When we last looked at this report, the Lightning were mediocre by almost every measure at 5v5. Despite that, they were still winning games largely due to some excellent special teams play. In the intervening two weeks, the numbers have definitely shifted and not in a way that makes me any more comfortable with the way the team is playing. In fact, as we hit the quarter mark of the season, I’m starting to wonder just how long the Lightning plan to wallow in the middle or even bottom third of the league.
5v5 Team Performance
As always, let’s dive into the 5v5 numbers to start. All numbers in this article are from corsica.hockey. The time frame is from November 1st to November 27th.
The first thing I see on this chart is that the Lightning are ranked 21st in expected-goals-for percentage but 11th in actual-goals-for percentage. That indicates that the Lightning are experiencing better results than would be expected based on their play, which suggests a run of good luck that could (and logically should) end.
If we look for a reason as to why the Lightning have a better share of the 5v5 goals than would be expected, shooting percentage seems to be the main driver. Despite being 20th in shots generated and 20th in expected goals, the Lightning are 7th in goals largely due to being 7th in shooting percentage.
For some teams, this would be a definite indicator of unsustainable play. But the Lightning are traditionally a high shooting percentage team so this isn’t necessarily an unexpected number. The injury to Steven Stamkos is a complicating factor as he is normally one of the main reasons Tampa shoots such a high percentage. And without him, I would expect that number to drop. Being a bottom third team in shot generation and relying on shooting talent alone to drive your goal scoring is not a great recipe for sustained success. Especially when your best shooter is expected to miss the next four months.
Special Teams Performance
Early in the season, special teams was one of the main reasons for the Lightning’s success. And while the power play is still a strength, the penalty kill has dropped a bit.
The penalty kill has dropped into the middle of the league on a consistent downward trend over the last month. They’re giving up more shots, which leads to more expected goals and more actual goals. The goaltenders are doing their job by still being one of the top ten in the league but the skaters need to do a better job of limiting shots.
Early in the season, the Lightning penalty kill was aggressive in the neutral zone and frequently skated the puck out of the zone after gaining possession. Stamkos and Ondrej Palat in particular developed a knack for skating into the offensive zone, maintaining possession, and forechecking aggressively to kill of the penalty. Lately, the team has been more content to sit in structure in the defensive zone and chase missed shots, which naturally leads to more shots against.
The results on the power play are still strong. The Lightning are still 6th in the league in generating shots, 2nd in goals per 60 minutes and 4th in shooting percentage. All of that is great. But at the risk of getting a bit Chicken Little-y, I do want to point out the expected goals number. Despite generating the same amount of shots, the Lighting have fallen out of the top ten in expected goals. That points to a drop in their generation of dangerous chances.
As I’ve stated on Twitter, the power play over the last couple of weeks has started to look stagnant to me with less movement and less options for dangerous passes, which results in less dangerous shots. This isn’t a major issue yet but this is a great example of how an underlying number can highlight a potential issue early so that it can be corrected before it manifests significantly in the results.
Individual Forward Performance
If the team is playing in a mediocre way overall, one would expect to see the same from the players on an individual level. And the forwards certainly don’t do anything to defy that expectation.
Last time we looked at this report, we said that the forwards were basically Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and a bunch of dudes playing like average NHL forwards. And with the injury to Stamkos, we now see Kucherov playing like one of the best wings in the league and a bunch of dudes playing like average NHL forwards.
For 19 year old Brayden Point and forth liner Brian Boyle, playing like an average forward is pretty good. For Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Alex Killorn, not so much. The Lightning really need somebody other than Kucherov to step up and perform at a high level. The three mentioned above, along with Jonathan Drouin, are the most likely candidates and hopefully they will all improve enough to collectively fill in some of the gap that Stamkos left in the lineup. Drouin’s aggressive eight shot performance against Boston that resulted in one goal is a good sign that he is looking to help accomplish that.
Individual Defender Performance
I wish I could say that the defense would tell a different story but again, not a great look right now.
The injury to Anton Stralman not only removed the Lightning’s second best defender from the lineup but it also torpedoed their best defender in Victor Hedman. Since the Stralman injury, Hedman has mostly been paired with Andrej Sustr, and this has not gone well. Sustr is struggling this season, and the downward trend in Hedman’s numbers since swapping Stralman for Sustr is unmistakable.
On the bright side, Slater Koekkoek is performing at a high level and by Game Score has been the best Lightning defender over the last few weeks. He has been paired with Braydon Coburn, who continues to have a solid season as a reliable second pairing defender. Jason Garrison has largely struggled but has looked a bit better away from Sustr than he did with him. And finally, Nikita Nesterov hasn’t been quite as good over the past week or so but overall, he is still outplaying Sustr and Garrison on most nights.
All Skaters at a Glance
As a final look, here are all the forwards and defenders plotted with their primary scoring compared to their impact on expected goals. The effect of missing the two injured stars is obvious. Stralman will hopefully be back soon to lift the whole defense including his partner Hedman. But Stamkos isn’t coming back until at least March so someone needs to break out of that cluster of forwards to help Kucherov lead this team offensively.
In the last version of this article, I encouraged everyone to be patient with a team coming off of back to back deep playoff runs. They need to peak in April, May, and June. But a quarter season of average to play below average 5v5 play is not something to just be ignored.
I’m still confident that the team will put together an 8-10 game stretch of peak Lightning play at some point in the near future and that will bring these numbers back to where we would expect to see them. But if that doesn’t happen before the end of the year, and we’re still looking at the same numbers come January, it might be time to start taking a deeper look into what is causing such a talented team to play below their skill level.