After forty games, the team sits in first place in the NHL in terms of standings points and goal differential. They have a comfortable lead in both. Their 64 points is ten more than the second place Toronto Maple Leafs. Their +51 goal differential is 16 more than the Leafs. They’ve earned points in fifteen consecutive games, going 14-0-1 during a stretch that covers all of December and the end of November.
As we do after every ten game segment, let’s take a deep dive into the numbers for the team and the players. The team and skater data in this report is via Corsica. The team data is adjusted for score and venue (home/away). The skater data is adjusted for both of those as well as zone starts. The goalie data is via Offside Review and is adjusted for score only.
To start, we’ll look at the team as a whole. On this chart, the bar represents the full season, the orange dot the last ten games, and the gray dot the ten games before that.
The Lightning’s last ten games have been interesting in that they’ve been markedly different in both how they dominated their previous ten games and in their typical profile over the last two seasons. Normally, the Lightning don’t grade out well in terms of generating dangerous offense. Recently, they’ve been exceptional in that area. If they can find a way to sustain that, their already powerful offense could get even better.
Defensively, the Lightning have been among the best teams all season. This goes back to last season, as well. That hasn’t been the case over the last ten games as the team has hovered at or slightly below league average. That can happen over a ten game stretch, but the team will want to correct that before it becomes a long-term pattern.
The other notable departure from previous trends here is the power play. Just like the 5v5 offense, the quality of their chances at 5v4 has improved drastically recently. Typically, Tampa relies heavily on shooting talent to score from less dangerous areas, with mostly Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov firing bombs from the circles.
But lately, they’ve been generating more dangerous shots and converting at an incredibly high rate. If this bump in shot quality is more than a short-term mirage, an already dominant power play could become almost impossible to stop.
With a good grasp of how the team is playing as a whole, we can now start looking at the skaters individually. We’ll start with the Game Score charts for forwards and defenders. Game Score gives us a good overview of how a player is performing that we can use as a starting point before we look deeper at more metrics.
After a “slow” start, Nikita Kucherov has claimed his rightful place at the top of this chart. He’s playing Hart-caliber hockey and currently holds a three point lead over Mikko Rantanen for first in the NHL. Brayden Point sits just below him after finally coming back toward Earth a little bit following his unreal start. Steven Stamkos has also been phenomenal over the last ten games, making those who were so quick to criticize him earlier in the season look silly.
Speaking of looking silly, hello to all the Alex Killorn haters. Here he is having another ho hum year where he looks like a no-brainer top six forward for most teams. But because of the Lightning’s depth, he’s been the best player on a dominant third line. He won’t keep up the pace from his last ten games all season. If he did, he’d be among the very best forwards in the league, and he isn’t that. But he is effective and well worth his contract.
Anthony Cirelli is Killorn’s running mate on the third line and he has been nearly as good. But the third player on that line recently is the one we need to address. Adam Erne has been unbelievable. I’ve made the case for him to get more playing time before in these reports, but the evidence is overwhelming now. He has to play. He just has to.
For now, he’ll stay in the lineup with J.T. Miller out due to an injury. But even when he returns, Erne should stay. If I had to choose who to sit in favor of him, I would go with Cedric Paquette. The fourth line center has been better this year, but not enough to keep him playing ahead of Erne.
As unpopular as this might be, I’d also argue Erne has been demonstrably better than Mathieu Joseph. The rookie has been solid, but if the team isn’t willing to scratch Paquette because he’s a center, Joseph would be the lowest wing in the pecking order (understanding that Ryan Callahan isn’t an option because of coaching preferences).
On defense, the Lightning are trying something interesting. They are rotating through seven defenders, with a different player resting each game. Erik Cernak’s emergence has made it impossible to scratch him every night, and that’s led to Braydon Coburn, Dan Girardi, Mikhail Sergachev, and Cernak himself alternating as healthy scratches.
In terms of performance, we see some interesting trends here. Sergachev continues to play well. Coburn is starting to move back to a more reasonable place for him after he seemingly discovered the fountain of youth at the start of the season. Ryan McDonagh has hit his first rough patch of the season. Ten games isn’t worth getting too worked up about, but he needs to get back closer to where he was earlier in the year.
Victor Hedman hasn’t quite climbed back to where he was last year, but he’s mostly recovered from his poor start to the season. So far, the Lightning have been winning even without him playing at his peak level. His room for improvement is one of the biggest x-factors for the Lightning heading into the second half of the season.
The heatmap below gives more information on how each player has performed. Blue is good and orange is bad.
The results here give some helpful context to the numbers above. The third line for the Lightning has been the play driving workhorse. The team dominates in shots and expected goals when that group is on the ice. The top six hasn’t been as effective tilting the ice, but they score so much that it hardly matters. The Lightning have a clear delineation of roles with the forward group and each line excels in their task.
On defense, Anton Stralman and Ryan McDonagh stand out from the rest. They’ve both not driven play the way the other defenders have. Part of that could be due to the difficult usage they typically receive from the coaches. But the numbers here attempt to account for that. Stralman’s numbers are particularly concerning. At age 32, these could be signs of a decline. I’m not ready to claim that yet, but seeing him start to move these numbers in the right direction over the second half of the season would be encouraging.
The last part of the team we’ll examine is the goaltenders. The first chart below shows game by game how the goalies have played in terms of goals saved above expected. Being above the line means allowing less goals than would be expected and being below the line means allowing more.
Since Andrei Vasilevskiy returned, his results have been mixed. He was great in his first game back, but had a few poor games in a row before a strong game against the Ducks in which he out-dueled Vezina front runner John Gibson. Louis Domingue has only played once since Vasilevskiy rejoined the team, and he played well enough.
The next cart shows the two Tampa goaltenders compared to the rest of the goalies in the NHL.
Domingue continues to be more than serviceable as a backup. Vasilevskiy has fallen a bit from early season heights. Some of that is due to the injury, but some is also due to his average play since he returned. He’s arguably having a top ten season among NHL goalies, but any Vezina talk is unwarranted at the moment. He needs to put together a consistent run of solid starts to get back into that conversation.
The Lightning find themselves in a similar position to where they were at this time last season. Last year, January was the start of several months of mediocre play that saw them nearly lose their lead in the Atlantic Division and lose the President’s Trophy to Nashville.
The playoffs are obviously more important than the regular season, but the team will likely want to show a better second half than last season. That starts with how they play in January. They’ve been about as good as they can possibly be in December. We’ll see if they can sustain that heading into 2019.