If you look at the Tampa Bay Lightning roster, the first thing you will notice is star power. As a team, the Lightning live and die by its top players, with All-Stars like Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy forming one of the more intimidating lineups in the NHL.
With this in mind, the Lightning haven’t found their early-season success based solely on the play of their stars. Sure, Kucherov, Stamkos and Brayden Point will make headlines with their scoring totals, but there are players up and down the lineup that silently contribute on a nightly basis. Without their efforts, Tampa Bay wouldn’t be off to a league-best 76 points through their first 49 games.
Since he first hit the ice for the Lightning back in March 2018, Anthony Cirelli has been a bit of a defensive revelation for the team. While he is a perfectly capable third-line scorer in his own right, having posted nine goals and 19 points throughout his rookie season, Cirelli truly shines with his defensive play.
See, close to 70 percent of Cirelli’s ice-time takes place in the Lightning’s defensive zone, oftentimes when the team is on the penalty kill. While this may be a difficult moment to take the ice for some players, he has excelled in this role by winning a team-high 299 faceoffs and scoring three shorthanded goals.
It’s easy to overlook how much Cirelli contributes to the Lightning each and every night because he isn’t a prolific scorer. But, he is a major part of Tampa Bay’s vastly-improved penalty kill and is the type of player Tampa Bay needs on its roster to compete in the postseason.
If you had asked Lightning fans what they thought of Braydon Coburn in Jan. 2018, the response would likely have been far from positive. Last season was a rough one for Coburn, who looked like he may have finally hit the proverbial wall as he struggled with bad decision-making while looking slow on the ice.
The 2018-19 season, however, has been a much stronger one for Coburn. While his play has been a little bit lackluster as of late, his start to the season was everything and more that you could hope for from the 33-year-old defenseman. When Hedman went down with an injury, he stepped up, increasing his ice-time to close to 18 minutes a night while racking up points along the way.
While he may be past his prime years, Coburn is showing that he still is ready to fight for a Stanley Cup. If he can flip the switch come playoff season, he will become a key part of the Lightning’s defensive unit that could finally propel the team to its ultimate goal.
After only posting nine points throughout an injury-filled 2017-18 season, Cedric Paquette came into 2018-19 knowing that it would be a make or break season in his career with the Lightning. With this in mind, Paquette started out guns blazing, making his presence known with his physical play and key goalscoring.
By the 49-game mark, Paquette has posted a team-high 162 hits, won 237 faceoffs (good for fourth on the team), all while being on-pace to break the 10-goal mark for the second time in his career.
With speculation swirling about Tampa Bay needing to add more grit for the playoffs, Paquette is showing that he is exactly what the Lightning need on their fourth line. If he can keep this strong play up, his pesky presence will become a contributing factor towards a deep playoff run.
Lightning Surrounded by Undervalued Talent
While it may be easy to overlook defensive forwards like Cirelli and Paquette or a third-pairing defender like Coburn, it is their contributions off the scoresheet that allows teammates like Kucherov to put up the point totals that have defined the Lightning’s season so far. Sure, these players may not get invited to the All-Star Game, but depth and defensive responsibility win playoff games, and right now, Tampa Bay has more of both than any time in recent memory.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.