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Setting realistic expectations for Tampa Bay Lightning’s Ryan Callahan in 2017-18

Coming back from his hip surgery, what is a realistic expectation for Callahan’s performance?

Pittsburgh Penguins v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Six Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Ryan Callahan joined the Tampa Bay Lightning organization at the trade deadline in the 2013-14 season. After the playoffs, General Manager Steve Yzerman struck a deal with Callahan to keep him in the fold with a six-year contract with an annual average value of $5.8 million. Even at the time, we knew there was a lot of risk with this contract. Callahan plays an all-out game that puts his body on the line and puts himself at risk for injury.

Callahan has never played a full 82-game season in the NHL. His career high is 81 games back in 2008-09, his first full-season in the NHL. Since the start of the 2008-09 season, Callahan has missed 132 games out of a possible 704 games played in the regular season. That is 18.75% of games. If you take out out the 2016-17 season that percentage drops to 10.9% of regular season games.

In Callahan’s first full season with the Lightning, he mostly played on the first line with Steven Stamkos and had plenty of power play time. He was the third leading forward for time on ice in 2014-15, and was 5th among forwards in points with 54. 16 of those points came on the power play, and ten of those were goals.

Amazingly, in 2014-15, he only averaged 0:10 per game in shorthanded time on ice, 10th overall on the team. Jon Cooper leaned most heavily on Brian Boyle, Cedric Paquette, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Valtteri Filppula for the penalty kill. J.T. Brown, Alex Killorn, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Stamkos all ended up with more short handed TOI than Callahan.

That shortage in shorthanded time was made up for by averaging 3:02 on the power play. His 14:30 TOI at even strength was second among forwards on the team.

Callahan’s second full season in 2015-16 saw a drop off in his production and a change in his usage. He was still fifth among forwards for time on ice, but his points dropped to just 28. Only four of his points came on the power play. His even strength TOI dropped by over a minute to 13:11 per game. His power play time also dropped to 2:19 per game. But his short handed time went up to 1:43 per game, second among forwards on the team just behind Boyle.

It’s clear that Callahan injured his hip some time during the end of the season. You can point to somewhere around Leap Day when things changed for him. From February 29th to the end of the regular season, he record no points in 12 games and only added two goals and two assists in 16 playoff games. He also averaged 16:38 TOI over the last 12 games of the regular season.

Prior to that 12-game drought to close out the regular season, Callahan scored 10 goals and 28 points in 61 games played, averaging 17:22 TOI. In the 12 game stretch before his drought, he was on a tear and had five goals and 14 points while averaging 17:18 TOI.

When the playoffs were over, Callahan went in for hip surgery. He was projected to return somewhere between Halloween and American Thanksgiving. He came back on the early side of that projection, making his season debut in 2016-17 on October 30th. It was clear from the get-go that he was not 100%. Head coach Jon Cooper even acknowledged that by resting him on the second half of a back-to-back.

Callahan re-aggravated the hip several times and was finally shut down in February. Getting the surgery done then was absolutely the correct move for Callahan and his future. He could have kept trying to rehab it and play through the pain, but then he’d inevitably have to have surgery again in the summer to finish the repair of his initial surgery. That could have meant another off-season and training camp where he was rehabbing instead of getting into game shape.

This way, Callahan could do an appropriate off-season training regimen and be able to go full bore as soon as training camp opens up. With the team’s right-wing depth chart looking a little bit awkward, especially if Brayden Point is the third line center instead of the second-line right winger, a productive Callahan can mean a lot to the team. He’s a tenacious forechecker. He goes into the dirty areas around the net and into the corners to dig pucks out. He also has pretty good hands for scooping up rebounds around the net as well as tipping pucks on net.

The point production Callahan provides will really be dependent on his usage at even strength as well as special teams.

Though penalty kill mainstays Boyle and Filppula are gone, the Lightning still have an excellent group of forwards to use: Johnson, Palat, Paquette, and Killorn. Beyond them, Namestnikov, Stamkos, and Dumont (if he makes the team) can chip in on the penalty kill as well. New comer Chris Kunitz has also upped his penalty kill time each of the past two seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

With so many capable forwards to use on the penalty kill, Cooper won’t need to rely on Callahan as heavily. He can pick and choose his spots to use Callahan for when it will have the most impact for the team. That will also save wear and tear on his body and hopefully keep him healthy throughout the season.

On the power play, Cooper can make use of Callahan’s strength and fight to battle for positioning in front of the net. He can screen for Stamkos and Kucherov on the wings as well as Hedman on the point. He can also fight for those dirty rebound goals like he did in 2014-15 when he scored 10 power play goals. Or he could be used on the second unit instead, supporting guys like Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Brayden Point with some needed size and digging power.

Even strength is going to be the biggest question mark. Even if Callahan is used on the power play and has success there, the majority of his point production comes from even strength play. Will he play on the second line perhaps with Palat and Johnson? Or will he be shifted down to the third line and play with Point or Namestnikov with Killorn or Kunitz on the other wing? Or does he play a limited fourth line match-up role with Paquette and either Brown, Dumont, or Kunitz on the other side?

Callahan’s point production likely will scale with where in the lineup he is. If he’s getting 13-14 minutes of even strength time per game up with the second line, it’s not out of the question to see him rebound into the 40-50 point range again with power play production, despite the inevitable age-based regression he’s fighting against.

If he’s down the lineup though, we could be looking at more of a 20-30 point season or perhaps less if he’s averaging 10-12 minutes total per game and not getting power play time.

Time, and Jon Cooper, will tell us how this turns out for Callahan. At this point, I’d be happy with salvaging a 30-35 point season out of him. Yes, it’s far less than what he should be producing for the contract he has. With three years left on his contract, him being at least a league average third liner would be a big win for the Lightning and their hopes of capturing their second Stanley Cup in franchise history.