The Lightning Cannot Relive the Past

“It’s 15-16, not 14-15” said Tampa Bay Lightning coach, Jon Cooper when explaining the reasoning behind breaking up the most productive line in the NHL last season, The Triplets Line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov.  

Cooper is not one to have his team rest on their laurels as he continues to shuffle his lines to find the offensive spark the team needs. Last season, the Lightning was the highest scoring team in the entire NHL. Most goals with 259 and highest goals per game averaging 3.16 goals a game.

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Their defense last season gave up 2.51 goals per game. Comparing these specific numbers thus far this season and you can understand Cooper’s comment about that was then and this is now. After their first 14 games, the Lightning are averaging 2.43 goals per game. Not quite a whole goal less a game but close enough that Cooper felt the need to take action. Ironically, the team is giving up 2.50 goals per game.

So, in essence, the team has improved by the tiniest of margins in goals given up per game but their offensive output is well, offensive in comparing the averages of last season to this season.

Just looking at these numbers and one realizes it is not the goalies or the defense. They are basically doing the same job they did last season which by all accounts was highly successful. No, the issue for the Lightning this year is scoring. Taking that into account and Cooper’s strategy to mix up the lines is right on point.

Strategic Thinking

The news of the line breakup has been met with concern with the team’s fans. Some are wondering just what is wrong with the team while others see Cooper’s line changes as the beginning of the end. Before anyone actually jumps into Tampa Bay, let’s all relax. The season is only 14 games old for the Lightning.

That is far too soon for even bandwagon fans to jump off. In the little over two years since Cooper has been behind the Lightning bench, we have learned some things about him and his out of the box thinking.

This is the same guy who thumbed his nose at conventional wisdom in the playoffs last spring by using seven defensemen as opposed to the standard six used by 99.9% of NHL coaches in about 99.9% of the NHL playoff games…..EVER!

Cooper knows his players well and understands the nuances of such things as line chemistry perhaps a bit better than his NHL coaching peers as he has coached many of his players when they were in both Norfolk and Syracuse before being tabbed as the Lightning coach. The line mixing isn’t so much an act of desperation as it is one of proactive management.

When Cooper addressed the media announcing the Triplets Line breakup, he boldly, almost defiantly stated to all that in case you hadn’t noticed, this is a new year. It isn’t as if the Lightning can throw out on the ice the production of this line from last season and have it count for this year.

I’d wager that Cooper knows just how rare it is for any team to reach the Stanley Cup Finals in consecutive seasons. It is almost unheard of for a team to lose in the Finals and come back the next season to win the Cup. In the last 30 years, only the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins won the Cup the year after losing in the Finals to Detroit.

To say that the odds, not to mention history, is stacked against the boys in blue from Tampa is an understatement. Then to have the season start and your offense is in neutral. Couple that with some minor but key injuries to Jonathan Drouin, Brian Boyle and Cedric Paquette and Cooper’s changes make a whole lot of sense.

Clearly, Cooper wants to give his boys every opportunity for another deep playoff run. Getting healthy will be key but all 30 NHL teams have to deal with injuries. The return of backup goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy from emergency surgery at the beginning of September will only help provide Ben Bishop with the requisite rest he needs throughout the season.

Through 14 games, Bishop has already started 12 of those games and obviously could not keep up that pace. For the remainder of the season, provided both remain injury free, Bishop and Vasy should have close to a 50-50 split which accomplishes two things: 1) gives Bishop the rest he needs and 2) gives Vasilevskiy the time on the ice that he needs to continue sharpening his game.

Now Ondrej Palat is on the number one line with Ryan Callahan and Steven Stamkos. Alex Killorn takes Palat’s place on the second line and Cooper can mix and match the remaining forwards with Boyle and 3rd line center, Valtteri Filppula.

Mix and match until you find that spark, that thing that ignites the offensive performance of this team. They didn’t forget all of a sudden how to score goals. They realize that they have a bullseye on the back of their sweaters. . All other teams are using the Lightning as a measuring stick as to how well they are playing this season.

Like Cooper said, it is 2015-16 now. The Lightning are not a playoff team………yet. Doesn’t matter that they were two wins shy of hoisting the Cup last June. That might as well have been 40 years ago. Nothing that happened in 2014-15 means squat today.

Sure, the success of last year provided a point of reference for the players that they could hold their own against just about any other team in the NHL. But that is all they carry forward from the past. The knowledge that they could have success in this league. What Cooper is trying to tell them, to tell the fans and the city of Tampa is that none of that matters, what matters is what happens on the ice tonight and for the rest of the remaining 68 regular season games.