NEW YORK NY - DECEMBER 23: Goalie Dan Ellis #33 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes a save sending the rebound out towards Brandon Prust #8 of the New York Rangers as Brandon Prust #26 of the Lightning helps defend in the second period of an NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden on December 23 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
Here's a radical idea. What if the Lightning's problem isn't goaltending? Hear me out first, before you decide that I'm completely nuts.
Much has been made of the Tampa Bay Lightning's goaltending situation. Statistically, sure, they're not very good. Their individual and combined stats are rather dismal, in fact. But there's more to a game than just statistics.
Hockey, as we all know, is a team game. And goaltending is hardly exempt from that. A goaltender if part of the team, after all, and works with their teammates on the ice just like anyone else. It's completely unfair to separate them from everyone else and point fingers at them, even if their stats may seem like they deserve it.
So because of that, I think that it's the defense that's having problems. Not the defensemen, mind you, but overall team defense. And a lot of that has to do with how the team plays within Boucher's system.
It's unlike other team systems, which separates out the forwards from the defensemen and the goalies, Boucher's system incorporates the forwards into the overall team defense. Just as in the offensive zone where the players set up in a 1-3-1 formation, they're supposed to set up the exact same way in the defensive zone. And they do. Sort of.
The problem that the Lightning have in the defensive zone is that they don't trust each other. Meaning, they're not comfortable with letting their teammates do their jobs so they try to help. And in trying to help, they skate away from where they're supposed to be and bunch up together, leaving gaps big enough for a Mack truck to drive through.
And what's their reaction to that when the opposing team decides to take advantage of all of that empty ice? Dropping down and diving in front of pucks to block shots. Which is all well and good - the Lightning are quite adept at it, in fact - but that also leaves players out of position. Not only that, but players sliding down on the ice block the view of the puck from the goaltenders. It also takes players out of the play, too. And we can't forget that it leaves players open to severe injury as well.
Now, I'm not a Dan Ellis or Mike Smith fan - though, I'm not against them, either. I think that they're both adequate goaltenders, actually. Not spectacular by any means, but they can get the job done...if they have a little bit of help.
I think that 80% of the goaltending issues can be solved if the forwards and the defensemen stick to their positions in the 1-3-1 formation in the defensive zone. They just need to play the game the way Boucher wants them to, and trust each other to do the same. Stop over-compensating for teammates, stop trying to be helpful, and instead just do your job and believe that everyone else will do theirs. I think that'll fix a lot of their concerns.
Just as the fans are a bit jumpy when the Lightning aren't playing well, I feel that players get that way, too. When they're confident and do their jobs, that's when they're the team everyone thinks they can be. The only problem is, that doesn't happen consistently. The lineup has changed often due to injuries, and players get nervous when things aren't going their way, so they fall back into old habits that just don't fit the current game plan.
Everyone on the ice has to play as a five-man unit. Instead, some of them are playing like the traditional three-man forward line with the 2-man defensive tandem. And that would work if everyone were doing that, since that's how most of the teams in the NHL operate, but they're not all doing that. That's why sometimes things seem a bit disorganized and confused on the ice - and usually when that happens, the other team scores goals.
Despite everyone buying into Boucher's system in the offensive zone, they've yet to buy into it when it comes to the defensive zone. Well, some have, and some haven't - and that's really the problem. And since they're a part of the team, the goaltenders have to buy into that system as well - but they tend to waver between doing that and not, too.
So, in reality, they have to work as a six-man unit on the ice, and not just five.
The bottom line is that the problem isn't necessarily talent, or lack thereof. The problem is trust - trusting their coach, trusting the system, trusting their teammates, trusting themselves. And until that issue is addressed, then they'll continue to play inconsistently.
Not that you can really blame them for having a lack of trust, after the past couple of seasons. Fans are having a tough time trusting the team and its players as well, which is why everyone is freaking out over the littlest problems that come up - and attacking the goaltending. But that's not just the goaltenders' fault. It's everyone's.