Steve Yzerman was very clear – don’t expect sweeping change despite the defensive breakdowns that are crippling the Tampa Bay Lightning.
As reported by the Tampa Tribune, the Bolt’s General Manager said, “I never believe you do something just to do something.”
The sophomore GM has received praise for his ability to get deals done, but he’s not letting his current players off the hook.
“We’ve had some very good games and done a lot of good things, but as a team we have to improve our team defense,” Yzerman said. “We have higher expectations and some of our players are not playing at the level they were at last year.”
Yzerman isn’t the only one with higher expectations for the team. The Lightning are not performing as many hockey commentators expected. The Bolts are only one point out of a playoff spot, but the postseason bubble is a logjam in the Eastern Conference with five teams within three points of the eighth and final playoff berth.
“The Lightning of 2010-2011 earned what they got, so I wouldn’t say they ‘overachieved’.” Dave Mishkin, radio play-by-play announcer for the Tampa Bay Lightning
The apparent difference between last spring’s playoff juggernaut and this season’s inconsistent and defensively-challenged squad has led some commentators, most recently NBC’s Mike Halford, to claim that the Bolts simply overachieved last year.
Dave Mishkin, who does the Lightning’s radio play-by-play (and is a longtime hockey man), takes exception to such assessments. “I think the Lightning of 2010-2011 earned what they got, so I wouldn’t say they ‘overachieved’, ” Mishkin told THW.
“While the Lightning only lost a few players from last year’s club (Simon Gagne, Sean Bergenheim, Mike Lundin, Randy Jones), taking out a piece here and a piece there is significant, both in terms of depth and chemistry. The task for this year’s team is to have the new players, such as Ryan Shannon, Matt Gilroy, Bruno Gervais and rookie Brett Connolly, fill in those gaps.”
Most agree with Yzerman that it is the Bolts’ collective inability to consistently play solid defense that is at the root of the team’s struggles.
The Lightning are 22nd in the league with a 3.04 goals-against per game average, and are 17th with 30.2 shots-against per game.
But the Lightning finished last year with 2.85 goals against, good enough for – wait for it – 22nd in the league. It was during the playoffs when the Lightning buckled down defensively.
The Return of Mattias Ohlund
Those who’ve paid attention also know that injuries have torn gaping holes in the Tampa blue line this year.
“He plays against the first lines, he brings physicality, he’s smart, and top lines don’t like to play against him.” Guy Boucher on Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mattias Ohlund
Most importantly, Mattias Ohlund has yet to play a game for the Bolts. The Swedish defenseman had arthroscopic surgery performed on both knees on October 11, but has now returned to the ice to practice with the team and is expected to suit up for games shortly.
The 35-year-old will add a veteran presence to the dressing room that may help the Lightning achieve some consistency. More importantly, his on-ice contributions will be welcomed by the organization. “We know that on defense it’s been very tough for us since the beginning of the year, and on the road we have been exposed and one of the big reasons is that we have played without Ohlund,” said Guy Boucher, head coach of the Lightning. “He plays against the first lines, he brings physicality, he’s smart, and top lines don’t like to play against him.”
Of course it is also possible that Ohlund might best help his team by forming part of a trade. According to Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun, the Lightning would “deal veteran D Mattias Ohlund in a second, but nobody is willing to eat his $3.607-million cap hit for three more seasons.”
Yeah, But What About the Goaltending?
Even before the season started, many fans were concerned about the goaltending situation. And despite the ‘lightning-in-a-bottle’ playoff performance by Dwayne Roloson last spring, the 42-year-old netminder has often looked his age this season.
Newcomer Mathieu Garon has similarly been inconsistent, but few expected the journeyman goalie to carry the franchise.
Neither has a top-30 save percentage.
There has been building rumors about the Lightning looking into a goaltending solution, and as reported by Eric Erlendsson at the Tampa Tribune, both Cory Schneider of the Vancouver Canucks, and Jonathan Bernier of the Los Angeles Kings are desirable options.
“It is reasonable to believe both of those players will be moved and Tampa Bay will be in on the discussions,” said Erlendsson. “The Lightning heavily scouted the Kings late in the season a year ago, while a Vancouver scout was reported to be in Norfolk to watch the Lightning’s AHL affiliate Friday night.”
Yzerman has insisted that he won’t do something for the sake of doing something. Instead, he’s hoping for internal improvement – and he might be getting it.
As Mishkin told THW, “over the past three or four games, we’ve started to see the Lightning, in terms of flow of play, look more like the Lightning from a year ago.”
While they are currently on the outside looking in when it comes to the post-season, it’s very possible that the Lightning are regaining last year’s form.
Just don’t expect defensive miracles quite yet.