In early September 2013, Cam Charron from The Leafs Nation (and other locations in the hockey blogosphere) asked me to prepare a preview of the Tampa Bay Lightning for his site, which was seeking out guest posts from the other bloggers in the newly formed "Flortheast Division".
Using Clare's recent piece here as inspiration, let's take a look at how I thought the Bolts would fare heading into this year:
A lot of people look at the Tampa Bay Lightning this year, and they see only more of the same. This team didn't making any significant offseason personnel moves aside from buying out their captain Vincent Lecavalier and ostensibly replacing him with former Detroit Red Wing forward Valtteri Filppula, and we're talking about a team that has finished near the bottom of the league the past two seasons in the standings, in most major possession metrics, and in most defensive measures as well. With Tampa Bay moving to the "Flortheast" division, they now face more playoff-bound juggernauts in their own division and have considerably more travel to meet their nearest division opponent outside the Florida Panthers -- now the Detroit Red Wings, a scant 995 miles away.
So, at first glance, the outlook is quite grim.
What's being overlooked, however, are the changes this franchise did make. While they aren't the traditional "blow it up" moves you might expect from a team that has performed so poorly recently, there have been significant behind-the-scenes changes that suggest the Lightning might be better in 2013-2014 than they've been in the recent past. The most important of these changes is the complete overhaul of the coaching staff. Jon Cooper, the new head coach, got a mini-audition at the end of last season but he's now had a full offseason to implement his systems and evaluate and pick his players. Rick Bowness was brought in from the Vancouver Canucks to fix the defense, and George Gwozdecky was hired after being let go by the University of Denver to handle the forwards and the power play (one area that doesn't need too much tweaking). Cooper wants to play a mix of "70s Flyers and 80s Oilers" hockey, so expect the Bolts to play more physically than they did under Boucher but also a bit more of a simplified puck possession game. Boucher required that players submit to a tedious process with specific instructions for specific situations, and he implemented complicated breakout patterns that, if not executed properly, resulted in crippling turnovers. Cooper and Bowness have instituted a renewed focus on defense, own-zone play, and zone exits. If their tactical changes work, the Lightning should improve in the areas they've struggled most -- puck possession, and, as a result, goals against.
The Lightning, even in the past few seasons, have had no issues with turning puck possession into scoring chances and goals. They have truly elite scorers and playmakers, so the goal is to prevent more goals against and find a way to retrieve (and hold on to) more pucks and avoid costly mistakes near their own blueline. There are still a lot of questions -- how will the young goaltending tandem shake out? Which rookies will make the opening night lineup, and how will that play out? Can Radko Gudas be a top-4 defenseman? Will Eric Brewer and Matt Carle have bounce-back years? But ultimately, whether or not the system changes have a major effect will decide where this team finishes.
There's no way anyone could have predicted just how successful head coach Jon Cooper would be in his first full year behind the bench in the NHL. That "renewed focus on defesne, own-zone play, and zone exits?" Yeah, it worked. And it did help puck possession. Like, a lot:
Tampa Bay increased their CorsiClose by 6.3 percentage points over last year. The biggest year to year improvement in the #fancystats era.— Robert P. (@RobertJFTC) April 15, 2014
You simply cannot overstate the effect that Cooper and his new coaching staff (Rick Bowness, George Gwozdecky) have had on the success of the team this year. Even your most optimistic predictions from this time of year would have the Lightning barely making the playoffs, if at all, and certainly not reaching the century mark in the standings and yanking home ice out from underneath the Montreal Canadiens.
They dealt with the travel, and their new division opponents, going 19-8-3 against the Atlantic and dominating new division foe, the Detroit Red Wings.
Valterri Filppula proved to be more than an adequate replacement for Lecavalier. Here's my prediction on him, too:
If forced to make a projection, my inclination would be to guess that a reasonable expectation for Filppula in 2013 with Tampa Bay would be somewhere in between the highs of 2012 and the lows of 2013 (something like 15 goals and 40-45 assists for 55-60 points) which would spell an adequate but unspectacular return on the 5-year, 25 million dollar investment the club has made.
The point production was almost spot on, which was easy to spot given how Filppula's PDO (on-ice shooting percentage + save percentage, which regresses heavily to 1000) cratered down to a career low 979 in his final season with Detroit. Filppula ended up with 25 goals and 33 assists for 58 points in 75 games played, and might have cracked the 60 point plateau if not for those seven games missed due to minor injuries.
The thing I didn't see coming was how Filppula would fit the Lightning like a glove, anchoring a monster puck possession 2nd line with a revolving door of linemates while playing some very tough minutes against good opposition lines. He's balanced out both special teams units, and generally speaking been more than worth the 5 year, 25 million dollar investment Steve Yzerman made over some other high profile free agents from 9 months ago like Tyler Bozak (a 3rd liner miscast as a top line player), Mike Ribeiro (at times a healthy scratch for the Phoenix Coyotes), or Stephen Weiss (Filppula's replacement in Detroit, who has been a total bust during the short amount of time he's actually been healthy.)
Overall, it seems I was far too cautiously optimistic, and the team has outperformed nearly every expectation I had for them.
It's been a fun year to be a Lightning fan.