The start of the new year was not kind to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Injuries, inconsistent play, the absence of team Captain Steven Stamkos, and other factors contributed to the team’s downward spiral in the NHL standings. It got to the point where a number of us were starting to look at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft for players that would likely go in the top 10. That’s how bad it felt.
On January 1st, 2017, the Lightning were sitting at 19-15-4. They sat two points out of third place in the Atlantic Division and three points back of the second wild card spot. Things weren’t too bad, but they could definitely be better.
By February 3, the Lightning had fallen to 22-24-6. They had gone 3-9-2 in just over a month, and had the third worst record in the NHL and tied for last in the Eastern Conference. Not only were we looking at a top-10 pick, but maybe even a top-3 pick with a chance at the top if the lottery went our way.
Things did not look good for the Bolts. Nikita Kucherov led the Bolts in goals and points through December 31, with 13 and 33 respectively in 30 games. During the Lightning’s 3-9-2 stretch, Kucherov had only ten points with six goals. Tyler Johnson was the only Lightning player with more points (11) in that stretch. Kucherov’s numbers were still good, but the team as a whole was feeling the impact of lower scoring.
But something happened at the end of January. Jake Dotchin was called up and made his debut on January 21. The feeling around the team began to change as the blue line was shuffled. After playing less than 12 minutes with seven defenseman in the lineup in his debut, Dotchin found himself teamed up with Victor Hedman. Without counting his first game, Dotchin has averaged 18:36 TOI. Meanwhile, Andrej Sustr has seen his time on ice drop by almost two minutes.
In addition to Dotchin, Brayden Point also returned from injury on January 1. He had been out for a month with a broken finger after blocking a shot in a December 28 game. Before his injury, Point had three goals and 12 assists for 15 points in 36 games; an admirable start for a 20-year-old rookie. Since returning from injury, he’s kicked his scoring up a notch, going from around 0.40 points-per-game to 0.63 points-per-game.
With the blue line balanced better and the return of Point to the lineup, the Lightning finally began to turn it around. It wasn’t quite enough fast enough to keep Steve Yzerman from being a seller at the deadline instead of a buyer. Coming into the trade deadline, the Lightning went 6-1-2, not quite enough to dig them all the way out of the hole they dug for themselves in January.
They were 28-25-8 at the deadline. The team was no longer in the basement of the Eastern Conference, and they were trending in the right direction. If they could keep it up, they could still make it to the playoffs. Unfortunately, the odds were still slim and Steve Yzerman took the opportunity to sell off Ben Bishop, Valtteri Filppula, and Brian Boyle.
Over that nine-game stretch leading up to the deadline, Kucherov kicked it back into gear with seven goals and 13 points. Hedman was the next closest over that span with ten points, and Jonathan Drouin had eight points. Brayden Point had the next-most number of goals in that span with four. Since the deadline, Kucherov has continued his excellent play by putting up 11 points in eight games. The next closest forward is Ondrej Palat with just six points.
It’s pretty easy to imagine where this team would be right now without Kucherov: not even close to the playoffs. While he hasn’t done it by himself, he has been one of the primary reasons that the Lightning are back in the playoff hunt. Hedman has also continued to put up a Norris-caliber season (with the assistance of a reliable partner in Dotchin), and Vasilevskiy has returned to where we expect him to play — two other big reasons.
The next step is to get Steven Stamkos back into the lineup and find some better depth scoring. Drouin has fallen off lately and hasn’t had the greatest linemates. The Lightning have gotten to the point where there is basically just one line, one great defenseman, and one great power play unit. That’s been the majority of the offense for the past 20 or so games.
Many people from around hockey on social media have been looking at this team and its lineup, saying, “How are they still doing this?!” The truth is, the Lightning are defying the odds. They did not have good odds at the deadline, but they’ve outplayed their projections. And a lot of that has to do with Kucherov being the driver of the offense. Without him, the Lightning are not even sniffing the playoffs right now.
Even if he doesn’t get much love for the Hart Trophy as the NHL MVP, he’s definitely been the Lightning’s MVP for this season.