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Over The Boards

Mailbag: Lightning searching for identity; Blue Jackets options in goal

NHL.com's Dan Rosen answers weekly questions

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

Here is the Jan. 1 edition of Dan Rosen's weekly mailbag. If you have a question, tweet it to @drosennhl and use #OvertheBoards.

What's going on in Tampa? Their game is nowhere close to where it was last year considering it's almost the same roster. -- @uumadbroo

Last season was historic for the Tampa Bay Lightning. They tied the NHL record with 62 wins. They had the fourth-most points in a season by any team with 128, four fewer than the record-holding 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens. To expect similar results would have been ridiculous and unfair to the Lightning. But when you have all that and then get swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round, becoming the first Presidents' Trophy winner to not win a Stanley Cup Playoff game, change is going to happen. It is happening.

The Lightning have spent the first half of this season trying to figure out how to combine the skill, speed and creativity that made them successful last season with the type of hard-nosed, grinding, forechecking game played by the Blue Jackets that eventually did them in. Coach Jon Cooper is trying to get his team to buy in to all of it. It's been a hard experiment all around, especially because the Lightning haven't gotten the same type of goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy as they received last season, when he won the Vezina Trophy and on more than a handful of nights stole two points. And they're doing it without three important players from last season's team: forwards J.T. Miller (traded to the Vancouver Canucks) and Ryan Callahan (career-ending back injury), and defenseman Anton Stralman (signed by the Florida Panthers).

But the Lightning are starting to come around and climb the standings. The Boston Bruins are running away with first place in the Atlantic Division, but second and third place are up for grabs. The Lightning appear poised to take one of those spots in the second half and I think they will. This is an experienced team, one that realizes that finishing first guarantees you Games 1 and 2 at home in the first round and that's it. They're building their season and it's allowing them to be realistic about who they are and what they can do. I think they were fooled by their success last season and arrogance hurt them. That arrogance has turned into honesty this season and it's going to help them.

 

If Joonas Korpisalo is out long term where do the Columbus Blue Jackets go shopping for a goalie? Chicago? Philadelphia? Vancouver? Any ideas? -- @Darrell_Samuels

Korpisalo will be out 4-6 weeks following surgery Monday to repair a torn meniscus in his knee. The Blue Jackets can give goalie Elvis Merzlikins the keys and see if he can drive them for a while knowing Korpisalo will be back eventually, but I think it's in the best interest of everyone for Columbus to acquire a veteran goalie, preferably one with no term on his contract beyond this season. The Blue Jackets like Merzlikins. They also like their in-house candidates from the American Hockey League, including Matiss Kivlenieks, who was recalled from Cleveland in the wake of Korpisalo's injury. But it's a major gamble to assume Merzlikins can be a No. 1 even for 4-6 weeks. He was 0-4-4 with a 3.41 goals-against average and .889 save percentage in 10 games before getting his first NHL win Tuesday, 4-1 against the Florida Panthers. Having a veteran to lean on would help Merzlikins; another rookie goalie with zero NHL experience is a dangerous fallback option.

The next month and a half will be the most important stretch in the Blue Jackets' season. They're not in a playoff spot now, but the season isn't lost.

Corey Crawford (Chicago Blackhawks) and Craig Anderson (Ottawa Senators) come to mind as solid options should Columbus pursue a trade. They may be cost-prohibitive even though each can become an unrestricted free agent after this season and appear to be moving toward a backup role with their current team.

The Blue Jackets shouldn't mortgage any significant future assets to fix their goaltending issue because they're not in position to protect a playoff spot now. That's why another avenue for Columbus to explore is veteran goalies in the American Hockey League, a group that includes Andrew Hammond with Rochester, the Buffalo Sabres' affiliate, and Keith Kinkaid with Laval, the Montreal Canadiens' minor-league team, who was with Columbus as a third goalie late last season but never played. At the very least they have more NHL experience than Merzlikins, who would still get his chance to be the No. 1 until Korpisalo is back. The cost for a veteran AHL goalie with NHL experience would not be prohibitive.

Video: WSH@CBJ: Korpisalo records second shutout of season

 

Is there any team out there that is buried deep in the (standings) basement who can make a run like the St. Louis Blues did last year? -- @BillMcGrath417

The best bet is the San Jose Sharks, but I may be guilty of looking at them based on history and experience instead of what we've seen this season. My fear for the Sharks is that at 17-21-3, they've shown their true colors and who they are instead of it just being a tough first half and them being able to get back to what they were as recently as last season.

What many people forget is the Blues were built to win last season based on moves made during the offseason. St. Louis bolstered what it felt already was a decent roster by acquiring forward Ryan O'Reilly in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres, and signing forwards David Perron, Pat Maroon and Tyler Bozak as free agents. The Blues didn't know they would struggle in the first half like they did, that they'd have to change coaches in November or turn the goaltending over to Jordan Binnington in January. None of that was part of the original plan, but the Blues were built to contend for the Stanley Cup, and once the other pieces fell into place it was good enough to win. The Sharks appear to be built to contend too, but goalies Martin Jones and Aaron Dell are struggling for a second straight season and they don't appear to have a firm identity in the way the Blues were known for being big, fast and physical. However, the Sharks have skill, talent and experience, so it wouldn't be a total shock if they got on a hot streak and closed the gap in the Pacific Division.

 

If you could fill Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland's shoes heading into 2020 what would you do to solidify this lineup around Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl? -- @theashcity

If you're asking me for short-term plans, I'd acquire a physical forward I could put into my top six, someone who plays a straight-line game, who goes to the net, who can win board battles -- I'd acquire forward Chris Kreider from the New York Rangers.

Kreider can become an unrestricted free agent July 1 and I'd be shocked if the Rangers don't trade him, because my guess is if they were going to re-sign him they'd have done so already. He could be a rental acquisition prior to the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 24, but his straightforward speed, net-front presence, underrated skill and power-play presence would benefit the Oilers. I'd try him on a line with McDavid and Zack Kassian and allow Draisaitl to play on the second line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and more than likely James Neal. Another option would be to keep McDavid, Draisaitl and Kassian as the top line and make the second line Kreider, Nugent-Hopkins and Neal.

Regardless, I think the Oilers should separate McDavid and Draisaitl as the season gets deeper and the games get tougher because that presents a matchup dilemma for the opposition.

Video: MTL@EDM: Draisaitl stakes Oilers to early lead

 

Which road do you think Bill Guerin and the Minnesota Wild will go down at the trade deadline, buyers or sellers? -- @wild_4_MNhockey

The Wild might be neither. Guerin, their first-year general manager, knows there is work to do on this roster but he's taking the patient approach, and my guess is he will allow them to make a run for it if they are a legitimate playoff contender in mid-February. Even if they're not, Guerin would be looking at trades involving players under contract beyond this season, which makes them more of what GMs call "hockey deals." Those are harder to make closer to the deadline, when contending teams typically want to add without subtracting from their roster. The only Wild player who can become an unrestricted free agent after this season is captain Mikko Koivu and I'd be shocked if Guerin tried to trade. Forward Eric Staal, defenseman Jonas Brodin and goalie Devan Dubnyk each is signed through next season before he can be a free agent. All of that is why it's entirely possible Guerin takes the season to assess the Wild, which would be fair considering he wasn't hired until Aug. 22 and hasn't had a full offseason yet to put his fingerprints on the roster.

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