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The age of reason: Was the 2016-2017 season an aberration?

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Or was it a sign of things to come for Tampa Bay?

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Note: All statistics/visualizations used in this article are from Hockeyviz.com and Corsica.hockey, please visit these sites and utilize the information they provide.

Introduction

The 2016-2017 season was supposed to be a golden one for the Tampa Bay Lightning, a season where the Lightning would finally claim the greatest prize in professional hockey. Obviously, things did not go that way and there are a variety of reasons why. One could blame injuries, while another could blame the team’s heart, or another could blame the coaching staff’s inability to adapt during the season. If there is one term that sums up the Lightning’s season, however, it would be: “inconsistent.”

The purpose of this article is to look at the Lightning’s year and see what went wrong.

Dissecting the Season

Note: The statistics used here are at 5v5 with score and venue adjustments from Corsica.hockey.

First 41 games (game 41 January 7th, a 4-2 loss to Philadelphia)

Second 41 games (game 42 January 8th, a 6-2 loss to Pittsburgh)

Just by splitting the season into the first 41 games and the second 41 games you can clearly see a difference in how the team played and in turn the results that came of it. The biggest contributing factor appears to be the improvement in goaltending, which provided a level of stability that the Lightning did not have during the first half of the season. It cannot be understated how much impact good goaltending can have on a team.

Next, we will split the season into two extra categories due to personnel changes. Here is how the team performed after the trade deadline.

Post Trade Deadline (first game March 1st against Carolina, a 4-3 win in OT)

From these numbers, it is clear that as a whole the Lightning played better once the second half of the season started, however, even though the team won more games after the deadline, their underlying numbers tell us that the resurgence was more due to goaltending stability than the team demonstrably outplaying their opponents. Just for reference here is Tampa Bay’s numbers in between game 42 and the trade deadline.

Game 42 to Trade Deadline

(First game January 8th, a 6-2 loss to Pittsburgh; last game February 28th, a 5-1 win against Ottawa)

After separating the season into these sections, the team was playing better after the midway point of the season and was dictating play quite well, but were not getting the results they wanted. Remember, the record might say 10-6-4, but that really means 10-10 with 4 loser points (aren’t those just grand?!).

Another thing to note is that team’s shooting percentage never rose dramatically throughout the season, which is odd considering the past two campaigns the Lightning have shot at or above 8% as a unit with a demonstrably less effective power-play. Since the power play was a top five unit during the season, this points towards the Lightning’s inability to outscore their opponents at 5v5 as the primary reason for the shooting dip.

Tampa Bay spent a large portion of the first half of the season playing mediocre hockey. Even with their advanced metrics hovering near the middle of the league the biggest culprit to the team’s bad play was goaltending and defense.

Ben Bishop was not playing well during the first half of the season, and once he went down to injury, the Lightning threw Andrei Vasilevskiy into the fire and hoped for the best. This plan blew up in the Lightning’s face and the team plummeted down the standings because of it. It is unclear if the coaching staff’s defensive structure is more to blame than the goaltending, but both areas were responsible for Tampa Bay’s disappointing first half.

In summary, the Lightning was playing close to the team we expected them to be after the midway point of the season. This was mainly due to the stabilization of the defense and goaltending which allowed the team to control the pace of play more efficiently; however, the poor play of the first 41 games was clearly the downfall of Tampa Bay.

If Tampa Bay wants to return to the playoffs next season a better first half will be key to ensuring they do not have to play do-or-die games as early as February.

Visualizing the Lightning’s Shot Locations

A focal point in the analytics world of hockey is shot locations—both for and against—to see where teams generate and allow their shots from compared to the rest of the league. By looking at these graphs it provides some context to what teams are doing both offensively and defensively. For comparison, the team with the most goals scored is used for offense (Pittsburgh) and the team with least amount of goals allowed is used for defense (Washington).

Just by comparing Tampa Bay to the top teams in both offense and defense there is a distinct difference between what Pittsburgh and Washington do compared to the Lightning. Offensively, Tampa Bay takes a lot of shots from the slot (which is not bad) and the point (also, not bad), but have very little impact in the area surrounding the net. Conversely, Pittsburgh dominates the area in front of the net stretching all the way to the slot.

This can be simplified to explain how each team structures their offense. Pittsburgh’s offense is more geared towards crashing the net, forcing rebounds, and moving the opposing goaltender side to side. Tampa Bay’s offense is more geared towards shooting from the slot while retrieving rebounds and cycling the puck back to the point for the defensemen to take a shot and hope for a deflection.

