The NHL is close to the halfway point of the 2016-17 season. As the world prepares to ring in 2017, the Tampa Bay Lightning will be three games shy of completing the first half of this season. Despite consecutive deep playoff runs including back to back Eastern Conference Finals appearances, this team is on the outside looking in for a playoff spot.
For a team that was one of the early favorites for a deep playoff run they should play better. Their play however, in the first half of the season have led to more questions than answers. Over the course of the first three months, let’s take a look at how the team grades out.
If there has been a bright spot on what has been basically an average season so far, it has been the play of the forwards. Alex Killorn and Steven Stamkos came out of the gates smoking hot at the start of the campaign. Nikita Kucherov took over when Stamkos went down with a torn meniscus. Kucherov was soon at the top of the league scoring leaders before succumbing to his own injury.
When Braydon Point made the team out of training camp, it came as a surprise to most in these parts but his consistent play has been an ongoing highlight this year. As other players like Ondrej Palat and Ryan Callahan went down, call-ups from the Syracuse Crunch like Joel Vermin and Tanner Richard have jumped from the AHL to the NHL effortlessly and have made contributions.
Because of the injuries, a new line of Brian Boyle, Valtteri Filppula, and Jonathan Drouin have been on fire since lined up a few games ago. This new BFD line is leading the team offensively in this time and could keep the Lightning in the playoff hunt.
Jo Dro Finding His Game
Drouin deserves special mention. Everyone is familiar with the story of Drouin being sent to Syracuse in the AHL and subsequently refusing to play for the Crunch. Leading to the suspension handed down by Steve Yzerman.
Both men deserve kudos for how they handled a delicate situation. Yzerman could have easily rid the Lightning of Drouin with a trade. Drouin could have held out until such a deal was consummated. Cooler heads prevailed and the kid is playing as well as he has since becoming an NHL player.
Overall, the forwards have played well despite the inordinate number of injured players. Playing on different lines seemingly every game for a lot of the players. Yet, somehow at times the players showed some signs of brilliance.
Defense That Offends
Without question, the defense of the Lightning so far this season has been the Achilles heel. While the injury bug the team has battled through has affected the forwards more than the defensemen, Anton Stralman has missed nine of the team’s 35 games thus far.
Besides Stralman, there has not been any significant time lost due to injury among Tampa’s D-men. Victor Hedman, Andrej Sustr and Braydon Coburn have played in every game the team has played. Jason Garrison has missed only two games. So, unlike the forwards, the injury bugaboo does not hold water for the lack of performance from the defense.
It may not seem that compelling when you compare the goals against this season versus last season. In the 2015-16 season, the Lightning gave up 2.41 goals per game. Through their first 35 games this season, the team is giving up a whopping 2.74 goals per game.
Again, it may not seem like a huge difference but the .33 additional goals per game over the course of an 82 game season has the team on a pace of giving up 27 more goals this year than last. How many games would those extra goals this year translate to a loss instead of a win?
Peeling the layers of the defense a little more and you will see that last year when the defense was more stingy, the offense was scoring 2.71 goals a game. There are some wins in that 0.30 goal differential. This year, they are actually scoring 2.80 goals a game but because of the sieve their defense has become, the scoring is barely keeping their heads above water.
An argument can be made that entering this season, the goalie tandem for the Lightning of Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy was the best in the entire league. Bishop has been at the top of his profession over the last three years since he became the number one goalie for the team.
As his understudy and because of Bishop’s tendency to miss games due to injury, Vasilevskiy has seen meaningful action over the last couple of years. Think Eastern Conference Finals last season. While the Lightning lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins then, Vasilevskiy was the only goalie who faced the Pens in the postseason and took them to seven games.
Who Should Be Number One?
In reviewing the defense above, the goalies have to accept some responsibility for the increase in goals against. Looking at the individual stats, Bishop was beginning to play like his old self before getting hurt last week but he started the season looking lost. He still has a GAA of 2.79 and a save percentage of .907 which are very un-Bishop like numbers.
Vasilevskiy has outplayed Bishop through the season so far and has a GAA of 2.53 and a save percentage of .918. The fact is that the inability of the defense to consistently work the puck out of their zone and coughing up turnovers in front of their netminders are the main factors to the less than stellar goalie production this season.
Perhaps, it is time to make Vasilevskiy the number one over Bishop. Most Lightning fans have come to terms with the notion that Bishop will likely be gone between now and the start of next season. He is currently injured and isn’t expected back for another three weeks at the minimum. In any case, goalie play has to improve for the Lightning to play themselves back into a playoff spot.
The Lightning have had their share (and perhaps some other team’s share) of injuries. Missed games due to injury are a fact of life in the NHL. All teams, without exception deal with this reality. You might be hard-pressed to think of a team that has lost their captain who was their number one scorer. Then they lost their number two scorer, followed by two of their alternate captains. To put the icing on the cake, they then lose their number one goalie.
Coach Jon Cooper and his staff have done well basically coaching half an AHL team lately. They have been mad scientists trying to put new lines together faster than their players were getting hurt. They have utilized numerous call-ups from the Syracuse Crunch. The team is number three in the league at the power play. Thank you, Todd Richards.
Unfortunately, their penalty kill is 24th in the NHL. The old coaching adage of being what your record is comes to mind when reviewing the Lightning. They have played average. Giving up as many goals as they score. They lose about as many games as they win. Their special teams are both very good on the power play but very bad on the kill.
Nobody questions the talent on this team. Still, the team finds itself out of a playoff spot. Yes, there is time to rectify that but in the blink of an eye half of the season is over and if they are not careful, the Lightning could have an earlier than expected end to this season.