The 2014-15 NHL season is slightly over one quarter complete. For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the season thus far has been a mixed bag. There have been both good and bad moments for the team. There have been games that were reminiscent of last season’s resiliency and there have been some games that have left the team, the fans and perhaps even some higher ups in the organization shaking their collective head.
Prior to the start of the season, I threw a caution to the fan base that detailed the difficulty of appearing in the Stanley Cup Final in consecutive seasons. Since the 2004 lockout, only two teams made back to back Stanley Cup Final appearances. Only one team in the last 30 years has won a Stanley Cup the year after losing in the Cup Final the season before: The 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins. Prior to that, you have to go back to the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers who won the Cup after losing the Cup the year before.
With 56 games remaining in this season, the Lightning have dug a moderate hole for themselves. Currently, they are 9th in the Eastern Conference which simply means that if the playoffs were to begin right now, Tampa would be on the outside looking in and wondering what went wrong. Let’s take a look at the good and bad of what has happened so far this year for the Lightning.
GOOD NEWS: Picking up where they left off from their long playoff run last spring, the Lightning came out strong, winning their first three games.
BAD NEWS: After the torrid start, the boys lost their next two and are hovering at .500 or in layman’s terms, mediocrity. At the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference, they are closer to the bottom than they are to the top in the East in total points.
GOOD NEWS: After a rookie season that some have called a disappointment, Jonathan Drouin was playing the best hockey of his brief NHL career out of the gate. Scoring one goal and adding five assists in the first six games of the season.
BAD NEWS: Drouin failed to register a single point in the last nine games he played before missing the last 11 games due to an undisclosed injury. He did play last night in Anaheim and scored a goal and had an assist for two points.
GOOD NEWS: Ben Bishop is playing slightly better than he did two seasons ago when he was a Vezina Trophy finalist. Top ten in save percentage and top five in goals against. As much as the team has struggled to get wins, hate to think where they would be without Bishop.
BAD NEWS: Since earning the number one spot in 2013-14, Bishop has not had the luxury of a backup that shows more consistency than a Spinal Tap drummer. Anders Lindback, Kristers Gudlevskis, Cedrick Desjardins, Evgeni Nabokov and Andrei Vasilevskiy have all been Bishop’s second banana in the last two seasons and a quarter. Just when it appeared that the team would have a solid Robin to Bishop’s Batman, Vasilevskiy had emergency surgery right before training camp to remove a blood clot. Since coming back from the surgery, Vasilevskiy appears to be gaining his form and short of spontaneous combustion, should be reliable behind Bishop the rest of the way.
GOOD NEWS: The team defense has stepped it up this year. Giving up an average of 2.24 goals per game is a noticeable improvement over last season’s 2.51 goals against per game. Speaking of defense, Victor Hedman who had a coming out of sorts during last season’s playoff run has really become an elite NHL defenseman. A guy who is six feet seven shouldn’t skate like he is a five foot seven sparkplug but Hedman does. When you realize he is this good and see that he is only 24 years old, it makes the entire Tampa Bay area giddy.
BAD NEWS: The offense has stunk up the joint. Going from a league leading 3.16 goals per game to 24th in the NHL this year at 2.32 goals per game is worrisome enough. When you see that the downward offensive trend while averaging only one single shot less per game this year than last season and the worry grows to concern.
GOOD NEWS: Due to injuries, several call ups from AHL affiliate, Syracuse Crunch have added energy and compete level to the team. Jonathan Marchessault, Joel Vermin, Nikita Nesterov, Luke Witkowski, Mike Blunden, Tye McGinn, Matt Taormina, and Slater Koekkoek have all played the bulk of their season in Syracuse but have vindicated themselves well with the big club in spot duty. Their play certainly eases any apprehension management has about the quality of the prospects of the organization.
BAD NEWS: The injuries resulting in multiple games for players like Drouin, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Cedric Paquette have magnified the inconsistency in the team’s offense. Drouin played last night in Anaheim and had two points as the team beat Anaheim so it would be wrong to downplay the impact of these injured forwards.
GOOD NEWS: The play of J.T. Brown has impressed many including coach Jon Cooper who has increased Brown’s playing time from the 10-11 minute mark to the 15-17 level. The additional ice time has Brown on a pace to triple his point production from last season.
BAD NEWS: The team only made one major personnel change from last year. Forward Erik Condra replaced the retired Brenden Morrow. Condra is on a pace to reduce his point production from last year by close to half. Totaling 23 points last year playing for Ottawa, Condra is on a pace to end the season with 12 points. The points he tallied for the Senators was done in 68 games. He is on pace to play 75 games so perhaps less Condra is more.
GOOD NEWS: Cooper is definitely the right coach for this team. Many of the players that form the nucleus of this team has played for Coop in the AHL or in Condra’s case, the USHL. He knows his personnel well. Cooper also keeps a steady calm about him. Not too high after a win and not too low after a loss.
BAD NEWS: At times, Cooper is an enigma. He will play an untested kid like Marchessault or Vermin in some pressure situations but his use of Drouin has raised more than a few eyebrows. Cooper has won championships on many levels but the NHL is the best league in the world and 29 other coaching staffs are working night and day to defend against you and your team. Since being named general manager, Steve Yzerman has hired two coaches. Cooper and Guy Boucher. Neither of which were conventional hires. Clearly, Yzerman thinks outside the box.
GOOD NEWS: Steven Stankos is still a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning and while Yzerman along with Don Meehan of Newport Sports who represents Stamkos, have all stated the right things about getting the contract done. Newport Sports also represents Corey Perry and in his final contract year two seasons ago the renegotiations lasted until March but both player and team are more than content. Whether Stamkos plays to warrant what could be one of the largest contracts in the game today or is auditioning for potential suitors as a free agent, Stamkos should continue to have a highly productive year.
BAD NEWS: The contract of Steven Stamkos is still not done. Could this possibly be his last year in Tampa? Is the lack of contract causing a distraction for Stamkos? For the team? I have felt all along that Stamkos will play his entire career in Tampa and I still believe that will be the end result. That said, the longer it goes on without an announcement, the greater the chance that it simply will not happen.
GOOD NEWS: There are still 56 games to be played. That is a lot of opportunities for points to make up ground.
BAD NEWS: There are only 56 games left to be played. The Lightning has to leap frog several teams to secure a playoff spot. There is very little room to waste any opportunities to secure points.
The Lightning have 27 points and figuring that it’ll take 100 points to earn a post-season spot, they have to play at about a .575 clip to secure the playoffs. There is too much talent on this team not to believe they will find a way to do this.