase for the Presidents’ Trophy, the club faces the largely unrelatable challenge of sustaining excellence over 82 games, plus four playoff rounds.

“Winning: It’s a blessing and it’s a curse,” Cooper told theScore Sunday, hours before a 5-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres. The NHL’s longest-tenured head coach wasn’t being sarcastic or overly critical; he was being pragmatic.

“It’s a blessing because you’re in first place and your goal is to make the playoffs and you’re giving yourself an unreal chance to do it. It’s a curse because things are going well but you don’t want to take your foot off the gas. You’re balancing - being hard on them, yet letting them play.”

Scott Audette / Getty Images

The 2018-19 season hasn’t even reached the All-Star break and yet it feels like any type of inconsistency won’t make a sizeable impact on Tampa's location in the end-of-season standings. The Lightning, hockey's version of the NBA's Golden State Warriors, have the requisite star power and depth to maintain their pace - if everything continues to go according to plan.

Cooper admits he’s monitoring for signs of satisfaction inside the club’s bubble, a necessary daily process most outsiders might not appreciate. “If you’re battling for a playoff spot, you’re grinding every single day,” he said. “When you’re at the top of the standings, you’re grinding in a different way.”

Before diving into the "different" grind, it's necessary to reflect on the accomplishments of Cooper’s squad thus far.

Through Tuesday, the Lightning have picked up 74 of a possible 94 points, with two of their 11 losses coming in overtime. Both their points percentage (.787) and goal differential (plus-58) are absurdly high; the Calgary Flames rank second at .681 and plus-40. Thanks to a near-perfect past two months - with no regulation defeats in December and a 22-3-1 record since Nov. 21 - Tampa is on pace for an eye-popping 129 points. The salary cap era record (124 points set by the 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings) is within striking distance, while the all-time mark (132 by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens) is also within the realm of possibility.

As for the roster, Cooper has enviable depth at his disposal, and there’s an argument to be made for the inclusion of a Tampa player on every positional top-10 list.

Katharine Lotze / Getty Images

Team success has overshadowed some fine performances - Brayden Point's 61 points over 47 games, in particular. He's beloved within the Lightning organization, and though the admiration is starting to infiltrate the mainstream, those who know him best insist the 22-year-old remains grossly underrated. Still on an upward trajectory, he's a versatile three-zone center quietly piecing together an MVP-caliber season.

Following an on-ice session at KeyBank, teammate Mathieu Joseph heaped serious praise on Point while the latter untied his skates a couple of stalls away: “He’s so important for our team and, personally, I think he’s one of the best players in the world.”

Across the room, Nikita Kucherov, the no-nonsense Russian, concurs: "We’re in Florida, we’re in Tampa. Not a lot of attention," he said of Point. "If he played in Toronto, he’d be a superstar.”

Then there's captain Steven Stamkos, a former 60-goal scorer on pace for a cool 42 this season. He legitimately - and stunningly - might be Tampa’s fifth-best player. And that's far from a hot take - it's simply the reality of the situation and a compliment to the Lightning's strong drafting, development, and asset management.

“Each team is different, with different skill, different depth, different camaraderie,” Stamkos said, reflecting on his 11 years in a Lightning uniform, “but this is definitely the best in terms of overall talent.”

Which brings us back to Cooper’s conundrum: How can the Lightning, in one breath, appreciate a special season, and in the next, not care about what happened yesterday, last week, or two months ago?

By emphasizing group progress over personal gains.

Yes, Tampa is so deep it has scheduled "rest" games for certain players - in part because the Lightning feel the drop-off in talent from, say, the 11th forward to the 14th can be offset elsewhere.

Gerry Thomas / Getty Images

That's why a healthy Joseph, who is tied for second in NHL rookie goal-scoring, sits every once in a while. It's also why a 32-year-old Anton Stralman isn't drawing into every single game. Even Andrei Vasilevskiy, a Vezina Trophy finalist last year, is on a strict schedule that focuses on rest and recovery rather than marquee matchups.

“It’s hard to convince guys," assistant coach Jeff Halpern said. "Everybody wants to play, wants to contribute. You never want anyone to feel their legs have been chopped off. When you ask guys to be leaders and they’re put in situations where they’re not in a game, it can be difficult."