Defensively, Tampa Bay does a solid job at supporting their goaltenders up close, however, the slot and points have been areas of concern for the Lightning. Tampa Bay struggles to suppress opposing teams from shooting from these high percentage locations; whether this is due to a system issue or personnel issue is unclear.

The season prior the Lightning were an elite team when it came to suppressing shots, but either way, it is a problem that needs to be addressed heading into next season. Washington, on the other hand, does a great job at limiting their opponent’s shots from high danger locations but do falter near the slot, which indicates that teams who drive the net can cause problems for the Capitals.

Every team has their strengths and weaknesses, but by sifting through the shot location graphs one can see how a team’s offensive and defensive structure dictates where teams score and allow their goals from.

How Does this Season Compare to the Cup Final Season?

Finally, we will look at the metrics and the graphs from the 2014-2015 season to see if there is a difference, and try to understand if this season’s disappointing finish can be pinned on one specific area or if this was just a down season for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Overall Metrics for 2016-2017 Season

Overall Metrics for 2014-2015 Season

The Lightning was an offensive powerhouse during the 2014-2015 season and the metrics back it up. Every metric except for Save Percentage is a marked improvement over what occurred this season. The next question is: “Did they do anything different?” Let’s look at shot locations next to see if Tampa Bay’s shot graphs are any different.

Offensively, Tampa Bay’s shot locations are near identical. The biggest variance is the volume in certain areas, but overall the Lightning has consistently shot from the same locations for multiple seasons.

So, why did the offense produce less this season than before? Well, the 14-15 season saw the rise of the Triplets line that dominated 5v5 play, and the Lightning had a full season of Steve Stamkos producing the way he is known for. As time has progressed, Jon Cooper has tried to rely less on the Triplets line and spread the offensive talent throughout the lineup, which makes sense given the nature of the NHL to adapt and try to shut down teams’ top offensive threats.

It also has to be stated that the injuries did have an effect on the Lightning’s offense this season. Losing offensive threats like Stamkos (65 games), Kucherov (8 games), Palat (7 games), Johnson (16 games), Drouin (9 games), and Point (14 games) impacted the team’s ability to generate offense at times.

Defensively, the overall shape is vaguely similar, but the largest change is the volume of shots the team is allowing in those areas. It should be noted that the Lightning has received better goaltending now than they did during the Stanley Cup Final year. So, blame cannot automatically go towards the goaltending, however, the massive change in shot volume the defense has allowed makes one want to point towards either the defensive structure or the defensive personnel as the primary culprits.

The defensive unit the Lightning deployed during the 14-15 season was primarily composed of Hedman, Stralman, Carle, Garrison, Coburn, Sustr, and Barberio. This season the Lightning’s defense primarily deployed Hedman, Stralman, Garrison, Coburn, Sustr, Dotchin, Witkowski, and Koekkoek. I omitted the players that were traded during those seasons to avoid any confusion (Brewer, Gudas, and Nesterov).

An in-depth analysis would be required to see if the issue the Lightning had on defense was more personnel-based or system-based. I am under the impression that both are to blame equally, having a standard system is fine, but the Lightning has been criticized before for not adapting to how teams play against them; which is a coaching issue. Personnel wise, Garrison and Sustr have been the weakest links on defense, and the team’s refusal to separate them during the first half of the season was an unwise decision because the team continued to flounder through the first 41 games.

Conclusion

As rough as the 2016-2017 season was, there is no need to panic about the Lightning’s future. The metrics don’t show a pretty picture, but as the season progressed everything started to turn for the Lightning. Tampa Bay’s adjustments during the second half of the season enabled them to make a spirited march for the post season that fell short.

With a healthy Stamkos re-balancing the forward corps, Vasilevskiy holding down the fort in net, and some smart free agent pickups on defense, the Lightning should be in a strong position to return to the playoffs and regain cup contender status.

It is a bit of a stretch to compare the two teams, but the Montreal Canadiens failed to make the playoffs last season after an injury to their best player. The Canadiens were also a team that was criticized for coaching decisions during that season. That same Canadiens team with a healthy Price (who had a rather mediocre season for his standards) and a coaching staff that adapted their coaching style (made even more profound when Montreal hired Claude Julien) won the Atlantic Division this season.

Under Steve Yzerman’s guidance, the Tampa Bay Lightning has become one of the most envied franchises in the league. Setbacks will happen. Not every team hits all the right buttons like the Chicago Blackhawks did. Issues arise that are unforeseen and management must make do with what they have. Let’s all take the offseason to take our collective breaths and remember that this team is not dead: the core is still young and productive.

The Tampa Bay Lightning will be back.