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The Tampa Bay Lightning have a special teams problem

The Tampa Bay Lightning are currently in 1st place in the standings in the entire NHL -- but their success so far has been built on outstanding 5v5 play. The Bolts do have a major flaw: their special teams.

Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Jon Cooper has done a fantastic job of coaching the Tampa Bay Lightning over the past two seasons and change.

He's overseen a drastic turnaround for a club that was near the bottom of the standings and among the league's worst puck possession teams at the end of Guy Boucher's tenure and, with the help of some shrewd additions from GM Steve Yzerman, quickly turned the Lightning into a legitimate threat to win the Eastern Conference and contend for the Stanley Cup as soon as this season.

This year, and really throughout Cooper's run as head coach so far, the foundation of Tampa Bay's success has been outstanding control of the puck at even strength. In terms of Score-Adjusted Corsi -- a strong metric predictive of future success -- the Lightning rank 3rd overall in the NHL, behind the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild.

The other important factor has been a healthy dose of shooting luck. While the Lightning do have elite shooting talent on the roster (Steven Stamkos being the most obvious), they're also converting on an inordinately high amount of shots. Even the most talented offensive teams in recent history don't score as much as Tampa has through 27 games so far in 2014-15.

Consider this: right now, the Bolts are shooting, collectively, 9.94% at 5v5. At first glance you might not think that to be too high. You'd be wrong. That's first in the NHL and .30% better than 2nd place, the similarly fortunate Calgary Flames. Last year Anaheim led the NHL in 5v5 SH% at 9.83%, and they were a full percentage point better than the 2nd place (and rush-heavy) Colorado Avalanche. No other team was over 9%. It's possible for a team to keep this up over a full 82-game season, but to be frank, it's not something the Lightning should be counting on.

Fortunately, the strong possession game and ability to generate more shots and chances their opposition should cover for any future shooting regression the Lightning experience. And again, that's why Cooper has done such a tremendous job behind the bench. The Lightning are built on the philosophy that they want to get the puck, keep the puck, and score the puck. Rinse and repeat. It's working so far -- at evens.

The power play can't get in the zone and doesn't shoot when they do

On the surface, the Tampa Bay Lightning power play looks like it's really, really good. They, like most other teams after Adam Oates' success with the Washington Capitals, are running a 1-3-1 as one of their primary set-ups, with Victor Hedman distributing from the center point, Steven Stamkos on the left dot, Valtteri Filppula on the right halfwall, and Brett Connolly and Ryan Callahan exchanging in front of the net and down low. It's a lot of high-end talent, to be sure, and through the first 27 games the Bolts have converted on 23.2% of their power plays (5th in the NHL!), as the broadcasters around the league are always happy to point out.

Unfortunately, so much of that 'overall' power play success is built on more shooting luck. The Lightning are not breaking into the zone cleanly with regularity, or moving the puck well to create lots of shots and scoring chances. They're bumbling around in the neutral zone, occasionally getting set-up in the offensive zone, and living and dying on backdoor plays and Steven Stamkos' shot.

The Lightning are one of the worst teams in the NHL in terms of generating shot attempts at 5v4. 78.23 Corsi For/60 at 5v4 is 29th best in the league; only an anemic New Jersey Devils power play puts fewer pucks towards the net. The fact that Tampa has been able to keep their overall conversion rate high is due to their 14.95% shooting with the man advantage, 2nd in the NHL to only the Washington Capitals. Basically, Tampa doesn't shoot much, but the pucks go in a lot. So what's going on there? Might it just be a case of the Bolts settling for quality shots rather than firing anything and everything on net?

Probably not. Here's a chart that compares 5v4 Corsi For/60 (a metric that demonstrates zone time and shot generation) vs. 5v4 shooting percentage for each team in the NHL through December 4 (numbers pulled from Puckalytics):

PP Shooting Percentage vs. Shot generation

The correlation between the two? Virtually none. The R^2 value was 0.028, which is negligible enough to basically be written off entirely. Some teams generate a lot of zone time, shot attempts, shots and chances, and some don't. Some teams shoot at a very high rate, and some don't. These appear to be separate talents that aren't connected in any appreciable way, at least not based on the data collected.

This makes the teams near the top right of the chart -- Washington and Pittsburgh, to be specific -- the "best" power play teams in the league. They get the puck in, they move it around, put it on net, retrieve it, and shoot it some more. They also score. A lot.

The bottom right of the chart are teams that shoot a lot but have low shooting percentage. You might call these teams "unlucky". The curious power play of the San Jose Sharks, who shoot the puck more than anyone else in the league but for some reason struggle to convert on their shots and chances, is way off to the right. The Florida Panthers are uniquely inept at scoring at 5v4. And the top left of the chart -- those teams with low shot generation but high shooting percentage -- these are the "lucky" power plays. Tampa Bay, New Jersey, and Nashville are your poster boys.

