The Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2017-2018 season is officially over. And while they fell short of winning a championship, they were still among the best teams in the NHL. Now that we’ve had a few weeks to process all that happened, we’re going to look at how each player on the roster performed this season.
To do this, we’re going to assign each player a school-style grade on the A to F scale. But we’re not doing this alone. We reached out to you, the readers, to help us with our grading. This is the first in a series of articles where we will unveil the results of your grades, our staff grades, and a combined grade for the 25 players who played a significant number of minutes this year and were not traded or released.
The player grade series will be four parts and will include the top six forwards, bottom seven forwards, defense, and goaltenders in separate articles over the next two weeks. We start today with the top six forwards.
The first chart shows the grades from the readers, the writers, and the combined grade for each player. As you can see, we’re mostly on the same page, although the readers were a little bit tougher in their grading for this group.
For every player except for Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point, readers gave a slightly lower grade than writers did. No player got below a B- in the top six and that’s the way it should be, because these are all good players.
Of all the players graded in the survey, Brayden Point had the highest grade from the readers, even higher than Nikita Kucherov. I don’t interpret that to mean that people think Point is better than Kuch. I think the results are an indication of how excited everyone is about how well Point played in just his second professional season. He was a revelation this year and we’ll get more into that later when we look at the stats.
The next chart shows a breakdown of how the readers voted for each of the players in the top six. The consensus on Point was strong, with Nikita Kucherov close behind him. The opinions on Tyler Johnson and J.T. Miller were more varied with some fans grading them in the C range.
Ondrej Palat is an interesting case in that almost no one was unhappy with his play. Even Kucherov and Steven Stamkos had detractors among the fanbase but it seems that Palat is pretty much universally appreciated. And frankly, that’s the way it should be. He plays a reliable two-way game and is versatile enough to fulfill multiple roles. I’m not sure I could find a reason to be mad about Ondrej Palat if I tried.
Having looked at the subjective grading of our community (readers and writers) here at Raw Charge, let’s now delve into the objective stats to try to understand what might be driving the perceptions we see above. All data below is via Corsica except for the estimated passing data, which is calculated via the methodology here.
If you’re a frequent reader here, you’ll recognize this chart. It shows how each player performed in some key metrics. On this chart, blue is good and orange is bad relative to the rest of the league.
Nikita Kucherov’s scoring makes him one of the most valuable players in the league. Full stop. But if we’re looking for potential areas for improvement, it certainly looks like his defensive results got worse this year. In fact, they dipped so much that he was a below average player in terms of his impact on expected goal share. That’s a quite a drop from last season when he was not only a dynamic scorer but also a great play driver.
A good goal for Kuch for next season would be to marry the elite scoring he’s unleashed in the last season and a half with the play driving that marked his previous seasons. If he can do that, he’ll be a perennial Hart Trophy contender.
Steven Stamkos had a similar year to Kucherov, which makes sense because they played on the same line almost all year. The big difference is that he managed to be a net positive in driving play while also scoring a bunch. The most interesting thing about Stamkos this year is how his game changed. He became a playmaker at 5v5 and scored most of his goals on the power play.
Check out his estimated shot assists box. By that metric, he looks like one of the best passers in the league at 5v5, which is a big change for a player who has always been a shoot-first goal scorer. We could speculate about potential reasons: having Kuch on his line, adjusting his game after another major knee surgery, etc. But whatever it is, it worked and Stamkos had his best season in years.
I’m not sure whether to expect the change in playing style to continue next season and monitoring this trend will be one of the big things I’m watching next year. If he rediscovers his 5v5 goal scoring and retains this new playmaking ability, he would get back to being among the best players in the NHL. But even this new Stamkos is a great player and he forms a perfect pair with Nikita Kucherov ensuring the Lightning will have a dangerous top line.
Stamkos and Kucherov are the stars of this forward group but Brayden Point is pushing to join them. At 5v5, he was the most well-rounded forward on the team. He drove play. He scored at the same rate as Stamkos. If he produced on the power play, he would have the point totals to get national attention but he struggled a bit on the second unit. In the playoffs, he moved up to playing in the slot on the first unit. If he stays there next year and produces like he’s capable, he could be a breakout star leaguewide next season.
Point has a unique combination of skills that make him a special player who can perform in any role given to him. His ability to go head-to-head with Patrice Bergeron in the second round of the playoffs solidified in my mind that his ceiling is to be among the best centers in the NHL. That’s not hyperbole. His game is well-rounded and he has the high-end finishing ability to reach those heights.
The other three forwards in the top six had varying degrees of success. We discussed Palat a bit above but he is the definition of steady. He does everything well and scores enough to be a legitimate top line left winger. His defensive responsibility makes him a perfect fit with more offensive-minded players as he is able to bear more of the workload in his own zone. In the offensive zone, he’s a great playmaker and passer.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has generally kept Palat on the second line to create a more balanced lineup. And Palat excels in that role. But he’s also capable of playing with Stamkos and Kucherov on the top line and I wonder if Cooper will try that a bit more next season. If they can do that without getting too top heavy, it would give the Bolts a dominant top line. Or they can keep him on the second line with Brayden Point and have two top lines that can matchup against anyone in the league. That’s the value of versatility.
Tyler Johnson was the lowest rated player of any in this group of six. And the chart helps us understand why. He scored like a top six forward again this year but he struggled defensively and was a net negative in his his impact on shot share and expected goal share. He saw his role shift this year as Point took his spot centering the second line. Johnson took turns centering the third line or playing wing on the second line and eventually settled into a spot on the right wing next to Point.
The areas for improvement for Johnson for next year are clear. He needs to do better at getting the ice tilted back in the right direction. His scoring is valuable and that alone justifies his place as a top six forward. But for the Lightning to reach the goals they have for themselves, they need Johnson to not only score, but get back to being at least a break even player in shot share.
Finally, we’ll discuss J.T. Miller. Evaluating a player who was only in Tampa for a short time is tough. He has by far the worst numbers of anyone in this group but most of those numbers come from his time with the Rangers. He started strong with the Lighnting scoring a slew of goals playing on the top line with Stamkos and Kucherov. But the scoring eventually fizzled and he didn’t perform particularly well in the playoffs.
He’s the biggest question mark for the Lightning entering this offseason. He’s due a big contract extension and the Lightning have cap concerns to consider. That makes trading him a possibility although they could re-sign him, give him a full year in Tampa to show what he can do, and then decide who to trade next summer before the cap crunch.
The Lightning have a dynamic top-six forward group so it shouldn’t be a surprise that most of this article is positive with a a few minor areas of improvement identified. Your grades, our grades, and the stats all agree that these are good players. And that’s encouraging because most if not all of them will likely be back in a similar role next season.
Look for the article with your grades on the rest of the forward group later this week.