The Tampa Bay Lightning enter the 2018-19 season as one of the favorites to compete for the Stanley Cup. They are buoyed by a roster built on a combination of stars and competent depth. The blue line is much improved. They have an emerging Vezina candidate in net.
But, even so, what makes this team special is still the forwards.
Nikita Kucherov is one of the best players in the league. If you ask my opinion, I have him third behind Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby. He signed a long-term extension this summer, erasing any potential doubts about his future that might have clouded this season. Not only is he among the best players in the NHL right now, his career is on an early trajectory that would carry him into the stratosphere.
Steven Stamkos is the second best forward on this team. That’s a wild sentence. Just a few years ago, Stamkos was in Kucherov’s spot as one of the best young forwards in the league with a seemingly limitless ceiling. Known as one of the best goal scorers in the league, he morphed into a new version of himself last season and managed to have one of the best seasons of his career. If he can rediscover some of the 5v5 goal scoring from early in his career and meld it with the playmaking ability he showed last year, he’s going to become even more of a nightmare for opposing teams.
Whoever plays with Stamkos and Kucherov will inevitably be perceived as a third wheel. On a line with two top-thirty forwards, that’s just the way it is. The most likely candidate to fill that role to start the season is JT Miller. Miller joined the team in February as part of the trade for Ryan McDonagh. The previous third member of the Lightning’s top line, Vladislav Namestnikov, was also part of that trade. Miller stepped directly into Namestnikov’s role and immediately reaped some of the same benefits.
Below is a chart that shows each player on the top line’s cumulative 5v5 game score during last season. The orange line is the player. The gray lines are guides to indicate the boundaries of performance by players on each line. The gray line at the top is the best player in the league. The gray line at the bottom is the worst. In between are the ranges where we would expect to find first liners, second liners, etc.
The horizontal line represents when Miller was traded. What we’re looking for in this chart is not only to see how the players performed generally, but also if their play changed noticeably after the trade.
Kucherov is, as usual, outstanding here. For two separate stretches, his line directly overlaps the top gray line, meaning that he had the highest 5v5 game score in the NHL during those time periods. While his paced slowed slightly over the second half of the season, he still finished among the best in the league. Stamkos retook his position among the best forwards in the NHL. He would be the best player on lots of teams.
The dominance of Kucherov and Stamkos is expected. The player with question marks is JT Miller, and, because of that, his chart is most interesting here. He was hovering around average third-line performance with the Rangers until the trade. After the trade, he immediately spiked and climbed into comfortable second-line range by the end of the year. Even acknowledging that players can get hot for lots of reasons, it seems pretty clear that playing on Tampa’s top line sparked an improvement in Miller’s output.
For Stamkos and Kucherov, the trade didn’t seem to impact their production. They continued on similar paces to those they established before the trade. If that continues this season, expect this line to stay together. Having Miller on the top line allows Ondrej Palat to slide to the second line and form a dynamic defensive duo with Brayden Point. That leaves Miller positioned to have a career year. He signed an expensive extension this summer to keep him Tampa for another five years. Don’t be surprised if finding a home with Kuch and Stammer makes that contract look like a bargain.
The second line has a little more room for movement than the top line. Point and Palat make such a perfect pair that they seem like a lock to be the foundation of the second line this season. The right wing on that line could be a position where we see some movement. The most likely candidate is Tyler Johnson. Johnson is currently injured but the team is hoping he’ll be ready for opening night. If he’s not, that could open the door to some mixing and matching.
Last season, Point emerged as a dominant 5v5 player. He appears to have secured a spot on the top power play unit and if he produces there, we’ll be able to remove that 5v5 qualifier from the previous sentence. He’s poised to breakout on the national stage. His 5v5 production wasn’t far behind Stamkos last year and he’s probably a better defensive player already than the captain. This isn’t to say he should unseat Stamkos on the top line, but it’s rather just an acknowledgement of how good of a player Point is becoming.
Palat was performing like a top line forward until he suffered an injury in January. The reason he was performing like a top line forward is because he is a top line forward. He doesn’t play that role on the Lightning, but he is comfortably among the best 90 forwards in the NHL. Even after missing two months, he still finished with numbers that would put him in the middle of the pack among second line players. Palat doesn’t score the way a player on the top line typically does, but the rest of his game is so strong that he makes up for that with his defense and playmaking.
Tyler Johnson is the mystery on this line. Last season was a streaky one. He struggled mightily to start the season, followed that with a short explosion of production, and leveled off again for most of the rest of the season. The result in aggregate was fine, but the team would probably like to see him find a more consistent rhythm.
Game score gives him more credit that other stats because it heavily weights scoring and doesn’t consider shot metrics as much. Johnson was a negative impact player in terms of expected goals and shots. Poor defensive results drove both of those numbers.
Part of that could be attributed to him changing lines frequently during the season. Toward the end of the year and in the playoffs, he seemed to find a more permanent home with Point and Palat. If he’s healthy to start season, expect the team to return to that lineup. Hopefully, some consistency in his role will lead to consistency and improvement in his play.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have an excellent top six. But you already knew that. They have five players who would be on the first line of most NHL teams. But you already knew that, too. What we don’t know is how far this group can carry the team this year. They have more support than ever with a revamped blue line and a goalie ready to take the next step in his career.
As nice as all that depth is, this group of forwards is the one that has to lead the way this season. Kucherov and Stamkos are the engine that powers the offense. Let’s see how far they can go.