Lightning Success & Top Forwards’ Performance

The Tampa Bay Lightning have three days off between games this week for the first time in 2016-17. For a team currently battling numerous injuries, it couldn’t come at a better time.

Head coach Jon Cooper seems to agree, as he’s given his team Monday and Tuesday off before resuming practice on Wednesday.

Battling Injuries

Jonathan Drouin
Jonathan Drouin (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

The Lightning have battled through a string of injuries in the early part of this season, including playing Sunday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes — a 1-0 overtime loss — without Jonathan Drouin and Jason Garrison. Drouin missed his eighth game since Nov. 1, while Garrison missed his second straight game after he took a slap shot to the inner part of his knee against the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 1.

There have also been concerns about inconsistent play and numerous costly turnovers, particularly in the past six games, which have made this three-day break all the more meaningful for the Lightning.

Despite these issues, the Lightning enter Thursday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks with a 14-11-2 record — nearly identical to the results they had during the first 27 games of 2015-16, when they went 13-11-3.

Initial Offensive Productivity of ‘Top 5 Forwards’

Ondrej Palat (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)
Ondrej Palat (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

While inconsistency and turnovers have been the team’s main issues, another important part of the team’s performance has been impacted by the play of the team’s top five offensive threats in Stamkos’ absence: Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.

After Stamkos went down with a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee against the Detroit Red Wings on Nov. 15, the Lightning proceeded to go 3-1 in their first four games in his absence. Each of those forwards figured into the scoring, as the Lightning tallied 12 goals and yielded just nine.

From there, however, things took a bit of a turn, as the Lightning dropped four straight games for the first time this season.

The team ended their losing streak with a 2-1 shootout win over the Washington Capitals on Dec. 3, behind a 34-save performance from goaltender Ben Bishop. Playing the next day, however, the Lightning were unable to find the back of the net against the Carolina Hurricanes and lost 1-0 in overtime.

Recent Offensive Productivity of ‘Top 5 Forwards’

Alex Killorn Tampa Bay Lightning
Alex Killorn (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

During this six-game stretch, the Lightning were outscored 25 to 11 — including one shootout marker which came in the team’s victory over the Capitals. While Kucherov leads the Lightning with 13 goals, 16 assists and 29 points, if you take Stamkos’ 20 points in 17 games out of the equation, the team’s second leading scorer is Victor Hedman, with 19 points.

Despite Hedman’s emergence on the offensive side of the game the past three seasons, the Lightning cannot afford for him to be No. 2 scorer in the absence of Stamkos.

In the past six games, Kucherov has tallied five points, while Palat and Drouin each have three, Johnson has two and Killorn has been held scoreless. Of the five goals produced by these forwards, Kucherov has three, while Johnson and Palat have had one each.

Each of these forwards played an important role in the team’s run to the 2016 Eastern Conference Final when Stamkos was lost to injury at the end of the 2015-16 regular season and for all but one playoff game. Particularly Kucherov and Johnson, who combined for 18 goals and 36 points in 17 postseason contests.

In order for the Lightning to thrive, despite Stamkos’ absence through virtually the entire remaining regular season, each of these players will need to be productive offensively.

Getting Back to Playing Their Game

General manager Steve Yzerman built the Lightning to be a fast-paced, puck possession team that controls a game by using their speed and depth to their advantage.

Tyler Johnson
Tyler Johnson (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

For the Lightning and any team that plays this sort of style, it begins from the backend with defensemen who are able to feed forwards the puck as part of a smooth transition from their defensive zone and into the neutral zone. In the absence of Anton Stralman, the Lightning struggled with defensive zone breakouts and were often failing to connect on routine passes  — which directly impacts the speed by which the Lightning leave their own zone.

In short, when the Lightning are unable to break out of their own end smoothly, it throws everything out of sync on the offensive end of the puck, leading to less quality offensive opportunities. It’s a large part of how the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to limit Lightning shots and ultimately defeat them in seven games in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final.

Lighting the Fire

A defining quality of Cooper’s teams at all levels he’s coached have been their work ethic. It’s part of how you have seen a player like 20-year-old Brayden Point earn a roster spot out of camp and stick with the club more than a quarter into the regular season. It’s also something Cooper often praises about players like Johnson and Palat, even when they aren’t producing on the score sheet.

Jon Cooper
Jon Cooper (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

By giving the Lightning two days off during this three-day period, it’s a sign that Cooper and his staff believe that a little bit of rest may go a long way for the club — a team that’s been missing a jump in their step at times this season. While a couple of days off will not suddenly fix some of the injuries they are experiencing, it’s an opportunity to take the break they haven’t gotten since the regular season began on Oct. 13.

It will be important for the Lightning to come out of the gate strong against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday and carry that effort over against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, as the team needs to build momentum before a three-game road trip.

Ultimately, however, the team’s strength lies in its depth and the offensive production of their top five forwards will play a crucial role in the team’s trajectory through the regular season.