Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper believes his team will go from survivors to contenders by the end of the season because of the injury problems it is currently dealing with.
"There's no question we come out of this a better team," Cooper told NHL.com. "The one thing is if we ever do get healthy, which eventually we should, there are going to be really tough decisions for us to make. That's a good thing."
The tough decisions Cooper is making nowadays have more to do with the psyche of the young players who have been thrust into larger-than-expected roles because of the injuries to Steven Stamkos, Ryan Malone, Victor Hedman, Eric Brewer (who recently returned) and others.
The Lightning have 13 players on their roster who have played in 71 or fewer NHL games, including four defensemen and goalies Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback. They dressed eight rookies Tuesday against the Washington Capitals. They have played nine this season.
"Guys that should be developing in the minors, they're cutting their teeth in the NHL," Cooper said. "That can be twofold. For some players it can work in the sense that it accelerates their growth, and for some guys it hurts because it's too much too soon. It's a really tough balance because you don't want to ruin these guys for the future and demoralize their confidence because it's a really tough League to play in, but we have no choice."
Cooper is talking about guys like J.T. Brown, Nikita Kucherov and Andrej Sustr in particular. He indicated that he'd prefer to have all three playing for the Syracuse Crunch in the American Hockey League, but that's impossible with all of the injuries the Lightning have.
"We're not just going to find guys and we're not going to go out and make Band-Aid trades and give up something that has potential for our future," Cooper said. "So this is it, but we did have a little depth down there because of drafting and developing and now it's helping us survive."
Tampa Bay is 5-5-3 since Stamkos broke his leg Nov. 11 against the Boston Bruins.
Bishop and Lindback have been superb and there have been some bright spots up front, such as Tyler Johnson, who as the second-line center has 10 points and is plus-6 in 12 games.
"It's amazing when you lose your top centerman the ripple effect that it has," Cooper said, referring to Stamkos. "Valtteri Filppula had to move up a line and Tyler Johnson all of a sudden is your second-line center. It's like, 'Holy cow, now he has to play against those lines.' He'd never have to play against those lines and now he does. That's a big onus to put on the kid."
However, Cooper said he was most impressed with how well Johnson and some of his fellow rookies have done in keeping the puck out of the net. That became the push when Stamkos got hurt. He had 14 goals and nine assists in 17 games, so the Lightning had to make up for nearly a goal per game. Cooper said they're doing that now by trying to keep the puck out of their net more often.
The Lightning had reduced their goals-against per game from 2.47 pre-Stamkos injury to 2.33 post-injury before allowing five goals in a 6-5 shootout loss against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday. Their goals-for per game dropped from 3.05 pre-injury to 2.38 post-injury, hence their 12-5-0 record before Stamkos got hurt and their .500 mark since his injury.
"The key to this whole situation is not losing the development of these guys, letting them get frustrated when they come up here and they don't have the success they expect and then they're out of the lineup and get sent down," Cooper said. "That's the part we can't let happen. We have to live with their mistakes and let these guys grow because we know they're going to make mistakes, but our growth chart has nowhere to go but up because once these guys start getting games in the NHL they're going to figure out the League and they're going to get better."
Wild heading west, looking for more from second line and power play
The Minnesota Wild are getting away from the friendly confines of Xcel Energy Center, set to embark on a stretch that sees them play seven of their next eight games on the road, starting Wednesday at Honda Center against the Anaheim Ducks. The Wild are 5-6-3 on the road this season as opposed to 13-3-2 at home.
Minnesota has allowed 39 goals in 14 road games as opposed to 32 goals in 18 home games. The Wild have been outscored 12-7 in the first period of road games this season and have given up the first goal nine times, including in six straight road games.
"I just think we haven't come out with the same aggressive mindset when we've been on the road," Wild coach Mike Yeo told NHL.com. "We've felt our way into games too many times and because of that we've given up the first goal too many times, and it's always a tougher challenge when you're chasing early in games, especially on the road."
Jason Zucker, who was recalled from Iowa of the American Hockey League on Tuesday, was practicing on the second line with Coyle and Niederreiter in Anaheim on Tuesday. Heatley was bumped to the fourth line to play with Zenon Konopka and Justin Fontaine.
"We've gotta do something," Yeo said. "We've kept them [Coyle, Heatley and Niederreiter] together for a little bit here and the results have been up and down, a little more down lately than they've been up, so we've gotta try to make a change there to see what happens."
However, Granlund will miss his seventh straight game and ninth in the past 10 with a concussion, and Pominville is getting first-line minutes with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. Niederreiter has been held off the scoresheet in the past five games.
