2013-14 Tampa Bay Lightning Season Preview part 3: strengths and weaknesses

Bruce Bennett

Having established just how low the Tampa Bay Lightning can go, what are some notable strengths and weaknesses for the club heading into the 2013-2014 regular season?

We've already established that the Lightning did not have a good year last year.

And, we've pointed out how little (much?) has changed from a season ago.

If you're looking for a reason to be optimistic about the Tampa Bay Lightning, well step right up. We've got that here for you. And if you're down in the dumps, convinced this team is in for another year of serious growing pains ... well, we've got something for you, too.

Strengths

Elite Scorers

One thing the Tampa Bay Lightning have enjoyed in the Steve Yzerman era has been the fruits of the failure of the previous regime -- the 1st overall draft pick in 2008, Steven Stamkos, is the game's best goal-scorer. Period. And it's not close. Since 2010, Stamkos leads the league in total 5v5 goals scored (81; next closest is Jonathan Toews with 59), and he only trails Alex Ovechkin by two power play goals in that period (32 to 34). Paired (or not paired) with one of the game's best pure playmakers in Martin St. Louis, one area the Lightning have not struggled with in recent seasons has been goal scoring.

The Lightning were 3rd in the NHL in goals per game last year with 3.06, behind only the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks, and there's no doubt about this team's ability to score in bunches. Bolstered by strong secondary scoring from players like Teddy Purcell (who since 2010 has scored at a higher clip at 5v5 than James Neal, Taylor Hall, Henrik Zetterberg, Eric Staal, and Alex Ovechkin, among others), the Lightning ice one of the most prolific offenses in the league.

(Forward) Depth

While the Lightning may seem a bit top-heavy in terms of scoring, that doesn't mean they don't have good depth in the lineup. Nate Thompson is one of the most underrated defensive specialists in the league, as noted in Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract (which is a terrific read, by the way). Ryan Malone is still a premier power forward in the NHL whose only drawback lately has been an inability to stay on the ice, which some would argue is any power forward's fate eventually.

There's a very good chance at least one very promising defense prospect gets left off the opening night roster, as there simply isn't room for both Mark Barberio and Andrej Sustr (though Sustr admittedly could use some more time in the AHL anyways).

Even better (or worse, depending on how you look at it) is the fact that there are more NHL-ready forward prospects than roster spots right now. The organization is so high on its own players making their way up the pipeline they felt comfortable letting Benoit Pouliot walk this offseason. There are maybe three roster spots available to a group of players jostling for them that includes the 3rd overall pick from this summer's draft Jonathan Drouin, the AHL MVP in Tyler Johnson, and a trio of impressive young forwards with varying skillsets in Brett Connolly, Richard Panik, and Ondrej Palat. The AHL Syracuse Crunch look to be very competitive again as the players that don't make the final cut for the big club are sent down to await a call-up as a result of an injury or other roster transaction.

Which leads me to...

Youth

This team is young. Like, really young. Outside elder statesmen like Sami Salo and the aforementioned Martin St. Louis (who may, in fact, be immortal), the team is constructed around a young core that is widely recognized as one of the best in the league. In more than one place, no less.

These players have been raised on Jon Cooper's tenacious system, one that he's had repeated success with and got them to buy in to. He calls it a combination of 70s Flyers and 80s Oilers hockey -- ideally, a perfect blend of finesse and skill backed up with a physical, relentless edge.

These players are young, fast, and eager to learn, and by all accounts Cooper has done a terrific job of tailoring his coaching to specific people and situations so as to get the most out of his entire roster.

Weaknesses

Goaltending

Perhaps more of a "question mark" than a legitimate weakness, but when you think of NHL teams with reliable netminding, the Lightning are one of the last teams that you go to. In fact, the only team that might be more of a goaltending laughingstock is Philadelphia. And you can see why -- Sergei Bobrovsky went from backup to Ilya Bryzgalov for the Flyers to Vezina-winner with the Columbus Blue Jackets, just as fast as Bryzgalov was forced out of the league altogether.

But before you point your finger and laugh at the Flyers, consider this -- while the Flyers have had 12 different goalies start a game for them since the 2004-2005 lockout, the Lightning have had an abysmal 20 different netminders take the ice during that same span.

Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop are, as of right now, both nothing more than unknown commodities, and while both have shown flashes of promise neither has established themselves as a proven, long-term NHL starter. Bishop appears to have an inside track at starting the season as option 1A, but as Clare Austin has noted, even his 9-game audition last year (which earned him an extension with the Lightning after being acquired from the Ottawa Senators for forward Cory Conacher at the trade deadline last year) was likely unduly affected by his Lightning debut, a 45-save shutout of the Carolina Hurricanes who were so snakebitten against the Bolts last year they made Mathieu Garon look like a legimitate starting goaltender.

The real question with the Lightning is absolutely goals against, where they have been dreadful over the past two seasons. (26th out of 30 last year during the lockout-shortened season, and dead last the year before that.) But is goaltending the disease, or just a symptom?

Defense

In my opinion, what's truly plagued the Lightning over the past few seasons, and what probably got Guy Boucher fired (in spite of reports to the contrary) was this team's repeated inability to play organized, consistent defense. More than any other factor I would point to team defense as the culprit for poor play the past few seasons, as a parade of barely-NHLers or veterans who haven't found a permanent NHL home post-Lightning have been paraded through an injury-riddled lineup. (Brendan Mikkelson, Brian Lee, Matt Gilroy, Brett Clark, Pavel Kubina, Randy Jones, Matt Smaby, Mike Lundin, Mike Commodore, and Bruno Gervais are just some of the defenseman the Lightning have tried since 2010, and it's not a particularly inspiring list.)

As many fans have bemoaned, Guy Boucher's structured system often required defenseman to make questionable decisions about their positioning, including chasing pucks into the corner and leaving the front of the net to a collapsing forward. It also was at least partly responsible for some serious issues with zone exits, as the Lightning have been routinely hemmed in at their own blueline due to poor breakout passes or crippling turnovers in the defensive third, creating long defensive zone shifts and leading to deflating goals against. Which leads me to my next point...

Puck Possession

...one result of such a pronounced inability to exit the defensive zone has been poor puck possession, a glaring weakness for the Lightning ever since Guy Boucher's first season as head coach, when the Lightning were actually quite good at limiting shots against and controlling the puck for long stretches.

It's unclear exactly what happened since that first season (and the resulting run to the Eastern Conference Finals), but the Lightning managed a 51.9% Corsi For (proportion of shot attempts) percentage in Boucher's rookie season, which was good for 8th in the NHL. The first season of the 1-3-1 saw the Lightning carrying play more often than not, and then, almost inexplicably, the wheels simply fell off. The Lightning's Corsi For % dropped to 47.3% in 2011-2012 (a ridiculously precipitous drop, down to 27th in the league) and it actually dropped even further in 2012-2013 to 47.2% (which was good for 25th in the league because somehow Toronto, Edmonton, Columbus and Buffalo were all worse).

For those of you unfamiliar with hockey analytics and looking for a primer, here's the best one I've read. Basically, puck possession is important for intuitive and logical reasons -- the team that has the puck more often will thus score more goals and win more games -- and also for more esoteric ones (because good possession metrics have been shown to correlate highly with winning).

But the bottom line is the Lightning have unequivocally been a terrible puck possession team the past two seasons, and if they are going to have a better year it is one area that absolutely must be addressed by head coach Jon Cooper and his staff.

Conclusion

There's a lot to like about this team. There's a young core with some incredible top-end talent bolstered by above-average secondary scorers, a bevy of young forwards on the verge of becoming permanent NHLers, the league's reigning Art Ross Trophy winner in likely captain Martin St. Louis, the league's best goal-scorer in Steven Stamkos, and one of the most underrated defensemen in the league in Victor Hedman. The Lightning have a dynamic, creative, and fast offense, and are almost certain to remain in the top 10 in the league in goal scoring despite buying Vincent Lecavalier out in the offseason.

But there's also serious cause for concern with new head coach Jon Cooper's squad, particularly along the blue line, between the pipes, and possibly most importantly with their puck possession game.

Can tactical and coaching changes (in lieu of personnel/roster overhaul) lead to a drastic change in this team's fate in 2013-2014? We'll find out soon enough.

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