I’d like to start this in-depth quantitative review of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s performance through their first thirty games by acknowledging the most important contributor to the team so far this season: us. Yes, us.
That lucky shirt we wear every game? It’s working. We should keep wearing it. Keep washing it exactly as often as we have been. We drink the same beverages in the same order during every game? That’s working too. Keep doing that. We take our dogs out during the same timeouts every game? Hey, they might have to wait a few minutes to pee but everyone has to make sacrifices here. We shouldn’t change our schedule for any reason. At all.
That said, let’s take a look at the team’s metrics in response to all that stuff we do.
The following chart shows how the Lightning have performed in a number of key areas. The blue bars represent the full season. The orange dots represent the last ten games. The gray dots represent the ten games before that. All data is adjusted via corsica.hockey.
Earlier in the year, the team looked to be getting better results than they deserved due to some shooting and goaltending luck. While they are still shooting a high percentage, they are backing that up with great play at 5v5, particularly on defense. In the last ten games, they’ve been superb in suppressing dangerous shots, resulting in one of the lowest expected goal-against rates in the league.
When the team went to the Eastern Conference Final in 2015-2016 and Ben Bishop received a Vezina nomination, they followed a similar pattern to this. They played shut down defense, got solid goaltending, and scored efficiently.
On offense, they still don’t generate many dangerous chances, but they do generate a high volume of shots, and with their shooting talent, they are able to convert those shots into goals.
Special teams continues to be an area of strength. The power play is a more extreme version of their 5v5 offense. They generate plenty of shots but not many from the most dangerous locations. Just like at 5v5, their shooting talent makes up for that, leading to a strong goal rate.
The penalty kill has been even better than the power play. If you’re looking for the gray dot for expected goal suppression, it’s literally off the charts. They went through a ten-game stretch where it seemed impossible for the other team to score on the power play. That won’t continue all season but even their recent form is enough to frustrate other teams when they have the advantage.
With the team playing well as a whole, we can dig further into which players are contributing most. To do that, we’ll use game score as a way to get a view of each player’s performance using a single stat.
The forward play overall is mostly as would be expected. The top six forwards continue to be dominant, led by Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point. Alex Killorn has joined the second group with Yanni Gourde, Vlad Namestnikov, and Ondrej Palat, giving the Bolts a clear top seven so far this season.
Killorn has been one of the most consistent forwards for the Lightning this year. While he hasn’t hit the peak of some of the players above him, he also hasn’t hit the lows, and has been reliable in his role on the third line.
The recent trends are more interesting than the totals. If we look at the orange dots to focus on the last ten games, the top forwards have looked relatively average while the bottom of the lineup has looked dominant. Tyler Johnson is resurgent in his new role as a top six winger. Chris Kunitz, Ryan Callahan, and Cedric Paquette are a more than competent fourth line. If they continue to drive play like this, opposing teams will have to deal with four legitimate forward lines.
On defense, I’ll be perfectly honest, I had to double check my report to make sure something wasn’t broken. Every Lightning defender is currently below average in game score except for the nineteen-year-old rookie. The coaching staff has managed Mikhail Sergachev’s minutes to put him in situations to succeed, but even the most skeptical observers would have to admit he’s been one of the best players on the Tampa blue line this year.
The Lightning front office has to be thrilled with their big offseason trade. Jonathan Drouin is having a good year in Montreal and will likely have some big seasons for the Habs, but the Lightning have a surplus of forward talent both in the NHL and in their development pipeline. Sergachev has been even better than advertised so far, and if both players continue on their current development path, the Lightning will have dealt from a position of strength to acquire another star on the blue line.
Among the rest of the defenders, we see lots of mediocre play. I expect Victor Hedman to find his typical level of dominance again as the season progresses. He’s had inconsistent partners due to Jake Dotchin’s early season suspension and injuries.
Anton Stralman had great numbers until the last ten games and he will likely head back in a positive direction as well. While none of the blue liners aside from Sergachev have been spectacular, none have been a particularly notable drag either. Dan Girardi continues to play well above his results in New York. Dotchin has been solid recently and Braydon Coburn remains the epitome of a reliable third-pairing defender.
Slater Koekkoek and Andrej Sustr have not played enough minutes to be included in the chart above. If they had, Koekkoek would rank second on the team and Sustr would rank last. With Coburn’s recent injury, Koekkoek is getting some extended time on the third pairing. He’s done fairly well in those minutes and it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff handles the lineup when Coburn comes back. They’re unlikely to scratch Coburn so if they want to keep Koekkoek in the lineup, they’ll need to go back to an 11/7 lineup with Cory Conacher as the most likely scratch.
The Lightning currently sit in as good of a position as we could possibly hope. They’re playing well. They’re getting good results. The loaded forward group is doing exactly what we would expect. The much less loaded defense is holding their own and allowing the forwards to excel.
Difficult stretches are inevitable and the Lightning will eventually face some adversity this season. But for now, I don’t have anything negative to say. So enjoy this run of fun winning hockey for as long as it lasts. And maybe if we keep arranging the pillows on the sofa in the same way before every game, we’ll be able to keep it going all season.