Yeo also thinks Minnesota's power play has struggled, going 2-for-20 in the past nine games, because the Wild haven't been able to find a productive second unit with Granlund out with his injury. The Wild were 19-for-81 in their first 22 games.
"When we were having success at the beginning of the year we had two solid units we'd roll out and we felt each unit had a real good chance of making something happen for us," Yeo said. "We've been lacking a little bit on the second unit, haven't had the same production minus that Chicago game [2-for-3]. But the biggest problem for us we're just not drawing penalties. We're getting one our two power plays and it's really hard to get into a rhythm and get any momentum going with our power play. I think that's been the biggest issue for us."
Gelinas, Merrill finding game is faster, easier in NHL
It's not often you'll hear a rookie say the game at the NHL level is easier than it is in the American Hockey League, college or juniors, but give New Jersey Devils defenseman Eric Gelinas a chance to explain what he means.
"Everyone is bigger, stronger, faster and better, but it's easier because the players on your team are always available, they make themselves open for you and you don't have to look for the play," Gelinas told NHL.com. "It's there. You just have to make it. Maybe in the lower leagues I was trying to do too much, maybe trying to do an extra play for no reason. Up here, I don't have to look for another play because the play is already there and I just have to make it."
"The caliber of players in this dressing room is pretty special and they help you out," Merrill told NHL.com. "They're always talking on the ice, always telling you when they're open, offering their support. The game is a lot faster and the players are a lot bigger and stronger, but smarter players and more skilled players are easier to play with."
Gelinas said the difference he's found is in how fast the game is played and how sharp he has to be in every shift of every game. He didn't feel that same pressure when he was playing in the QMJHL or in the AHL.
"I could have an off-night and still be doing good out there," Gelinas said. "It's different here. It's the best League in the world and there's a reason, it has the best players in the world. They're not going to let up. I can't let up. You have to be sharp and I think I've been doing a better job with that."
"I think we're a quicker team," DeBoer said. "We're able to make more plays and that energizes our veteran guys when they're getting pucks on the tape and when kids are using their speed to create room and space. That energizes the older guys, especially the older skill guys we've got."
Alfredsson taking on bigger role
Alfredsson, who was the Ottawa Senators' captain for 13 years, told NHL.com he feels far more comfortable exerting his brand of leadership now than when he first arrived in Detroit.
"It was a bigger adjustment period than I thought it would be, both on and off the ice, with changing everything," Alfredsson said. "Looking back on it, it has been a great learning experience for me to see what players go through when they change things in a way that I didn't really appreciate before. It's natural, too. You don't just come in and in my case being a captain for so long, just try to take over. I try to see where I can fit in, where I can help out. I think I've got a pretty good feel for that now.
"I definitely feel comfortable enough with this team now where I'm able to act as normal."
Alfredsson is on a hot streak, with 10 points (four goals) in his past nine games.
This and that
* Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said the team has not decided if it will give rookie Elias Lindholm permission to play for Sweden in the 2014 World Junior Championship. Lindholm had six points in 19 games before playing Tuesday. He had a three-point game last week against the San Jose Sharks.
"It's week to week here," Rutherford told NHL.com. "He's really elevated his play."
* Wild center Mikko Koivu has won 43 of 62 faceoffs in the past three games after winning just 12 of 34 in the previous two. Koivu is one of the League's top faceoff men with a 55.8-percent success rate. He has been better than 52 percent in each of the past six seasons, topping out at a career-best 56.9 percent in 2009-10.
"I don't panic when I see him have a game that's below his standards because traditionally he's always been a guy who takes a lot of pride in that, has always been a high-percentage-win faceoff guy," Yeo said. "That's the kind of guy he is; he takes pride in the little things. If he has a game or two where it slips down, it could be a matter of circumstance or luck, going against good guys, or it could be a matter of we're not giving him enough help to win some of those draws. But with a guy like that we don't rush to judgment on him. We expect it to get turned around, like we've seen in the last couple."
* When asked for his welcome to the NHL moment, Merrill didn't have to think too hard. He went right to his debut on Nov. 3 at Minnesota, when on his third shift he crashed into the boards and sustained a concussion along with facial lacerations.
"That first game there, that injury there was a pretty significant way to come on," Merrill said. "It was frustrating. I was extremely frustrated. I just couldn't believe it was actually happening. You wait so long to get the opportunity, you finally do and the third shift of the game it's cut short. I didn't let myself dwell on it too much. I believed there would be another opportunity and I'm glad to be back."
