Lightning Lines In Search of Right Chemistry to Start the Season

The Tampa Bay Lightning knew they would have a tough road trip to start the season. With the offseason losses of Ondřej Palát and Ryan McDonagh, head coach Jon Cooper has been busy shifting his lines trying to find the perfect combinations. Some of the newly-acquired players are already contributing to the team.

Although it’s very early, the Bolts are 1-2 for the first three games of the 2022-23 season. The team hasn’t been able to play with consistency as they have given up 11 goals and scored only eight. It’s worth mentioning though, that two of the teams they lost to made the playoffs last season.

Namestnikov Rejoins Team on Third Line

When the Lightning signed Vladislav Namestnikov as a free agent over the summer, he immediately filled a hole in the lineup. He was drafted by Tampa in the first round of the 2011 NHL Draft before being traded to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline in 2018. That season he was playing with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov on the top line and scored 44 points in 62 games. The Russian center can also fill in as a left or right winger and contribute to the power play.

Since his return to the Lightning, Namestnikov has made his presence known. He scored a hat trick in the last preseason game and two assists in the first three regular season games while playing on the newly-formed third line with Corey Perry and Ross Colton. Thus far, the trio has scored six points in three games.

Stamkos Leads Offense with Four Goals to Start Season

Cooper has total confidence in his captain, Stamkos. His ability to achieve success on any line makes him a valuable commodity and frees up his coaches to be creative with matchups. In their first game of the season against the New York Rangers, he was in a familiar role as a center on the first line with Kucherov and Brayden Point and scored a goal. Two days later, against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he was moved to the second line with Nick Paul and long-time teammate Alex Killorn and netted two goals. Last night (Oct. 15), he scored on the power play against the Pittsburgh Penguins. With his assist on Point’s goal, he also passed Vincent Lecavalier for the second-most assists in team history.

The “School Bus Line” retained Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Pat Maroon and added 24-year-old Cole Koepke, who is averaging about eight minutes per game on the fourth line. For the Penguins game, 22-year-old Gabriel Fortier replaced Koepke.

Pierre-Édouard Bellemare Tampa Bay Lightning
Pierre-Édouard Bellemare, Tampa Bay Lightning (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Point is proving that he has come back fully recovered from his lower-body injury suffered in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In three games, he has averaged 21 minutes per game and has one goal and one assist to start the season. However, it’s not the scoresheet that counts, it is the fact that his skating ability and speed are back to pre-injury level.

Defensive Lines Solidified

Victor Hedman now anchors the first defensive unit with Cal Foote. The 6-foot-5, 23-year-old is playing a great two-way game. He scored a goal against the Blue Jackets and has three hits and four blocks so far this season.

Related: Ian Cole’s Suspension Leaves Big Gap on Lightning Blue Line

Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev, who both signed eight-year contracts during the offseason, return as the second pairing and will look to pick up where they left off last season. However, with McDonagh and Jan Rutta missing from last year’s defensive lineup and Zach Bogosian on injured reserve (IR) for the immediate future, the Lightning needed to bring in additional defensemen. One of their new defenseman, Ian Cole, was under investigation by the NHL and did not play in the three road games. The other two new players, Haydn Fleury and Philippe Myers, are the third defensive pairing. Myers, who at 25 years old, has played five seasons in the league. So far this season, he is showing promise with seven hits and two blocks, but he is also giving up the puck at crucial times during games.

Lightning’s Special Teams

Over the last few seasons, the Lightning’s power play has been described as lethal. This season, Cooper is mainly keeping his top power-play unit of Point, Stamkos, Kucherov, and Hedman intact, with forwards Paul and Namestnikov supporting the effort.

As with all teams, the Lightning need to stay out of the penalty box to keep up with the high-scoring opponents that they will face in the Eastern Conference this season. The penalty-killing unit has given up three goals on 12 power plays so far.

Review of Early Lineups

Cooper has the luxury of moving Stamkos between the first and second lines, which keeps opponents guessing. In addition, the coach will see if Namestnikov and Kucherov can reignite their chemistry from 2018 when they played on the same line for most of the season.

Tampa Bay Lightning Nikita Kucherov
Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov are reunited (AP Photo/Paul Vernon, File)

Not every team in the NHL has the depth that the Lightning enjoy. Cooper is a master chef, mixing up his lines to make the perfect combinations. It’s early in the season, so he has time to tinker. I just hope it doesn’t take too long to figure it out.