Introducing The Hockey Writers’ Countdown to Puck Drop series. From now until the puck drops on the 2019-20 NHL’s regular season on Oct. 2 when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Ottawa Senators, we’ll be producing content that’s connected to the number of days remaining on that particular day. Some posts may be associated with a player’s number, while others will be connected to a year or length of time. We’re really excited about this series as we take you through the remainder of summer in anticipation of the return of NHL hockey.
As a rookie in 2018-19, Mathieu Joseph fit nicely on the third and fourth lines for the Tampa Bay Lightning. In last year’s preseason, Joseph had four goals and four assists — more than any player on the Lightning — and earned a roster spot in which he scored 13 goals, 13 assists and 26 points while averaging 11:22 of ice time per game.
Joseph was a nice surprise last season, but now that he has nearly a full NHL season under his belt, the expectations are even higher. With a few prospects knocking at the door, specifically on Joseph’s, he will need to elevate his game in almost every way to stay with the Lightning.
Over the last few seasons, the Lightning have been fortunate to have some bright young stars come up through their system. Players like Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson come to mind, but just last year, the Bolts had Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak and Joseph join the squad.
The reason all of them have seen extended time with the big club is because they have separated themselves in some fashion. With other young prospects seemingly ready to take the next step to the NHL, Joseph will need to find something that makes him different from other young, speedy prospects.
As a relatively small forward, Joseph is one of the fastest players on the Lightning and has used that speed to his advantage. However, prospects like Carter Verhaeghe and Alex Barre-Boulet also have the speed factor. For Joseph to separate himself, he needs to score more consistently throughout the season and create more offensive opportunities. In the 41 games before the All-Star break, he had 12 goals and 5 assists for 17 points. After the break, though, he had just one goal and eight assists for nine points. He will be on the third line to start the season, but if he isn’t effective with his speed and scoring, the Lightning have other options they can turn to.
The 200-Foot Game
In general, Joseph has never had any issues scoring. He had 80 points in 54 games with the St. John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) in 2016-17, then had 53 points in 70 games with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League (AHL) in 2017-18. With the Crunch, he added seven points in as many playoff games. His role with the Lightning is different than it was with the Sea Dogs and Crunch, but no matter what, there’s always room to make yourself a better 200-foot player, something Joseph can do to further solidify his roster spot.
The Lightning have two of the top young two-way forwards in the NHL — Cirelli and Point — and if Joseph were able to take a step closer to their level, it might surprise some people just how much better the team would be. This isn’t to say Joseph is a bad two-way forward — he’s actually quite good — but there were times last season where defensive miscues led to prime opportunities for their opponents. He’s only 22 years old, so there is plenty of room to grow and develop those skills for Joseph, but with other prospects hot on his heels, it’s a must for the youngster.
Answering the Call
Nothing is set in stone in the NHL, and this includes a player’s health. Although it was short-lived, the Lightning played in the playoffs and missed a couple of weeks they could have spent recuperating. Joseph will need to stay healthy, but Tyler Johnson, who is above Joseph on the depth chart, has had a history of injuries. If he should get hurt or if Kucherov gets hurt and Johnson moves up, Joseph will need to live up to being a second-line right-winger.
Joseph showed flashes last season of offensive greatness last year and if the opportunity presents itself, Joseph should be ready for the task. He was a nice surprise in training camp last year, and he could be a nice surprise on the second line as well with more ice time and scoring opportunities. For now, though, Joseph can stick to his game while continuing to improve his 200-foot play and gaining experience to set himself up for a nice sophomore season.