Merrill was recalled Nov. 25 on an emergency basis to replace Larsson (lower body). He has played in nine straight games.
* Alex Ovechkin entered Tuesday as the League leader in in power-play ice time per game (4:59). After scoring his League-leading 10th and 11th power-play goals in the 6-5 shootout win against the Lightning, the Capitals captain is on pace for a career-high 31 power-play goals, but if his ice time per game on the power play remains the same, it would only rank sixth in his career.
Ovechkin played 6:43 per game on the power play as a rookie in 2005-06 and scored 21 power-play goals. He played more than five minutes on the power play in each of the next four seasons, including 5:40 in 2007-08, when he scored a career-high 22 goals with the extra man.
* The Vancouver Canucks have won five games in a row. The last time a John Tortorella-coached team won five in a row was during the 2011-12 season, when the New York Rangers won five straight from Dec. 30, 2011 to Jan. 10, 2012.
* Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is on pace for career-bests in wins, save percentage and goals-against average. He has 17 wins, a .922 save percentage and 2.01 GAA. His career-bests so far in seasons in which he appears in at least 50 games are 42 wins (2011-12), a .918 save percentage (2010-11) and a 2.32 GAA (2010-11).
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
"I knew he was extremely good and I always admired him, just how smart he is all over the ice and how he reads the game so well. But when you see it every day, the skill is there, the mental attitude is there and the work ethic is there. You see every day he wants to get better and he pushes himself. I think at times he had to challenge himself too because he is definitely one of the best in the world. He has to play and push himself in practice and that's what I find amazing. He's an older guy too, but he really wants to just push himself and see where he can go."
"We don't know if it's the shoulders or the crossbar, and if it's the crossbar we gain a few inches."
If they are going to trade for him it would be soon, because Miller is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the season and he will sign a long-term deal that more than likely will include a no-trade clause. The Blues could be in the market to sign him this summer. It would help if he's already on their team because that gives them an advantage in locking him up before July 1. The Blues are in an interesting situation because they're a team that is built to contend now with goaltenders that are solid, but an upgrade at that position might be necessary to put them over the top. I think if they stay the course with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott they'll still have a chance to come out of the Western Conference because of the structured team game they play. If they feel they need someone like Miller it comes down to price. What would they have to give up? You'd have to assume Elliott or Halak would be going back in any trade because they don't want three veteran goalies all on expiring contracts.
Do you see the Rangers making a move in any capacity soon? The mediocrity needs to change. -- @ch1088
I do think the Rangers will do something soon. What it is I don't know, but I can see some changes coming. They've been hovering around average for too long. Michael Del Zotto's name has been floated in rumors for quite some time and it's pretty clear that coach Alain Vigneault doesn't trust him. Del Zotto has at times been scratched and his ice time has taken a hit too. I can see the Rangers making a move to upgrade their forward depth, but at the expense of what? Their penalty kill has been a bright spot this season and they don't want to take away guys like Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore, who have been good on the PK.
Why do you think the Nashville Predators have struggled so far? -- @KnightChandler
The injury to Pekka Rinne is a contributing factor. For a team that relies on its defense, losing a top-tier goaltender is hard to overcome even though rookie Marek Mazanec has done an admirable job as a replacement. The Predators, though, are missing a key ingredient -- they don't have any bonafide veteran goal scorers. They have a lot of guys who are smart, contributing players, but they don't have a guy who can consistently put one in when they need it the most. They typically find a way to get the most out of what they have, but it's harder this season in a brutally tough Western Conference.
No, because Crawford is the Blackhawks' No. 1 goalie. He signed a six-year contract after winning the Stanley Cup. There is no question that he is the No. 1 goalie in Chicago. He's hurt now and Raanta will get his chance to prove he belongs in the NHL. If he plays well that's good for Chicago and it gives Crawford time to return, but make no mistake, Crawford is the No. 1 guy in Chicago.
I'm not sure they should trade either guy. It never hurts to have significant depth at the goaltender position, especially when you are a team that believes it can contend for the Stanley Cup, as the Ducks do. Injuries happen. A goalie can go into a slump. Depth is important. However, realistically speaking the Ducks could pick up a player of value for them this season if they do ship out a goalie. Hiller would be the likely choice because he's on an expiring contract while Fasth is signed through next season and Frederik Andersen is signed through 2015-16. Don't forget that they also have top prospect John Gibson. Hiller's value is high now because he's been excellent of late.
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