Before we dive into how the Tampa Bay Lightning are playing through 50 games, let’s have Taylor Hall set the stage.
Might well be the most curious quote I've gotten in a long time:#Devils Taylor Hall— John Wawrow (@john_wawrow) January 30, 2018
"It goes in 10-game segments. We started off 9-2 and then in our last 11, I think we're 2-9-2. So what team are we?"#math?
I agree with his view that breaking the season into blocks of ten games is a good approach. Hence the name of this series. And so with Taylor as our inspiration, let’s look at where the Bolts find themselves after another ten...er...eleven...er...thirteen???...games.
The previous installment in this series was a 1200-word love letter to the way the team was playing. This will not be that. The last ten game segment was the worst for the team so far this season. The recent trends are concerning both for the team as a whole and for individual skaters. Ten games is a small sample and strange things can happen in small samples. But changes like the ones we’ve seen recently should be noticed and addressed before they become larger problems.
To start, we’ll look at the team in its entirety. The blue bars represent the full season. Orange dots show the last ten games and gray dots show the ten games before that. All data in the charts comes from the wonderful corsica.hockey.
The first thing to notice here is how many orange dots are on the left side of these charts. We haven’t seen that from the Lightning this year. The overall numbers are still good but by comparing the gray dots to the orange dots, we can see just how much worse the team is playing than in the previous ten game segments.
The most obvious problems are on defense. Suppressing shots and the danger of those shots has been a strength all year for the Lightning and part of the reason that goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has had such an outstanding season. But recently, the team is surrendering more shots and more dangerous shots.
Part of that is likely due to Victor Hedman and Ondrej Palat missing time in this segment of games. They are two of the best defensive players on the team and their absence is clearly having an impact. The drop in defensive performance is exacerbated by a drop in goaltending play as the team is letting in more goals than would be expected by a comfortable margin.
The last thing I want to discuss from a team perspective is the bizarre change in offensive approach. All season, we’ve talked about how the Bolts generate a ton of shots but don’t measure well in shot danger because they don’t do much work around the net. Instead, they create dangerous shots through passing sequences and having above average shooting talent.
Strangely, they’ve completely flipped their offensive profile in the last ten games. In that time, they’ve been a below average team in generating shots but when they do generate shots, they’re high quality opportunities. The result is almost the same in terms of expected goals but the change in how they get to that number is worth noting.
A change like this could be just a small sample size anomaly or it could be a mandate from the coaching staff to get to the dangerous areas more often. This is something I’ll be looking for in the next report to see if the trend continues or reverses back to the way it was for the first 40 games.
Having looked at the team, we’ll now check on the skaters individually. As always, we’ll use Game Score to guide us through a high level view of how each player is performing. But after that, we’ll dive a little deeper into some other metrics that haven’t been included here so far this season. The reason for the change is that I realized relying on one stat wasn’t telling the whole story and I want to create a more comprehensive picture than a single stat can provide.
The forwards continue to be the driving success behind the team but even they show weaker numbers over the last ten games. Nikita Kucherov’s recent form is hovering dangerously close to average. Fortunately, other forwards have picked up the slack. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson were particularly excellent, which highlights just how much Palat’s injury hurts the team. Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, and Yanni Gourde have all done their part to keep the team winning games during this stretch.
The two weakest forwards have been Ryan Callahan and Cedric Paquette. Callahan is coming off an outstanding previous ten games so he has a little more leeway. Paquette continues to struggle and his results are starting to look like those of a player who doesn’t need to be in the lineup regularly. Matthew Peca is getting a chance to show he deserves to stay in the NHL and if he can do that, maybe he’ll take over Paquette’s role when Palat returns from injury.
The defense is where we really start to see some concerning numbers. The Bolts only have two defenders who have been above average blue liners over the last ten games: Victor Hedman and Jake Dotchin. After that, the rest of the defense has been somewhere between average and bad.
Mikhail Sergachev’s position here supports the coaches decision to give him a two game rest before the all-star break. Braydon Coburn continues to look like he might be hitting a wall at age thirty-two. Slater Koekkoek has struggled. Aside from the top pairing, the Bolts defense has been a Pit of Despair over the last ten games and that needs to be corrected for them to get back to winning regularly.
The final chart consists of more metrics for all qualifying skaters covering the full season to date. They’re sorted first by position and then by 5v5 TOI. The goal here is to look for information that we might miss by looking only at Game Score. Blue is good and orange is bad. If you’re not familiar with estimated shot assists, you can read about them here. Estimated shot contributions are just shots and estimated shot assists combined.
The reason I added this chart is because I didn’t realize that Kucherov’s shot and expected goal impacts were so pedestrian this year. He is scoring a ton of points and no one will argue against the value of that. But he’s not driving play the way he has in the past and that’s something I’ll be watching over the second half of the season.
Contrast Kucherov with players like Stamkos, Point, Gourde, and Palat. All four of those are pushing play in a positive direction for the team. Stamkos and Point in particular are having great seasons. If this continues, the captain deserves some Hart trophy consideration.
On the blue line, Koekkoek and Andrej Sustr give an interesting example of how a heat map like this can help us understand a player’s performance. If we look at Game Score, we’d see Koekkoek clearly outperforming Sustr. But if we dig a little deeper, we see that the only real difference is that Koekkoek has scored more points in a very small sample of minutes. In fact, Sustr’s shot and expected goal impacts are better than Koekkoek’s. Given all of this information, I’d say the two have performed similarly in their chances this year and I find it difficult to make a strong argument that one deserves more minutes than the other.
Fifty games into the season, the Lightning are still in great position. They have the most points in the league. A playoff spot looks as secure as it could possibly be at this point in the season. But they still have room for improvement and the last ten games are evidence of that.
They racked up all those standings points by suppressing shots and easing the pressure on their goalies. They’ve failed to do that recently and that’s resulted in giving up more goals and losing more games. With Hedman back in the lineup, we’ll see if they can get back to their previous form. If not, the second half of the season will be bumpier than the first.