We’re about one-fifth of the way into the 2016-2017 NHL season, that spot in the schedule where it feels OK to start discussing the patterns we notice about our team (and it doesn’t feel like we’re making assumptions and observations too early).
In a nod to Elliotte Friedman’s must-read column 30 Thoughts, we present our Not-quite 30 thoughts. Our thoughts ranged from current team production to the people in Kalamazoo, Syracuse, and juniors — and the end result is that we’re feeling pretty positive about this Tampa Bay Lightning system.
Via Clark Brooks
1. Is it too soon to concede the division to Montreal? They're off to another great start, just like last season, which was derailed when Carey Price was injured. It's unlikely to expect that to happen again (and not cool to hope that it does). Sure, they'll cool off but it's doubtful they go into the toilet like they did last year.
2. I was a little concerned that Jonathan Drouin might have had trouble finding motivation now that he doesn't have a point to prove to management. Looks like I shouldn't have worried at all.
3. One thing I did NOT worry about at all was Steven Stamkos’ production now that he has nothing to distract him. I'm pleased to have been right about that.
4. Seeing Ben Bishop lose teeth further confirms that the head protection that I would need to stand in an NHL goal crease does not exist.
5. It's great to be back in the press box for another season of Lightning hockey. Of course, the return of hockey itself is worth celebrating in itself. But having a perch to witness all my favorite Amalie Arena activities is an extra bonus — national anthem singers Sonya Bryson and Vanessa Rodriguez, the Community Hero presentations, and the Tesla Coils to name a few.
6. Let’s take a second to fully appreciate the accomplishments of rookie Brayden Point. I’m going to skip over his illustrious junior career and the fact that he served as captain for Team Canada at the World Juniors. Those are small feats compared to the job he has done with Steve Yzerman and Jon Cooper.
7. It’s no secret that Yzerman prefers to develop his prospects at a snail’s pace. I joke that all of Yzerman’s draft picks are sentenced to detention time in Syracuse.
8. Regardless of their good behavior at training camp, rookies know Yzerman is a tough warden and they should expect to spend at least a year in the AHL. Somehow, Point avoided that fate. He convinced Yzerman that his stellar preseason play made him worthy of a chance to make the NHL roster. Once he escaped Yzerman’s development jail, he had the even more formidable task of convincing Cooper that a 20-year-old kid be trusted.
9. Which is next to impossible — just ask Nikita Kucherov, who was a healthy scratch when the Lightning were swept by the Canadiens in the 2014 playoffs, or Jonathan Drouin who had an interesting season last year to say the least. Point laughed in the face of the odds yet again and played himself onto the third line. He played defensively responsible hockey and watched his miniscule ice time grow with each passing game.
10. You could argue that he was only given this opportunity because Ryan Callahan was injured. As soon as Callahan returned, Point boarded a plane to Syracuse, right? Nope. Nice try. Point is here to stay. He knocked Callahan down to the fourth line and kept his spot on the third line. With Drouin out, Callahan reclaims his spot on the third line and Point has been promoted to the second line. It’s impossible to imagine him playing on Steven Stamkos’ wing or replacing Tyler Johnson as second-line center, right? I guess it’s a good thing that Point believes anything is possible.
11. When exactly did Vladislav Namestnikov become a Swiss Army knife? Namestnikov has been bounced from first line to fourth line back to first line and everything in between. That sort of movement would be disruptive to most players, but it doesn’t seem to phase Namestnikov. He effortlessly switches from playmaker to grinder.
12. It’s unreal to watch how quickly Namestnikov adjusts his game to fit a particular role on any given night. When he’s down on the checking line, he focuses on disrupting the opposition and throwing his body at anything that moves. When he’s up next to Stamkos, he’s busy trying to generate plays or provide some crucial forechecking to allow Stamkos and Kucherov some freedom on the ice.
13. The best thing about Namestnikov’s play has been the attitude with which he approaches the game. He doesn’t complain about his spot in the lineup — he accepts the role he’s given and does his best to help the team win. That’s exactly the kind of guy any team would be lucky to have. Yzerman would be smart to protect him in the expansion draft or he’ll turn into Jonathan Marchessault 2.0 — a super talented forward who will spend his time making us regret losing him.
14. If players set goals for themselves like “I will work on my defensive game” or “I will work on face-offs,” Jon Cooper’s should be “My blender to mix lines will be used sparingly” or “Dropping Jonathan Drouin on the fourth line will not be my go-to move if we’re struggling in a game.”
15. It’s no surprise that Steven Stamkos says his spirit animal is an eagle or a cheetah. What would a 60-goal scorer pick other than a powerful animal, anyway, a puppy? That’s more... Vlad Namestnikov.
16. Ryan Callahan is leading the team in penalty minutes with 17 in five games. but that’s with his fight. The next highest? Stamkos with 14. He should absolutely not have that many PIMs.
