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I’ve written for a few different hockey websites over the years and made some amazing friends and contacts during that time. While we’ve all gone in different directions over the years, it hasn’t stopped us from keeping in touch and finding reasons to collaboratively work together. I was fortunate to get some time from my good friend Michael Stuart, who covers the Tampa Bay Lightning on Hockeybuzz.com, which is one of the most popular and highly visited independent hockey websites out there. I’ve known Mike since I started my first hockey writing gig over five years ago. He’s one of the brightest hockey minds I’ve come across and we’ve done several collaborative pieces, podcasts, and live shows in the past. We picked each other’s brains on our respective hockey teams (who are on two completely different platforms right now), and covered some of the latest happenings going on around the league and in the playoffs.
I want to thank Mike for taking the time to do this Q&A with me, which should be the first of more to come in the future. Make sure to check out his articles on Hockeybuzz.com and give him a follow on Twitter @hockeybuzzstu.
On the Lightning…
The Lightning’s success can be majorly attributed to a new wave of homegrown forwards that made immediate impacts on the team like Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat. Their play has minimized the relevance of 2013 first rounder Jonathan Drouin, who although had a formidable season, has fallen on Tampa’s depth chart. How (if any way) have the emergence of the trio of young forwards mentioned, affected Drouin’s overall development and role on the team?
I think outsiders are often quick to point to Drouin’s performance and scream “bust” or “underperformer” without considering the whole picture. Like you say, the Lightning are an incredibly deep team; squads that get to add players like Drouin at the draft typically don’t have the kind of quality depth that Tampa Bay did in 2013. So, with that in mind, it’s not really a surprise that Drouin has found himself on the sidelines for good chunks of the year. Would I like to see him get some more time on the ice? Absolutely. Do I think this year is bad for his development, though? Not at all. It’s the exact same treatment Nikita Kucherov got last year, and that seems to have worked out alright. In addition, it’s not as though Drouin was bad when given the opportunity to play. He was one of the Lightning’s more efficient point scorers, as evidenced by his rate statistics, and he was a positive possession player. What’s abundantly clear is that the future is bright. His time will come in a Lightning uniform, even though that time may not be today.
After emerging victorious in their seven-game series against Detroit, the lightning defeated the Montreal Canadiens in 6 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2011. Montreal and Detroit had some notable roster and playing-related similarities but are ultimately defined by their respective differences. Compared to Detroit, what’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed about the way Tampa handled the Habs that gave them the early edge in this series that they couldn’t attain against the Red Wings?
Aside from discipline issues, which plagued Montreal in Game Two, I think the single biggest difference is that the Canadiens give Tampa’s skaters more space than the Red Wings did. It’s interesting, however, because Montreal doesn’t do that for a full 60 minutes. In both the first and second game, the Canadiens looked like the better team early on. They dominated possession, they dictated pace, and they stopped the Lightning from moving the puck through he neutral zone. But, for whatever reason, they haven’t been able to keep that up for the full 60. Tampa has found a way to break through, and that has really been the biggest difference between this series and the first one.
On the Devils…
Lou has had complete control of Hockey Operations with the Devils for a long time. With Shero coming in as the new GM, how do you see Lou functioning with the new structure? Will he be able to give Shero enough freedom and space, or will this setup fail?
For outsiders (whether it be fans, writers, analysts, etc.) this has been a popular subtopic that’s come out of this unexpected move. It’s become apparent this is something ownership strongly pushed for Lamoriello to follow through with. While Lamoriello cited reasons like his age for bringing Shero onboard, the writing on the wall shows (and has for years) that Lou’s hockey-related philosophies haven’t gotten the Devils nearly as far in the regular and postseason of the new NHL as they had in the pre-salary cap era. Lou will remain president of the Devils and will have Shero report to him, but as Lou said, the decisions that come with being general manager will ultimately be reserved for Shero to make on his own. Perhaps the two biggest tests of Lamoriello’s cooperation and role with this new arrangement will be how the Devils fare at the draft and the route they take in hiring a new coach, a decision that Lamoriello emphasized, will be completely up to Shero. In the past Lamoriello has been accused of imposing excessive restrictions on his coaching staff, and a looming concern is those restrictions will bestow themselves onto the operations that Shero carries out. With the revealing that ownership strongly advocated Lamoriello to relinquish his duties as general manager, along with his age (72), I think Lou will have no choice but to comply with the limitations on his authority moving forward, especially with if he’s being closely monitored by a displeased ownership group looking for the Devils to make a playoff run for the first time under their watch.
The Devils will pick sixth in this year’s NHL draft, and are likely to get a blue-chip prospect as a result. Do you see the Devils taking the best player available, even if it is a defenseman (let’s say Noah Hanifin falls unexpectedly)? Or will they focus on offense? Do you have any names in mind?
For years, the Devils have had no choice but to take the best player available whenever they drafted in the first round. This is primarily due to them consistently drafting in the mid-low twenties, something Lamoriello has (up until recently) gotten around by always finding that one diamond in the rough (or talent in later rounds). New general manager Ray Shero is well-informed on where his new team needs to improve the most and is in a position at the draft where the right draft pick could be inserted in next year’s lineup. While Shero will more than likely select a forward if he doesn’t trade the sixth overall pick, he’s always used the draft to shore up on where his team needed the most improvement. The only way I think Shero drafts a defenseman is if his primary forward targets are already taken by the time the Devils are on the clock, and he fails to put together a trade for a top-six forward at the last minute. Hopes are high a player like Mitch Marner or Mikko Rantanen is available when the Devils pick, which I can only see happening if one or two teams ahead of New Jersey pick defensemen. We know McDavid and Eichel will probably go first and second, while Strome will also likely be gone well before the Devils make their pick. Outside of Marner and Rantanen, I can’t see the Devils shying away from drafting a player like Pavel Zacha or Joel Eriksson.
Around the league…
Stuart: This NHL playoff season has been full of low scoring games. Some fans have remarked that this phenomenon takes away from the entertainment value. What, if anything, do you think the NHL should do to adjust for this?
Luci: We’ve seen instances in the past where scoring output isn’t what we’re usually accustomed to seeing. What’s ironic about this time around is how the league has taken strides specifically aimed towards seeing more goals scored. Smaller goalie equipment, subtle rule changes to open up the game more (like eliminating the two-line pass), the imposition of the trapezoid, even adjusting the size of the nets were methods that have been considered or applied in today’s game. Two major attributes I’ve noticed in these playoffs have been the noticeably low numbers of penalties called (which in turn has led to a lot more clutching and grabbing) and how shot-blocking has taken many teams (especially during the postseason) by storm. Teams have gotten a lot better tightening up defensively, being more conservative with the puck, and only capitalize on the most opportune moments for a scoring chance. A lot of teams are habitually creating a lot more traffic in front of the net, which has significantly filtered the number of shot attempts that get to the goalie. There have been some interesting propositions like penalizing players who block shots and modifying the trapezoid into a different (more rectangular) shape. Ultimately, teams are adapting better defensively to the changes that have been made to the game in an attempt to see more offense on a consistent basis.