The difference between what the Lightning are doing and how NHL teams typically handle scratching is the transparency. There's rarely a game-day decision for Tampa as lineup alterations tend to be predetermined. It's a process designed to be "better on the psyche," mentions Halpern, a former NHLer who endured the scratch system himself.

That said, nobody is going to accept the news with a beaming smile, polite approach or not.

“You can do that when you have depth. It's an advantage," Joseph said. "Even though we all want to play 82 games, you can rest some guys. It’s a mentality (the staff has) and you’ve got to respect that.”

CATEGORY 2017-18 (RANK) 2018-19 (RANK)
Goals/game 3.5 (1st) 4.0 (1st)
5v5 attempts for/60 minutes 59.7 (9th) 59.9 (6th)
Power play percentage 23.9 (3rd) 29.1 (1st)
Goals against/game 2.9 (13th) 2.8 (8th)
5v5 attempts against/60 mins 55.9 (8th) 54.6 (8th)
Penalty kill percentage 76.1 (28th) 83.7 (6th)

The mentality is shaped by a lesson learned. The Lightning were dominant last season, too - not to the extent they have been in 2018-19, but still good enough to be the toast of the Eastern Conference.

It was around this point of the schedule last season that the team hit a rut, losing five of seven from Jan. 4-20. Complacency set in, zapping them of their trademark swagger.

“We were in a very similar situation and probably let things go a little bit," Cooper admitted. "I kinda rode the wave of success a little bit more (last year) and didn’t nip things in the bud when we probably should have.”

Tampa finished atop the conference, then won two series before flaming out in seven games versus the eventual Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

Fast forward to now, and the roster looks virtually the same - again, no major holes. Jake Dotchin, Chris Kunitz, and J.T. Brown are long gone, replaced by Joseph, defenseman Erik Cernak, and Anthony Cirelli, who’s quickly become a go-to forward on a vastly improved penalty kill. The Lightning have encountered the occasional injury, sure, but nothing too serious. Overall, compared to the dog days of last season, the good times keep rolling.

Now, for the glass-half-empty perspective. Discussions about limiting turnovers have crept into multiple team meetings, Joseph said, and on Sunday, Stralman lamented the group's lack of "hunger." It could be a blip on the radar, or perhaps a sign of things to come.

"Puck management, D-zone. There’s a lot we can improve still," Joseph added. "Rushes, boxing out, stuff like that. I think the biggest part is that we want to be good defensively and I think we’ve been getting better as the season’s gone on.”

Dave Reginek / Getty Images

No team is perfect. Ultimately, complacency has yet to take over, and familiarity and experience help with that. “I have a better feel for each individual player and what makes them tick," said Cooper, a champion in the USHL and AHL and a Cup finalist with the 2014-15 Bolts.

Halpern calls the regular season "a dress rehearsal, so to speak," with the coaches huddling on occasion to ask, "If Game 1 of the playoffs was tomorrow, what would our lineup be?” It'll be easier to land on an answer the second time around with essentially the same group.

The rotation has given them more video and data for lineup optimization. All that being said, they are cognizant of disrupting rhythm. “There’s rest and there’s the possibility of losing your timing," Cooper said. "Players are habitual and in routines. You screw that routine up and all of a sudden what do you have? It’s always a fine line with me.” Given that the Lightning appear to be head and shoulders above the other 30 teams, their biggest challenge could be staying out of their own way.

Of course, Tampa feels comfortable experimenting since, in essence, they are an exaggerated version of what every modern NHL squad aspires to be. They're built well, icing two-way players at forward and defense; they prioritize skill, speed, and smarts; they play a fluid, frenetic brand of hockey; and they have one of the top goaltending tandems in the league. It's a foolproof plan when you've created a buffer zone in the standings.

It helps that the man calling the shots at ice level isn't afraid to think outside the box by throwing the odd curveball, like his on-the-fly goalie change Sunday.

Cooper will scratch good players, is up-front about the potential for complacency and/or implosion, and is realistic about the best team in hockey's place in the world.

“You never strive for perfection. Just strive for excellence," Cooper said, still leaning against the wall, reciting one of his favorite quotes. "Because you can’t get perfect. Perfect’s unattainable.”

John Matisz is theScore's National Hockey Writer. You can find him on Twitter @matiszjohn.

