Will the Real Tampa Bay Lightning Stand Up?

One of the longest running game shows on American television was To Tell the Truth. In case you don’t remember the premise of the show, a group of four celebrities would question three random people. One of the three was the subject of the game because they either had an interesting job or story to tell. The purpose of the interrogation was to be the first celebrity to identify which one of the three contestants was real and which were the impostors.

Over the first three months of the 2015-16 NHL season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been like the contestants on that game show. After their postseason run all the way to Game 6 of the most recent Stanley Cup, Lightning fever took hold in Central Florida. The promise for the current season was sky high. One of those expectations was that the team we saw last April, May, and June was going to be a contender for the Stanley Cup for the next few years.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was not only on that bandwagon, there were moments when I felt like I was driving the bus. Since the season began,

I have had the pleasure of being a weekly guest on the Tampa Bay Lightning Radio Network’s Power Play Show hosted by Greg Linnelli. During this week’s recording of my segment for his show, Linnelli asked me a poignant question about the Tampa Bay Lightning team:

He asked, “Which is the real Tampa Bay Lightning team?”

The team that was two games shy of hoisting the Stanley Cup last June or the team that has been mired with up and down play this year. So consistent with their inconsistencies this season that the Lightning are flirting with being left out of playoff contention. I answered as honestly as I could when I said that I simply didn’t know.

Linnelli’s take is: “I think the Lightning are a playoff team. Now, whether or not they are a Stanley Cup Final team like last year is up for debate. I do think injuries have hindered this team tremendously. That being said, when the players have been healthy, for me, they just aren’t passing the eye test like they did last year. This has to be the hardest job right now for Steve Yzerman. Comparing last year’s team to this year’s team. You have to take the emotion out of the equation as you evaluate the Lightning moving forward. Bottom line, get into the playoffs. I don’t care if they are an 8th seed. The one consistent player for the Lightning has been Ben Bishop. He’s liable to win a series or two by himself”.

Which One Are You, Tampa Bay Lightning?

Here is why Linnelli hits the nail on the head. With the February 29th trade deadline approaching we will begin to see which teams are buyers and which are sellers. There have already been some noteworthy trades this week: Seth Jones to Columbus for Ryan Johansen comes to mind. In addition, former Lightning captain, Vinny Lecavalier was traded along with defenseman Luke Schenn from the Philadelphia Flyers to the Pacific Division leading, Los Angeles Kings.

Vinny Lecavalier [photo: Amy Irvin]
Vinny Lecavalier [photo: Amy Irvin]
Linnelli is spot on when he says that the hardest job now for Lightning General Manager, Steve Yzerman has to be to determine which is the real Lightning team. When initially faced with that question last summer, Yzerman decided not to tinker much with his squad. Only one change was made from last season’s roster when free agent forward Erik Condra was signed to replace the retired Brenden Morrow.

Face it, when a G.M. does the absolute bare minimum in personnel moves from one season to the next, the overwhelming message is that management believes in its team. The team is where management feels it needs to be. Entering the playoffs last spring, the Lightning were the youngest team in average age among the Cup contenders. With all this going for them, it appeared that a good five year run for the Cup, maybe even multiple Cups was on the horizon.

Fast forward to the current season. Sure the team looked like it hadn’t missed a step reeling off three straight wins to open the 2015-16 campaign. It appeared as if the dejection of coming so close to the Cup was spurring them on and would be the chip on their collective shoulders. It was not to be, at least not at the halfway point of the season. Since that 3-0 start, the Lightning have played less than .500 hockey since, currently holding a 19-17-4 record through their first 40 games.

The only part of their game this year that has not floundered for the Lightning is their goaltending. Ben Bishop is actually playing better than he did two seasons ago when he was a Vezina Trophy finalist. The announcement of an All-Star selection this week for Bishop is well deserved. You name any other aspect to their game and they have struggled. Scoring? Check. Power Play? Check. Penalty Kill? Check.

After a few games in which they struggled, the team would play a meaningful “statement” game that had most fans believing that the tide was about to turn. On November 19th, the Lightning hosted the New York Rangers. After their small three game winning streak to open the season, the Lightning were 5-10-2 prior to the Rangers game. It is rare that you would call a November game must-win but it was a game that Tampa had to win. They did by a score of 2-1. They went on to win their next two games for another three game winning streak. Will the real Lightning team, please stand up?

About a month after that Rangers game, the Lightning were on the road playing the Washington Capitals. Halfway through the second period the Lightning were leading 3-0; showing shades of the last playoff run. Then the wheels came off. Three power play goals by the Caps and a couple of goals by T.J. Oshie and Washington won by a score of 5 to 3. The 2014-15 version of the Lightning would not have lost that game. That was then, this is now.

After that demoralizing loss, the Lightning still worked to get back in the playoff race, came back to beat a team that was ahead of them in the Atlantic Division. Facing the Ottawa Senators, the Lightning beat them handily 5 to 2, to again have fans believe it was the spark they needed. It was not to be, as the very next game at home, against a struggling Vancouver Canucks team playing their sixth straight road game, Tampa scored once in ten power play opportunities and lost by a score of 2 to 1. The statement games began looking a whole lot like question marks.

Real or Fake

So, which is the real Lightning team? Most Bolt fans would like to believe that last year’s playoff run was no fluke. I’d echo what Linnelli said about the multiple injuries hurting the team’s mojo as well as saying that Bishop has been playing lights out. I concur with the assessment that the ball is in Yzerman’s court. He is the entire celebrity panel trying to figure out if his team is the real deal or the impostor.

(Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
(Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

So, will the real Lightning team stand up? Is it the team that averaged 2.91 goals per game last season or the team that is averaging 2.45 this year? Would it surprise anyone to know that this year’s team actually is averaging 27.9 shots on goal per game, slightly better than last season’s 27.3? Even using the advanced Fenwick stat, which counts all shot attempts, this year’s team is averaging three more shot attempts than last season.

Ultimately, it all falls to Yzerman. He, alone is the person who must determine which version of his team is the real one. Is it the team that captured the hearts and minds of the entire Tampa Bay area last season or the one that nowadays is leaving most fans crying in their beers?

Do they have the personnel, the coach and the sheer will to earn a spot in the NHL playoffs this year? Will they become buyers or sellers or stand pat as they did in the off-season? The cold hard fact is that they are currently 11th in the eight team fight for the postseason. Sure they are only two points from that eighth spot but they have to climb over three teams to get there.

With only a half season left, the time to ask the question is looming: Will the real Tampa Bay Lightning, please stand up?

Follow Dan Herrejon on Twitter @danherrejon

Follow Greg Linnelli on Twitter @greglinnelli