The Tampa Bay Lightning in their current form are not what they were last season. However, that does not mean that what turned out to be their fatal flaw from last season’s Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks is still a problem currently. That’s actually very far from reality.
A lot was made last May and June about how the Lightning were pretty much a one line team that also featured occasional contributions from star center and captain Steven Stamkos. That one line, of course, was the famed Triplets, featuring Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov. Those critiques, of course were very warranted. Scoring depth was not what got the Lightning to the point where they were one of the final two teams standing in the league last season.
Of the NHL’s top 12 points leaders from last year’s postseason, five of them played for the Lightning. The aforementioned four players were there, as was Alex Killorn, who enjoyed a strong run while spending almost the entirety of his ice time glued to Stamkos’s left wing. The Lightning’s top six was rounded out by Valtteri Filpulla, who posted 14 points in 26 games. That’s pretty much in line with what we’ve come to expect as a production pace for him.
Beyond that, Tampa Bay’s forward group got murky extremely fast from an offensive production standpoint. Brenden Morrow, Jonathan Drouin, Cedric Paquette, Brian Boyle, J.T. Brown, and Vladislav Namestnikov combined for a paltry 8 points in 115 playoff games. That’s just astonishing offensive futility for a team that made it as far as the Lightning did. To put that into perspective, the combined efforts of forwards 8-14 on Tampa Bay’s playoff depth chart were collectively playing at a 5.7 point per player pace over 82 games. John Scott and Zac Rinaldo combined for 10 points in 96 games last season, to give you an idea of what that means.
Flipping the Script
Fast forward to this season, and it could easily be argued that the resurgence of Tampa Bay’s depth forwards are what’s keeping them in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt in the season’s early stages. The Triplets have either been injured (Palat, Johnson) or struggling when healthy (Johnson, Kucherov), and have thus been unable to carry the team as they did last spring.
According to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Brown and Boyle, two of the regulars who contributed next to nothing for the Lightning in the playoff, now lead the team in 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes so far this year. Any guesses as to who the next three in the team’s top five are? They’re Paquette, Drouin, and Namestnikov. That’s right. The five holdovers from last year’s playoff run who made up a significant chunk of that horrendous production pace are now the very best offensive producers the Lightning have had to this point.
That’s a good thing as long as it lasts, but the Lightning are going to need their top players to be their best players pretty soon. Brown’s production appears to be somewhat sustainable, but the other four all have shooting percentages that suggest that regression could be coming in the not-too-distant future. Brown’s nine even-strength points are only surpassed by Stamkos’s 10, and obviously Stamkos has needed a lot more ice time to reach that mark (albeit tougher minutes against heavy competition).
As Brown, Boyle, and the like have enjoyed strong offensive seasons so far, the Lightning have enjoyed not having to lean so heavily on their top players. However, one can now see what happens when a team’s bottom six scorers are forced to shoulder so much of the burden, especially on a team that is as heavily reliant on its offense for success as Tampa Bay is. If Stamkos and the Triplets can find their groove and stay healthy, and the bottom six remains anywhere near as productive as they currently are, there probably isn’t a team out there who could beat Tampa Bay in a playoff series. Whether or not the Lightning can sync up their hot streaks at the right time is what remains to be seen.