Compare defensive statistics of the Tampa Bay Lightning this year versus last and the difference is minimal. One might even say that it is barely detectable, but the fans watching see it all too clearly. Over the last few games, the deficiency as a team by the Lightning defensively is evident.
Too many fans in Lightning-land may think the team is a sieve defensively, but they are giving up 2.57 goals per game. In the NHL, that puts the Lightning smack dab in the middle of the pack. They are 15th in goals against per game out of 30 teams. It cannot be more average than that.
Most people would probably be surprised to know that last season, the Lightning actually gave up 2.41 goals per game. Boy, that slight uptick of 0.16 goals per game equates to a whole 13 more goals over the 82-game season than last year. A minimal difference. One might even say negligible. Yet, the current three-game losing streak presents the growing weakness in the team structure.
Anxious for Anton
Some will say that this shows how much the team misses Anton Stralman. For my mind, Stralman is one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL. Last season, Victor Hedman was tops among all Lightning blueliners in time on ice with a little over 23 minutes per game. Stralman was right behind with 22 minutes a game.
This season had the pair of the Lightning’s top defensive duo leading again in ice time, with Stralman holding steady at his 22 minutes a game pace from last year. Hedman upped his time a minute to average 24 minutes a game.
In the last week, Stralman’s continued absence (now at eight games) has led to an avalanche of goals against that has taken the compete level out of the Lightning earlier and earlier in games. After riding a four-game win streak while on the road and losing top scorer and captain Steven Stamkos, the Lightning have given up 4.67 goals per game in their last three, all losses.
The Lost Boys
The lost Stralman minutes over this current losing streak have been made up primarily with recent call-up Luke Witkowski. But he is only seeing about nine minutes a game. As expected, Hedman’s ice time has risen over a minute and a half, even notching almost 28 minutes a few games ago against Columbus.
Slater Koekkoek and Andrej Sustr have also increased their time on ice by over a minute. Jason Garrison and Nikita Nesterov are playing a few more minutes, but Braydon Coburn has seen his ice time diminish by almost two minutes.
While the Lightning are lauded at times about the depth of their team, it is the goalies and forwards that live up to that reputation. The defense is noticeably thin at times. The forwards have been able to pick up the slack in the lost Steven Stamkos minutes, but the same cannot be said about the D-men.
Without Stralman, this team isn’t locking down on defense. The proof is in the pudding – the three-game losing streak pudding with the film on top that looks nasty to the naked eye. The wait for Stralman’s return won’t be long. He has begun to practice this week and even reportedly skated without the dreaded red “no contact” sweater. It won’t be a moment too soon once he comes back healthy and ready to step in with Hedman on the top defensive pair.
So, while the last three games have exposed a defensive crack for the Lightning, the games did provide the rest of the league with one recipe for beating Tampa. Chip and chase and strong forechecking in Tampa’s zone work wonders with a Stralman-less defensive corps. Dropping a third forward into the high slot where Tampa seems to go with the puck when they struggle to get it out of their zone could lead to the turnover that gives opponents good scoring chances.
If Coburn has been slowed by the normal bumps and bruises it is understandable, but if his reduction in ice time is a result of lost confidence from coach Jon Cooper, then the thin depth comes under more strain.
Nesterov is clearly an offensive defenseman. His inadequacies in handling the puck in the defensive zone have become more and more glaring. It is a challenge at times to remember Nesterov just passed the 100-game mark in his NHL career. The kid has a lot to learn and fans need to be patient at times with his miscues. That said, Nesterov has to mitigate those defensive lapses.
Koekkoek, also better on the offensive than the defensive side of things, has improved his D-zone skills but hasn’t even hit the 30-NHL-game mark. The problem for him, like Nesterov, is learning the NHL game. This is where Sustr, with 218 NHL games under his belt, needs to step up.
Just How Deep is the Depth?
The depth of the Tampa organization has been on display for the last few years. In November of 2013, Stamkos broke his leg, which caused many naysayers to write off the Lightning. Two rookies by the name of Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat helped lead the team to their first playoff berth in three years.
Last season, Stamkos had to have surgery to remove a blood clot at the end of the regular season, and only played one playoff game. The depth of the team played long enough for Stammer to play in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.
The deep roster was also evident in that same ECF series with the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins when Ben Bishop went down in Game 1. Andrei Vasilevskiy helped his team to the brink of playing in the Stanley Cup Final.
It is time for the defensive corps to step it up. Show people that the depth of this organization includes your group. Your goalie tandem is among the best in the league and your forwards continue to provide offense even without Stamkos. Depth: hard to see it at times but shockingly noticeable when it isn’t there.
Born in Chicago, Illinois. Grew up playing and loving sports. Spent most of my formative years playing, debating, arguing and talking sports. for the last couple of years I have written about hockey. I am currently a Tampa Bay Lightning contributor for The Hockey Writers. I know that I may not always be right, but I am passionate about hockey and it is damn hard to hide that passion in my writing.