So far this season, the theme of these analytic reports has been mediocrity. The Bolts have hovered near the middle of the league or even below that for most of the season. I closed every previous report by saying that I would refrain from making any definitive statements about this team until we got through December. Now that we’re here, I think we can begin to have some insight into our assessment of how the team is playing.
Even Strength Team Play
To start, as always, we’ll look at 5v5 statistics. All data in this report is from corsica.hockey. Team data is adjusted for score and venue. Skater data is adjusted in the same way as well as for zone deployment. The time frame displayed in the chart is from December 1st to December 31st but the calculations are running totals for the entire season. In this 5v5 chart, we’re looking at the “process” statistics on the left that tell us how the team is playing and the “results” statistics on the right that tell us if the outcomes align with the process.
If you’ve been reading these reports this season, the numbers here shouldn’t surprise you. The Lightning remain an average team in terms in shot share and expected goal share, which is translating into an average goal share. The Lightning still aren’t playing particularly well at 5v5 and are getting exactly the results they deserve for their play.
Recently, we do see an improvement defensively. The Bolts are now 10th in the league in expected goals against, which is a nice improvement over where they were early in December. That improvement hasn’t translated into fewer goals allowed yet. Part of that is due to below average goaltending. But part of it could also be due to a bit of bad luck. If they continue to limit opponents’ shots and expected goals, I would expect to see the goals allowed drop a bit, which should lead to better results.
Special Teams Play
The Lightning struggles at 5v5 have not carried over to special teams. They’ve been effective on both the power play and penalty kill this year.
The power play has been key to keeping the Lightning in games all season and that hasn’t changed. What does appear to be changing is the process. The Lightning have dropped to a league average team in terms of shot and expected goal generation on the power play. That drop has not yet translated into a drop in goals. Making definitive statements about the sustainability of power play numbers is difficult because of how little time teams spend at 5v4 but I would expect that if they continue to generate fewer shots, the goal numbers will eventually drop as well.
The penalty kill tells the opposite story. The Lightning have done a good job of limiting shots and expected goals on the power play this season. But recently, the results have not aligned with that performance. Part of that could be due to below average goaltending but I would also guess that part is just due to bad luck. If they continue to suppress shots and expected goals as they have recently, I would expect their penalty kill goals allowed to drop.
Individual Forward Play
With the team still stuck in the middle of the pack, we can look to see which players are doing the most to try to pull the team up the standings. We’ll use Dom Luszczyszyn’s game score as a quick way of summarizing each player’s performance on a game by game basis starting with the forwards. The numbers above the line show the player’s percentile rank among all forwards with at least 200 minutes TOI.
The first thing I have to address here is that the Lightning don’t even have 12 forwards who meet the TOI cutoff because of their terrible injury luck. Technically, Steven Stamkos still meets the cutoff but his graph for December would be blank because he didn’t play. So we’re left looking at 11 forwards. Nikita Kucherov remains one of the best players in the league. Jonathan Drouin is showing a strong positive trend. His continued growth toward meeting his potential is vital to the Lightning staying in the playoff race despite the injuries.
After Kucherov and Drouin, we see some interesting names driving the Lightning. Both Valtteri Filppula and Brian Boyle are having career years to this point in the season. And thank goodness they are. Without them, the Lightning would be lost. While the numbers for Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, and Tyler Johnson are not good on the season, all three are showing a recent trend in the right direction. For Palat and Johnson, that is likely due to being reunited with Kucherov, who always drives positive play regardless of his linemates.
If the triplets, Drouin, and Killorn can all continue to play as they have in the last week or so, the Lightning will be in much better shape than they have been all year. And while Filppula and Boyle are unlikely to continue to perform this way, just playing somewhere close to how they have lately would be a bonus for the Bolts.
Individual Defender Play
When last we looked at the defenders, the picture was bleak. Even Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman weren’t putting up particularly strong numbers. Fortunately, that trend has changed definitively.
Victor Hedman has been the second best player on the team over the last few weeks behind Kucherov. Being reunited with his regular partner after spending several weeks with Andrej Sustr has brought Hedman back to the level of play we expect from him. He and Stralman are again one of the better pairs in the league and the team desperately need them to continue playing that way because after the Swedefenders, it gets grim quickly.
Andrej Sustr and Jason Garrison are in the bottom 20% of the league by this measure. To put that another way, that means they are a bottom pairing on a bottom half team in the NHL.
Braydon Coburn continues to play well enough. He often gets lumped in when fans describe the team’s defensive issues and he doesn’t deserve it. He’s been solid regardless of his partner and deserves some praise for staying above water while everyone else outside of the top pair has been sinking.
Slater Koekkoek unfortunately falls into the “sinking” category. His play has trended downward all month. I argued early in the year that he should be on the second pairing, but he has not justified that type of usage. If he can’t form a legitimate second pair with Coburn, the Lightning are going to have a difficult time gaining ground in the standings.
All Skaters Quick View
As one final view of all the Lightning skaters, below is a graph of each player’s primary scoring as well as their impact on the team’s expected goal share.
The forward graph here looks mostly the same as it has all season. Nikita Kucherov is driving the team. Boyle and Filppula are also notable here. The defender graph also tells a similar story. Victor Hedman’s progression toward his typical residence in the top right is encouraging. Anton Stralman isn’t scoring much but still has a huge positive impact on the team’s play. Overall, the Lightning are still driven by the play of two or three skaters and need others to begin sharing that workload.
January 2nd is far too early to say that a team that currently sits outside the playoffs doesn’t have a chance at making it. It’s also too late to just call this a “slow start.” This team has legitimate issues. They’ve been crushed by injuries, and the healthy forwards they rely on to drive the team like Johnson, Palat and Killorn have not performed up to expectations. Sustr and Garrison are real problems. Koekkoek is not playing at the level I hoped he would.
Outside of a trade, the only way these trends can change is if players start playing better. That seems absurdly simple but that’s the reality. They need the triplets to be the triplets from two years ago. They need Drouin to become a fully realized offensive dynamo. They need Koekkoek to join with Coburn and form a reliable second pair. All of those things are possible, but until they happen, this team will continue to sit outside of the playoffs.
We do have precedent for this. Last season, the Lightning completely changed their season starting on January 2nd. Over the next two months, they won 21 of 27 games including a seven game win streak in January and a team-record nine game streak from mid February to early March. The injuries are worse this year but if they want to get back into comfortable playoff positions, they’ll need to replicate that type of run. We’ll find out over the next month or two whether they can do it.