Copyright © 2019 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

Canadiens’ Byron to have hearing for charging Panthers’ Weegar

Montreal Canadiens forward Paul Byron will have a hearing Wednesday for charging Florida Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, the Department of Player Safety announced.

The incident occurred during the second period of Tuesday's meeting between the two clubs.

It appears Byron makes direct contact with Weegar's head. He was assessed a two-minute minor for charging on the play. Weegar left the game with an upper-body injury and did not return.

Byron has 10 goals and eight assists in 34 games this season.

Copyright © 2019 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

Benn: Stars power play ‘was sh–‘ in loss to Lightning

Warning: Story contains coarse language

Jamie Benn didn't hold back when he was asked to explain what happened in a 2-0 defeat at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night.

"I thought we played a pretty good game against a good team," the Dallas Stars captain told reporters, including The Athletic's Saad Yousuf, postgame, before adding, "Our power play was shit and that was the difference."

The Stars went 0-for-6 and mustered only 10 shots on goal with the man advantage in the game.

They failed to convert on a four-minute power play in the second period when Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman was assessed minor penalties for holding and unsportsmanlike conduct.

Copyright © 2019 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

Report: Penguins listening to offers on Brassard

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is listening to offers on Derick Brassard, and there's an expectation that the veteran center will be dealt, according to TSN's Darren Dreger.

"I know that Jim Rutherford is at least listening to some of the interest in Derick Brassard. The expectation is that he will get traded, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, at least, in return need a No. 3 center back," Dreger said on Tuesday's edition of "Insider Trading."

Brassard was acquired by the Penguins last season in a three-way trade prior to the deadline that involved the Ottawa Senators and Vegas Golden Knights. He slots in behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on Pittsburgh's depth chart and has had trouble producing since arriving in Pennsylvania, amassing 10 goals and 11 assists in 50 regular season games.

The 31-year-old has one season left on his current contract and is owed $5 million this season with $2 million retained by Vegas. Brassard also owns a modified no-trade clause that includes a list of eight teams he wouldn't accept a trade to, according to Cap Friendly.

This year's trade deadline comes Feb. 25.

Copyright © 2019 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

Jets’ Little: Vegas matchup has been ‘circled on our calendars’

The Winnipeg Jets will play their 46th game of the season Tuesday night, and despite the fact that they can now essentially cruise to the playoffs, this meeting is no run-of-the-mill affair.

The Jets will take on the Vegas Golden Knights, who beat them in five games in last year's Western Conference Final. Veteran forward Bryan Little is just one player who hasn't forgotten.

"It's one of those games that we've been looking forward to," Little told reporters Tuesday. "Obviously anytime a team beats out another team you look forward to that matchup again when you see them next season, so this is one we've had circled on our calendars."

"We wanna beat these guys pretty badly," he added.

The heavily favored Jets seemed destined to roll through the Golden Knights after a decisive Game 7 victory against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in the second round last season, but Vegas had other plans.

After the Jets took Game 1 by a score of 4-2, the Golden Knights were victorious in the next four games en route to the Stanley Cup Final. Winnipeg managed just six goals against goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in those final four contests.

Both squads remain two of the best in the NHL this season, so it's a game all hockey fans should've circled on their calendars.

Copyright © 2019 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

Film Room: Stars rookie Heiskanen skating out of Dahlin’s shadow

The NHL's top rookie defenseman plays for Buffalo, but he has some serious competition in the Lone Star State.

Miro Heiskanen, who doesn't turn 20 until July, has been a bright spot in a tumultuous Dallas Stars season. And while No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin understandably remains the apple of fans' eyes when it comes to first-year defensemen, Heiskanen could be a franchise cornerstone too.

Through 46 NHL games, Heiskanen's numbers aren't the flashiest - he's got nine goals and 11 assists - but his puck-moving helps his Stars create offense. He's proven difficult to rattle, even when he makes mistakes. And the factors driving his success are the same things that endeared him to scouts and made him the franchise's highest-drafted player in the Dallas era at No. 3 overall in 2017.

A key feature of Heiskanen's game is his skating, which he showed off on his second assist of a Dec. 9 game against the Vegas Golden Knights:

Courtesy: NHL

Heiskanen skates down to retrieve the puck and builds speed as he carries it through the neutral zone and into Vegas' end - then abruptly pivots and changes position to protect the puck when an opponent moves into his lane. His edge work and agility allow him to shift direction in a split second. Rather than turning over the puck, he's able to stay on top of it and fire a pass to Esa Lindell, who eventually scores a power-play goal.