17. The following players are RFAs after this season: Tyler Johnson, Palat, Drouin, Andrej Sustr, Slater Koekkoek, and Nikita Nesterov, while Brian Boyle and Ben Bishop are UFAs. Let’s not freak out about any of that. Nope. In Yzerman we trust?
18. I’ve got more questions than answers about this season. It's noticeable that despite recovering from last season's hand injury, Johnson is not showing the same offensive brilliance that he did in his first season and a half of play in the NHL. He's still the second-line center, however, for reasons that Jon Cooper says are due to his "play away from the puck." Will this season see Johnson's lack of offense actively hurting the team, or will Cooper see fit to move him to an appropriate place in the lineup, or will he recover and be the player he was in 2014-15?
19. The league's first-ever Bye Week is from Feb. 12 - Feb. 17 for Tampa Bay. These Bye Weeks have impacted the schedule to such an extent that there are more back-to-back games than ever before. How will the Bye Weeks and subsequent odd schedules impact each team's record, and how will this impact the Bolts especially?
20. Tampa spent a year without an ECHL affiliate. This year, they're affiliated with the Kalamazoo Wings, but the only prospects that are part of the Tampa Bay system are goaltender Nic Riopel and players Adam Comrie and Brian Hart. This is quite unlike the Leafs, who have many players signed on two-way AHL-ECHL deals with the Orlando Solar Bears, as well as a goaltender. Will Tampa Bay expand its prospect system to make more use of the ECHL, especially for players under the age of 20 who are not from Canada's junior system?
21. There has been a few discussions about the trail off in Johnson's production so far this season. A player who hasn't been mentioned quite as much is his fellow former Triplet linemate — Palat. Through the first 13 games Palat recorded four points (1 goal, 3 assists) and was an uncharacteristic -7 (you can argue the merit of the +/- stat, but when a player is a +71 in his career and a -7 for the season, it raises an eyebrow).
22. Through the first dozen games of the season, Palat had gone seven games without recording a point despite playing more than 15 minutes in each and every game. His underlying stats aren't that far off, possession stats are down a bit, but not enough to cleave his points per game in half (.33 this year compared to .70 in his career. The only stats that really stick out are his shot per game are down almost a ½ shot per game (1.5 vs 1.86) and his penalty minutes are way up, which is funny to say about someone who has taken a total of five penalties all season. That is, until you realize the 11 minutes in total penalty minutes he has this year is almost half of what he has averaged over the last thee seasons.
23. Palat might officially be in a small funk and we're still in the “small sample” portion of the season. However, it is something to keep an eye on in a year where the Lightning have to make a few big decisions when it comes to how much they're going to spend on their restricted free agent.
24. The Lightning have built a team that shouldn't see a long losing streak this season. With three lines that can score and two top-tier goaltenders there should always be someone hot enough to carry the team. Early on the bulk of the scoring has been done by Stamkos and Alex Killorn. Should they falter, Kucherov and Namestnikov are waiting in the wings.
25. While the Lightning might not have too many prospects under contract with the Kalamazoo Wings, that doesn’t mean they aren’t ready to help out should the need arise. The K-Wings recent signings have skewed toward players with AHL experience. It probably wouldn’t take much convincing from Syracuse GM Julien Briesbois to get some of the following players to sign an AHL contract.
26. If injuries to the Crunch or Lightning require an influx of players the Wings have players that are ready to step up. Recent signings Tyler Biggs (six points in seven games) and Anthony Camara (two goals in two games) have jumped into the lineup and produced. They should be chomping at the bit to take the next step in rebuilding their careers.
27. On the defensive side, Dijon Mingo has provided a spark on the power play and has chipped in six points with the extra man. A converted forward, the 26-year-old only has a few games of professional experience under his belt and is very much a work in progress, but could be worth a look against tougher competition.
28. Nick Riopel would most likely get called up should something happen to one of the main goaltenders. Not only is he already on a Syracuse contract, he has been effective in the four games he’s appeared in. Well, three of the four. It’s OK to pretend the 8-1 loss to Wheeling never happened.
29. 2016 second-round pick Taylor Raddysh is off to a blazing start for the Erie Otters of the OHL. He is already looking to set new career highs in goals (17), assists (25), and points (42) through 16 games. For comparison, last season he had 24 goals, 49 assists and 73 points in 67 games. He was named the OHL's October player of the month because of his fast start to the season.
30. While Raddysh wasn't a part of Team Canada's World Junior Championship development camp this summer, he could be playing his way on to the team in December. If he continues his current scoring pace, he could be approaching 60 points by the end of November.
31. The big question will be what type of players Hockey Canada decides they want. Fellow Lightning prospects Anthony Cirelli (we wrote about him here), Mathieu Joseph, and Mitchell Stephens were a part of the development camp, but all three of them are more "lunch pail" type forwards — hard working, two-way players who have some offensive talent to their game. Hockey Canada does have a history of leaving off some very skilled players from the WJC in recent years, so we'll have to wait for December to see if he gets an invite to camp and hopefully on to the roster for the tournament.