When the Lightning started the year slowly, I said that I would wait until January to draw any conclusions about the team. The time for conclusion-drawing has arrived: The Lightning are probably not going to make the playoffs this season.
They sit two points behind two different teams that each have four games in hand. While I’m not a big believer in the Senators, the Leafs are a good team and only getting better as their young core gains experience under the best coach in the NHL. The Atlantic will only get three teams in the playoffs and the Lightning being one of them is increasingly unlikely.
Even Strength Team Play
As we go through the numbers in this post, we’re going to see a similar story to what we’ve seen through most of the year with a few more new disconcerting trends added to the mix. As always, we’ll start with the 5v5 team data. All data in this post is from corsica.hockey and is adjusted for score and venue (home/road). The stats on the left are “process” stats that show how well the team is playing. The stats on the right are “results” stats that show the outcomes of that play.
The Lightning continue to be a bottom-half team by most measures. Their shot share and expected goal share are both 19th in the NHL. The only positive number here is that the team appears to doing a decent job of limiting expected goals against at 5v5. Unfortunately, that defense is coming at the expense of the offense. In order to tighten up defensively, Tampa has hamstrung their offense. A team with as much forward talent as the Bolts should not look this bad in terms of shot generation.
The most disconcerting thing about the recent run of play for the Bolts is the goaltending. Despite being 10th in expected goals against, they are currently 27th in actual goals against. That discrepancy is due to the team being 24th in save percentage. Much of this drop came during Ben Bishop’s injury. One stretch of bad results doesn’t change Andrei Vasilevskiy’s status as one of the best goaltending prospects in the NHL, but it did sink Tampa into an even deeper hole.
With Bishop returning to the lineup, the goaltending should improve as he and Vasilevskiy can return to sharing the workload. But even when he was healthy, Bishop wasn’t able to replicate the results from his career year last season. So while better goaltending will help, it likely won’t be enough to push Tampa back into the playoff race.
Special Teams Play
The next step in our process is to review the special teams numbers.
The power play remains the brightest spot for the team this season. What had been a weakness in previous seasons is a clear strength now. The Lightning are still outperforming their shot and expected goal numbers but given the talent on the team, that isn’t too surprising. They might not really be a top 5 power play, but they are definitely top 10 and that’s a huge improvement over the previous two seasons under head coach Jon Cooper.
The penalty kill tells the opposite story. Just as has been the case at 5v5, goaltending has made the penalty kill look worse. The team is performing at league average in terms of shots and expected goals against at 4v5, but below average goaltending has led to more goals against. This has been the story all year and can’t be blamed on Vasilevskiy who performed okay while his team was short a skater.
Individual Forward Play
Now that we’ve seen how the team is performing as a whole, let’s dive into which individual players are helping or hurting the most. As always, we’ll use Dom Luszczyszyn’s game score statistic to get a high level view of each player’s contributions on a game by game basis. All data again comes from corsica.hockey and is adjusted for score, venue, and zone starts. We’ll begin with the forwards.
Nikita Kucherov remains the main driver of positive play for the team. His impact can’t be overstated. He is simply great and the Lightning are lucky to have him. I can’t even imagine how terrible this season would have been without him.
While no one else can be said to be having a even a good year, we do see some positive recent trends. Jonathan Drouin continues to trend upward as the second best forward on the team. Ondrej Palat is also improving after starting the season performing well below expectations. Vladislav Namestnikov has also put together a good stretch of play in recent weeks.
At the other end of the spectrum, two players are of particular concern. Tyler Johnson has not been able to reach the level of play he has shown in the past. He’s struggled to score again over the last few weeks. J.T. Brown has also not been able to perform the way he did last year. While no one would expect him to score much, he was excellent as a play-driving defensive specialist on the third line last year. His emergence as an ideal bottom six player was one of the big positives from last year but that hasn’t carried over to this season.
Individual Defender Play
As we look at the defenders, get ready for a nice surprise.
Nikita Nesterov! I have to admit here that I am the designated Nesterov apologist for the fanbase. And while his recent run probably isn’t sustainable, he has been really good. Despite being benched and moved around to forward at various times, he has played well and deserves a chance to stay in the lineup until that changes.
The only other big positive for Tampa is Victor Hedman, who remains one of the best defenders in the NHL. Anton Stralman has played well as we’ll see in a minute. But because he doesn’t score much, he doesn’t measure as well by game score. Coburn is a similar story.
The bottom portion of the Lightning defense is where things drop off quickly. I wrote a piece last week about the decision to demote Slater Koekkoek to Syracuse. Looking at these numbers, I can almost understand why the team sent him back to the AHL. He has struggled and his play has trended downward for months. But, as I wrote in that piece, he has been successful when paired with Braydon Coburn, and despite the discouraging trend, he needs NHL games to develop.
The even bigger problem is the pairing of Jason Garrison and Andrej Sustr. I’ve run out of ways to call attention to the issue so I’ll just again refer to the piece above. By game score, they are two of the worst 25 defenders in the NHL who have played at least 325 minutes at 5v5. Playing them together is setting the team up for failure.
All Skaters Quick View
As always, we’ll take one final look at the skaters using a plot of their scoring compared to their impact on expected goals.
The forward chart shows just how good Nikita Kucherov has been. He’s all alone in the upper right of the graph among the best forwards in the NHL. The rest of the forwards are largely clustered at or below average, with Filppula, Boyle, and Namestnikov all showing relatively well.
The defender graph gives a clear view of how well Nikita Nesterov is playing. He’s scoring at a similar pace to Victor Hedman. That won’t continue, but it should be good enough to at least get him some ice time. Stralman and Coburn both stand out for their impact on expected goals even if neither has scored much. The other three defenders are all in the section of the graph where no one wants to be. Garrison and Sustr are clustered together among the worst defenders in the league.
I’ll finish the article back where I started. The Lightning aren’t likely to make the playoffs this year. It isn’t completely over, but we’re getting close. Another couple weeks without a major win streak will pretty much close the door. The reasons are many — injuries, goaltending, poor defensive play and lack of production from the depth forwards have all contributed. All of it combined has led to the disappointing results that we’ve seen.
To change course now would require significant changes and probably an overdose of luck. Bishop is capable of going on a run that steals ten or twelve games. Steve Yzerman is capable of pulling off a deal that helps the team. Maybe Jon Cooper is capable of adjusting something in the team’s system that would yield better results.
But the most likely outcome is that the Bolts continue to play the way they have for the last three months and we approach the trade deadline with a different set of decisions to make than we’ve faced the last two seasons.