Stars fans likely recall the Jan. 2 game against the New Jersey Devils primarily for Miles Wood's hit on Dallas captain Jamie Benn, but it was also the second two-goal outing of Heiskanen's NHL career. He scored the first goal in the immediate aftermath of the hit and subsequent fight, with the teams playing four on four:

Courtesy: NHL

At the beginning of the play, Heiskanen displays his puck control and excellent hands. His initial shot is denied, but when he gets the puck again a few moments later, he fakes out goalie Mackenzie Blackwood and makes it count. (Heiskanen would score his second goal in the game on his backhand.)

Before Heiskanen was drafted, there was some concern that he needed to improve his shot, despite his quick release. Although some of his shots are obviously effective at the NHL level already, adding upper-body strength would help him put more power behind all of them.

Good defensive play can be harder to recognize than good offensive play; it's more often something that you notice when it's missing. Heiskanen's game is no exception. When the Stars played the Montreal Canadiens on New Year's Eve, his defensive lapse in overtime contributed to Montreal's game-winner, but he was superb during the rest of the contest, as he is here:

Courtesy: NHL

With just over a minute left in the first period, the Canadiens clear the puck. Heiskanen outraces the Montreal skater, using his body positioning to hold him off, and carries the puck up ice. He successfully blows past another Canadiens player and then makes a perfect pass to fellow defenseman John Klingberg to kick off a four-on-three rush. It's a great example of how good defense can quickly turn into offense.

Heiskanen also displayed his defensive prowess against the Devils:

Courtesy: NHL

With three minutes to go in the third period, the Devils looking for the tying goal, and goaltender Ben Bishop tied up on the other side of the crease, Heiskanen finds himself in the right place at the right time and sweeps the puck away and up the ice before it can cross the goal line.

Heiskanen's a composed, steady player. That's partly because he doesn't just see where the puck is, but he's able to project where it's going to be. Of course, he makes some mistakes - he's a rookie who's still adjusting to North American ice, never mind the NHL - but he has the skill set to be successful at this level for a long time. In the first period against Vegas, he exhibited several of his best qualities on a single play:

Courtesy: NHL

Heiskanen receives a pass and skates the puck through the neutral zone and into the Knights' end. When it looks like the defense might cut him off, he passes to a teammate. He then heads to the net to receive a pass, firing a shot at Vegas netminder Marc-Andre Fleury without hesitation.

Though that play didn't produce a goal, it does show off Heiskanen's skating, puck skills, and perhaps the most important part of his game: his hockey IQ. Heiskanen consistently knows where he needs to be in order to be the most effective. He also recognizes when he can handle a situation on his own and when it's better for him to get the puck to a teammate (and can often do so successfully). That's mature decision-making for a teenager in his first NHL season, and it should serve as the foundation for a productive career.

Hannah Stuart keeps a close eye on both drafted and draft-eligible prospects and can usually be found trying to learn more about hockey analytics. She has previously written for FanRag Sports, The Hockey Writers, and Hooked On Hockey Magazine, and can also be found at High Heels and High Sticks. Find her on Twitter @HockeyWthHannah.

Copyright © 2019 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

Flyers’ Hart: I ‘would’ve gotten my a– kicked’ in goalie fight with Dubnyk

Warning: Story contains coarse language

During the second period of Monday night's tilt between the Wild and Flyers, Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk took exception to Philadelphia forward Scott Laughton invading his personal space.

Flyers netminder Carter Hart admitted he briefly considered engaging in a goalie fight with Dubnyk, but thought better of it.

"I probably would have gotten my ass kicked," Hart told Dave Isaac of the Courier-Post.

The tale of the tape certainly wouldn't have favored the Flyers' rookie goaltender. Hart, 20, stands at 6-foot-2 and 181 lbs, while Dubnyk, 32, is listed at 6-foot-6, 224 lbs.

There's no record of Dubnyk partaking in a goalie fight in the NHL, but he's no stranger to ruffling feathers. In two separate incidents during the 2016-17 season, he engaged in a shoving match with Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog and started a line brawl with the New York Islanders.

Copyright © 2019 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

Remember, we are all Canucks!