Want to see what this looks like on the ice, instead of a chart? Here's what Tampa tries to do over, and over, and over again on their power play entries:

The dreaded drop pass. Anything as maligned as the drop pass usually isn't as bad as it seems, but after watching a dozen or so games worth of power plays, it's clear that either the drop pass doesn't work or the players aren't using it properly. The defenseman who picks up the dropped pass, at best, ends up dumping it in and the Bolts have to work to retrieve. At worst, it's a shorthanded break against. Here's another example of failed entry on the very same power play (vs. Buffalo!):

Again, drop pass, no clear lane to enter the zone with control, puck immediately comes out. This happens a lot. It is predictable and, seemingly, easy to defend -- the penalty killers stacked on the blue line can jam up the entry and bottle up the power play before it even has a chance to think about generating a shot attempt.

For a team with so much speed at both the forward and defense position, relying heavily on entries that involve stationary players in the neutral zone or intentionally stopping forward momentum seems asinine.

OK so what are they supposed to do about it?

Compare the above to this entry by Ondrej Palat:

Simple, but effective; use your speed through the neutral zone to back off the defense, make a pass to an open wing if you get challenged, and now you've established control in the offensive zone. The Lightning managed 3 shot attempts and 2 scoring chances in the 30 seconds left on the power play after this Palat entry.

Much of the analytics community's focus has shifted in recent years to include not just possession but also zone entries and exits, as play in the neutral zone has been shown to be just as important as play in the other zones. At 5v5, carrying the puck in as a first, best option is smart, and dumping the puck to initiate a line change or to get past a stout blue line defense is, generally speaking, the right thing to do. But on the power play, the Lightning have the distinct advantage of an extra skater. Forcing themselves into bad entry plays isn't helping their current problem with shot generation.

Another, more recent development, has been this wrinkle on power play entries used against the Ottawa Senators and the New York Rangers:

The 5-across looks like something out of a Mighty Ducks movie, but at least it's creative and different and it's using speed through the neutral zone. Whether or not it works as a long-term solution is up in the air but its use suggests the Tampa coaching staff is aware of the problem and willing to try things to fix it.

Once they do get in the zone, though, the problems don't necessarily end. Gus Katsaros pointed out one issue the Bolts have with the shots they do take on the power play:

Tampa Bay, on the other hand, are almost three times as likely to have a shot blocked, pulling down the overall shots-for per 60 rate to almost half the NHL average. Not only are they taking a little too long to get shots through to the net, they're struggling to get shots on goal.

But it's not just the shots-on-goal that lack; they're attempting shots at a league-low rate as well. The Lightning seem to be shot-averse in the worst way, even after gaining the zone. They need to trust their down-low guys to retrieve rebounds either for shots in close or to move the puck back to the point or the half-wall and set up again. So much of Tampa's set-up revolves around back-door plays and cross-crease passes; while these things are good things to look for, a lot of goals around the league are scored on the power play because the team was willing to take the calculated risk of a low-percentage shot that might create an odd bounce to the front of the net or the slot. So that idiot at Amalie Arena screaming "Shooooot!"? He's kinda right.

So what about the penalty kill?

Tampa Bay is 30th (read: dead last) in the NHL in Corsi Against/60 at 4v5, giving up 118.53 shot attempts/60 minutes. That's up from the 102.31/60 they gave up in 2013-14, when they were 7th worst in the NHL by that metric. Even as the penalty kill personnel has shifted quite a bit (Nate Thompson, B.J. Crombeen, Eric Brewer gone; Vlad Namestnikov, Cedric Paquette, Brian Boyle, Jason Garrison and Anton Stralman added) the penalty kill has actually gotten demonstrably worse.

This season Tampa gives up the most shot attempts against in the NHL while shorthanded. The best penalty kill in the league by that metric is Vancouver; they're giving up more than 43 fewer shot attempts against per 60 minutes of shorthanded time than the Lightning.

The Lightning's penalty kill strategy starts and ends with Ben Bishop; the Bolts four-man diamond almost always collapses to the center of the scoring chance area, as seen here:

That's a 5v4 power play for the New York Rangers that looks like a 5v3 because Tampa makes almost no effort to ever challenge the puck carrier. They sell out to protect the slot, but leave both faceoff dots and sometimes even the netfront wide open for opposing power plays to set up shots and chances:

Protecting the slot is all well and good, but if the Bolts always collapse and always defend, they become fairly easy to beat, and the onus for killing the penalty then falls on Ben Bishop's shoulders, where it definitely does not belong. His skaters can help him out not just by collapsing in front of him but by selectively pressuring the puck carrier into a bad pass or a long, unscreened shot that Bishop can cover for a defensive zone draw.

So what does this all mean?

All of this means very little if the end goal is playoff success; after all, in the playoffs, 5v5 play is the most important factor to consider. Even during the regular season, so much of the game is played at even strength that strong play at that game state is more vital to winning than a dynamic power play or especially stingy penalty kill. Still, to take that next step, and really start dominating, the Lightning will have to find a way to do better on both special teams units.

They cannot continue to put so much pressure on Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop to keep them alive on both special teams units. Expecting the Lightning to continue converting on a high percentage of shots, or for Ben Bishop to truly be the team's best (only?) penalty killer, is foolhardy. There's too much talent on this team for them to be bogged down by easily rectifiable tactics. Eventually, the Lightning might hit a bit of a rut at 5v5; if they don't have, at the very least, a passable power play and penalty kill, that could be the difference between getting home ice in the playoffs or having to go on the road to somewhere like Montreal or Boston.