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Tampa Bay Lightning Bi-Weekly Report: Not mediocre, but not in a good way

After another two weeks of below-league-average play, the Lightning are now in the bottom third of all NHL teams in 5v5 performance.

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Almost halfway through December, the Tampa Bay Lightning sit outside of the playoff picture, trailing the Boston Bruins by two points for third place in the Atlantic. For a team that expected to compete for a championship this season, that has to be a surprise.

But with almost two thirds of the season still left to play, the Lightning still have time to regain the form they showed in going deep in the playoffs the last two seasons. With that context in mind, let’s see what we can learn from looking at where the Lightning rank by a series of key indicators. As usual, all data in this post is from corsica.hockey.

To start, let’s check on how the Lightning have played at 5v5. Keep in mind that the idea behind this series of charts is that the blue graphs are “process” charts that indicate how well the Lightning have been playing and the gray graphs are “results” charts that show the outcomes of that play. If we see a gap between process and results, that would be something to explore further.

The story above is not a good one. The Lightning rank 20th in the league in shots-for percentage and 21st in expected goals-for percentage. Both of those are indications that the Lightning are allowing their opponents to control play at 5v5. And not surprisingly given those numbers, the Lightning are 19th in goals-for percentage.

The recent losing stretch is not due to bad luck. It is simply due to poor play. Over the past few weeks, the Lightning are generating fewer shots and giving up more, which is a good indication of why they have struggled so much. They are still one of the better-shooting percentage teams in the league but even that isn’t enough to overcome the deficiencies in other areas.

Earlier in the season, the Lightning were able to win games despite relatively average 5v5 play because the special teams were excellent. As we look at the latest numbers, we see that is no longer the case in one area.

The penalty kill that was so good early in the season has fallen back to the middle of the pack league wide. We do see somewhat of a gap between the process numbers and the results numbers, which is an indication that they could be in a bit of rough spot in terms of luck at 4v5. But giving up two power play goals to Pittsburgh on the exact same play on Saturday suggests that maybe the numbers here are indicative of some issues.

On a positive note (finally), the power play is still one of the best in the league. The Lightning were able to steal a few wins early in the season by relying on the power play and as they continue to work at sorting out the issues at 5v5, it would be nice if they could hit another stretch like that to pick up a few points in the standings.

Having looked at the team numbers, let’s now dive into the individual numbers. Again, we’ll use Dom Luszczyszyn’s game score statistic to get an overview of how each player has been performing. Luke Witkowski and Joel Vermin are not included because they haven’t yet played enough games to have a meaningful sample. If they stay in Tampa, they’ll be included in the next report. I wish I could tell you that these individual numbers are better than what we saw at the team level but unfortunately, that just isn’t the case.

My first takeaway from this chart is to give thanks for Nikita Kucherov. Amidst a sea of average to below average play, he remains a beacon of excellence and a reminder of how good this team can be. He is one of the best forwards in the NHL. Outside of Kucherov, the picture gets bleak quickly. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat still haven’t been able to recover anything close to their form from the past two seasons.

If we’re looking for positives, Jonathan Drouin and Valtteri Filppula are potential bright spots. Filppula has been resurgent this year as one of the Lightning’s most consistent forwards, which honestly says as much about the rest of the forwards as it does about Filppula. Drouin appears to be on an upward trend and Tampa desperately needs that to continue. This team is begging for someone to help carry the load offensively alongside Kucherov and Drouin seems the most likely to be able to do that.

After describing the forward picture as bleak, I’m really not sure what to say about the defense.

The most disconcerting thing about this graph for me is the recent play of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman. They were one of the best defensive pairs in the league last season but since Stralman returned from injury, they have not been playing well. I can’t imagine that this will continue, but if it does, this team is in real trouble. This was always going to be a team with one elite pair and four other guys trying to tread water. So if Hedman and Stralman can’t carry that load, I don’t think any amount of offensive talent could overcome that kind of defensive deficiency.

And as a nice touch, the best defender on the Lightning using game score as a guide is actually playing in Syracuse right now. Obviously, Slater Koekkoek isn’t really the best defender on the team. But I think by almost every measure, he’s been at least the third best. And if that’s the case, having him in Syracuse is, like all of the Lightning’s recent opposition, indefensible.

To get a little bit more context instead of just using one number, below is a chart that shows each players scoring rates and impact on the Lightning’s share of expected goals.

Again, we see a similar picture. Kucherov with a little bit of support from Filppula and a bunch of guys playing at or below league average. And everyone knows I’m a Nikita Nesterov supporter but seeing him and Victor Hedman next to each other on any graph is grim.

The other telling thing about the defender graph is that it perfectly illustrates the situation facing Tampa. The team has a clear top four defenders in Hedman, Stralman, Koekkoek and Coburn. Everyone else should be competing for minutes and getting time as they earn it. Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re seeing.

The theme of the previous two versions of this report was mediocrity. If we’re being honest in our assessment, the Lightning have probably fallen even a little further than that. Being bottom-third in both shots for and expected goals for percentages is an indicator that they are playing like a bottom-third team.

Do I think Tampa is really one of the worst ten teams in the league? No. But an honest assessment says that they ARE playing like one. Hopefully, that changes soon and we see them run off an 8-10 game stretch of really good play.

In the last report, I said I wouldn’t get too concerned before the end of December. So I’ll stick to that. But if we see these same numbers in the next report after Christmas, it will be time to start reconsidering what we think we know about this team.