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Tampa Bay Lightning 10 Game Report: The stars need to catch up to the depth

Who’s driving the bus so far? Not who you’d expect.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at New York Islanders Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

The Lightning find themselves in a similar position at the end of this ten-game segment as they were after the previous one. As I write this, they are currently tied with Nashville for first in the NHL in points. The two teams will play on Monday for the second time this season with the Lightning looking to avenge a loss from the first game.

The Lightning have started strong and appear to be among the best teams in the league again this year. But the path they’ve taken is different from previous years. Where the first ten games fit cleanly with what we expected going into the season, these last ten are a diversion.

All of the skater data in the following charts is via Corsica and Offside Review. The exact source is cited in each chart. The Corsica data is adjusted for score, zone (skaters only), and venue. The Offside Review data is adjusted for score only.

To start, let’s look at how the team has performed as a whole. For the next few charts, the bars represent the whole season. The orange dot represents the last ten games and the gray dot represents the ten games before that.

All in all, the picture painted here is a positive one but some of the trends are cause for concern. The team is still performing well in both shot share and expected goal share at 5v5. But over the last ten games, they’ve traded quality for quantity. In the first ten games, the team looked great by expected goals but not quite so good by shots. In the last ten games, they’ve swapped those two. That’s a trend that would be preferable reversed.

The shooters have gotten back to where we expect them to be over the last ten games after a slow start and the goaltending at 5v5 has been average.

Special teams is the one area where we can clearly identify some dips in play. The power play has been worse in terms of generating expected goals but better in terms of generating actual goals. That’s a testament to the talent on the team.

The penalty kill has gotten worse. Much worse. What was a strength through the first ten games has become a liability. And the goaltending hasn’t helped. The team has allowed even more goals than would be expected based on its poor play.

This isn’t new. The team had these wild swings in effectiveness last year too. At times, they looked like the best penalty killers in the league and at other times, the worst. Typically, those swings were driven by changes in shot quality. That’s the case again here although they’ve been giving up more shots than they have in the past as well.

With the big picture of the team’s play as a whole for context, we can start looking at individual skaters. We’ll begin by looking at 5v5 Game Score to get a high-level view and then get into more specifics after that.

This is when things start to get interesting. These are not the names we normally see at the top of this chart. Among the forwards, Nikita Kucherov is third behind Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde. Those two have combined to be a dominant force on the second line over the last ten games. Both are off to starts that put them among the best forwards in the league through the first 20 games and with Point near the top of the NHL in scoring, he has an argument that he’s among the top handful of players so far this season.

After Kucherov who is having a great season if not quite hitting the peaks he hit last season, we see two more surprising names: Anthony Cirelli and Adam Erne. Erne hasn’t gotten many minutes this season but he’s made the most of the opportunities he’s gotten.

Steven Stamkos hasn’t hit his stride yet in terms of scoring but he has enough of a track record to not be worrisome. Alex Killorn and Mathieu Joseph have both been outrageous over the last ten games, after slow starts, combining with Cirelli to form one of the best third lines in the NHL.

The forwards were interesting. The defenders are just weird.

Last year at this time, I was writing that I thought Braydon Coburn might be done as an NHL caliber player. This year, ah, he leads the team in game score per 60 minutes among defenders. And game score is a stat the tends to more heavily reward offensive play and scoring. Exactly the things we would expect Coburn to be good at...except actually the opposite.

He and Sergachev have been arguably the best pairing this year. Divying up credit between them is tricky and Coburn is likely benefiting from playing with a youngster who has number one defender upside. Last season, they put up good numbers together but were also heavily sheltered. This season, the strong results continue but without the same degree of sheltering. They’re facing weaker competition but have also played with weaker teammates and aren’t getting a disproportionate amount of offensive zone starts like they did last year.

After that pair comes the Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman duo that started the year slow but have been great in this recent batch of games. With Stralman hurt, Erik Cernak has played a few games with McDonagh and the coaches haven been more careful with giving Cernak tough minutes. That has been an issue as the team is clearly at its best with Stralman and McDonagh taking the tough minutes.

The heatmap below gives us a more well-rounded picture than game score alone. It helps suss out how each player makes their impact without being so focused on scoring and driving offense.

Many of the patterns from above persist. The third line is amazing. Brayden Point is a star. Yanni Gourde is right behind him. The first line’s numbers as a whole are underwhelming but I expect that to correct itself as the year progresses.

We need to talk more about Adam Erne though. He has been outstanding this season. In limited minutes, he’s doing everything. He’s scoring. He’s driving play. He has positive impacts on offense and defense. It looks like this might be his breakout season and if he keeps playing like this, he’s going to force the coaches to find more minutes for him.

Victor Hedman is of particular interest on the blue line. He didn’t look great by game score and we get a better idea of why from the heatmap. Aside from scoring, he hasn’t found many ways to contribute. He’s a below average player so far in terms of his shot and expected goal impacts. That’s not what we’re used to seeing from him and I expect it will change soon.

His primary partner Dan Girardi is off to a good start. He isn’t contributing anything offensively and that’s why he ranked so low in game score. But his defense has been solid and his overall impacts have been above average. If he can do that all year, that would be the best case scenario.

The other player that stands out is Slater Koekkoek. As much as the fan base wants him to fulfill the promise he showed early in his career, it just isn’t happening. He got another trial run while Hedman was injured and the results speak for themselves. He’s pretty clearly had the worst impact of any player who’s gotten meaningful minutes this season for the Lightning.

In an effort to make these reports more complete, I’ve added goalie numbers for the first time. To start, below is the game by game goals saved above expected for both Andrei Vasilevskiy and Louis Domingue at 5v5 and in all situations.

Vasilevskiy has been up and down at 5v5 but consistently solid in all situations. Domingue has hovered at slightly below what we would expect aside from one awful game. If he can avoid the nightmare outings and perform at slightly below league average as he has for most of the year, that would be great for the Lightning.

The next chart shows the cumulative goals saved above expected for each goaltender. Like above, Vasilevskiy is the blue line and Domingue the orange.

The Lightning starter was climbing up among the best goalies in the league in all situations before coming back toward the pack in the games before his injury. Domingue is about where we’d expect. He’s not an NHL starter but he has been competent and if it wasn’t for the one bad game against Arizona, he’d be in a more favorable position.

The Lighting are one of the best teams in the NHL so far in terms of results. From that perspective, I can’t quibble much. But some trends I’d prefer to see reversed. The stars need to get going instead of having the depth drive the team. Kucherov, Stamkos, and Hedman will determine how far this team goes. All three of them need to get into the rhythm of the season and play the way they have in the past.

As a team, they need to regain their handle on the shot quality game. Too often lately they’ve been giving up dangerous chances on defense and not getting many of their own.

Heading into the third ten games, the Lightning are in good shape. But not in such good shape that they can relax. They have issues to address if they want to keep themselves at the top of the league.