The trade deadline is over. The battle is coming. The two best teams in the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, got better at the NHL trade deadline.
The Penguins added the best center on the market, Derick Brassard, which affords them the deepest group of pivots in the league. The Tampa Bay Lightning added the best defenseman who was genuinely on the market, Ryan McDonagh.
The Eastern Conference heavyweights are on a collision course for an Eastern Conference final rematch.
Of course, the Penguins will need to get past the red-hot Philadelphia Flyers in the Metropolitan Division and the Lightning will need to get around the Boston Bruins in the Atlantic Division, but the odds are good those things happen.
The Lightning are not without experience or pedigree. In 2015, the Lightning outplayed the Chicago Blackhawks but lost the Stanley Cup Final. In the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, the Penguins and Lightning engaged in a technical, high-speed slugfest. It was the best series that year, and one of the best of the salary-cap era. The series was decided by a one-goal game in Game 7, but the Lightning were without Steve Stamkos for the first six games.
After forgetting the regular season mattered last season, the Lightning are back, hungry and have the best record in the NHL. They are the highest-scoring team in the league (227 goals) and have the best goal differential (plus-57).
Enter the Penguins, now with Grade-A centers at every level. The Penguins already had talented wingers on every line and deep goaltending but now are scary good in the middle.
Erik Karlsson wasn’t genuinely available at the trade deadline. He could have been acquired for a king’s ransom, but Ottawa Senators GM Pierre Dorion was obviously testing the market in preparation for a June deal. Blockbusters don’t happen with only a few days preparation, and Karlsson wasn’t on the market for more than a week.
McDonagh was the best defenseman available, and he will solidify the Lightning blue line, by adding a high-end presence on the second pairing. He is an excellent all-around defenseman, who received Norris Trophy votes in each of the last four seasons.
McDonagh can hit, skate has good offensive instincts and can play a shutdown role. He was the New York Rangers top defenseman. This season, he had 26 points (2g, 24a) in 49 games with the Rangers. However, like the team, McDonagh has not been a puck-possession darling. His Corsi For number annually hovers around 46 percent.
Defensively, Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman are the Lightning’s top pairing. The 6-foot-6 Hedman annually receives Norris Trophy consideration. Hedman had five points (0g, 5a) and played 27 minutes — hard minutes against great players — per game in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final.
With McDonagh, Lightning coach Jon Cooper will have the option to create a pairing able to compete with a dynamic line, like the Penguins second line of Carl-Hagelin–Evgeni Malkin–Patric Hornqvist. The importance of that matchup cannot be overstated.
The Lightning also acquired J.T. Miller in the deal with New York. Miller has outstanding speed but has been inconsistent this season. Regardless of where Miller plays, wing or center, the Lightning bolstered their forwards and added more speed.
For a couple of months, the Penguins have been skating other teams out of the building by double shifting Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The dynamic duo created offensive pressure and chances from the third and fourth lines, in addition to their regular shifts. With Brassard, the Penguins lines could look like this:
Now, the Penguins have a quality center in the third spot who was the Senators second line center, and a first line center with the Rangers before that. Brassard gives the Penguins four legitimate scoring lines without double shifting the top centers.
Brassard is a gritty, fast center with good hands and solid defensive game.
He also elevates the Penguins well above the Lightning’s top three centers, Steve Stamkos, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson. And, by pushing Riley Sheahan to the fourth line, the Penguins have a significant advantage over every team, including Tampa Bay.
The Penguins and Lightning use speed, an aggressive forecheck and skill to overcome opponents. To use Mike Sullivan‘s vernacular, whoever plays on the right side of the puck will win.
The Lightning have a clear advantage on the blue line. The Lightning could well adopt the Chicago Blackhawks’ four-defenseman strategy in the playoffs without risk of overplaying Hedman or McDonagh. The Penguins will need to work harder to get chances against the Lightning, than the Penguins top defensemen Kris Letang and Olli Maatta will make it on the Lightning.
Goaltending will be a wash if Matt Murray can stay healthy. Andrei Vasilevskiy, who burst onto the scene in that 2016 Eastern Conference Final, is a more dynamic puck stopper than Murray. Vasilevskiy performed brilliantly in that series, but when the bright lights are on, Murray is usually at his best, as well.
However, the Penguins have a forward depth and talent advantage over the Lightning. The Lightning aren’t overly physical, so Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel will not be overmatched as have been in past playoff series. The Penguins forwards advantage extends four-deep through the lineup, and the Penguins have more scoring on more lines.
The hockey gods appear willing to grant a rematch, but it will be the Penguins biggest test yet.