The Tampa Bay Lightning are on a ten day break as their bye week flows directly into the NHL All Star break. Fortunately for me, the break coincides perfectly with the Bolts’ fiftieth game of the season. That means we can do another ten game report.
For those unfamiliar, every ten games we take a snapshot of the Lightning’s play to see how the season is going. To do this, we use a series of key metrics to measure the play of the team as a whole, the skaters, and the goalies. All data for the teams and skaters comes from Corsica and is adjusted for score, venue (home/away) and zone starts (skaters only). The goalie data is via Offside Review and is adjusted for score only.
As the Lightning enter their bye week, they are the consensus pick as the best team in the NHL. They have a seven point lead with a game in hand over the Calgary Flames in the President’s Trophy race. They’ve opened a sixteen point lead over the Leafs in the Atlantic division. In their last ten games, the Bolts have seven wins and three losses. So all is well, right? Well...maybe. But in some ways, maybe not.
To start, let’s look at the team as a whole. On the next three charts, the bars represent the full season. The orange dots are the last ten games. And the gray dots are the ten games before that.
Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way here first. Over the last ten games, the 5v5 offense has been bad. The team isn’t generating many shots. And the shots they do generate aren’t dangerous. Compare that to the previous ten games and the difference is stark. For a team stacked with forward talent and known for its goal scoring, the Lightning have morphed into the trap-era Devils in terms of offensive proficiency. And that’s inexcusable. No team with this roster should be that impotent with the puck. Even for ten games.
On defense, the Bolts have been solid recently. They’ve been particularly strong in limiting dangerous shots against. But even the good defensive play doesn’t make up for the black hole on offense. These numbers beg the question as to whether the team is sacrificing offense to focus on defense. That’s impossible to discern from this type of analysis but if that’s the case, the coaches should address it and correct it.
In the big picture, ten games of poor 5v5 play isn’t a disaster. Especially for a team as good as the Lightning. And to their benefit, that poor play hasn’t translated to poor results yet. They’ve been able to find ways to keep on the right side of the scoreboard. But the poor play should be enough to raise a red flag to the coaches and players. Enough to push them toward a concerted effort to identify and correct the problems.
The bright spots over this recent stretch of play have been the shooting, goaltending, and special teams. The power play continues to be excellent and they’ve shot their way out of potentially worse results at 5v5. The goaltending has improved over the last ten games and stolen a couple of victories. Finding ways to win is the sign of a good team but even better would be to get back to controlling the game in all situations.
With a good idea of the team’s play, we can move on to the skaters. As a high level metric, we’ll use 5v5 Game Score to see how each player is performing. We’ll start with the forwards.
As expected based on the offensive numbers we saw above, lots of forwards have had a rough stretch recently. Nikita Kucherov is the only player in the good section of the chart over the last ten games. He remains a Hart Trophy contender and deservedly so. Steven Stamkos has also played well over this stretch along with his linemate Ondrej Palat.
But after that, the forward play has been bleak. The third line that was so dominant earlier in the year has stuggled. Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn, and J.T. Miller are all hovering near bad territory. Adam Erne and Cedric Paquette also had a rough time after playing well earlier in the season.
The forwards were always going to regress from where they were a month ago. We talked about that in this report last time. But this isn’t regression. This is just poor play. We saw it in the team’s offensive metrics. And now we see it in the individual skater performance.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t get much better when we move to the defenders. Mikhail Sergachev and Victor Hedman are the only two blue liners who have been above average over this recent stretch.
After that, things get ugly. Braydon Coburn is coming back to Earth following an unbelievable start. Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak no longer look like the shutdown pair they did during November and December. Dan Girardi looks like the Dan Girardi from the Rangers.
And Anton Stralman. What to say about Anton Stralman? We’re more than halfway into the season now. The numbers are still well below average and getting worse. Yes, he’s a defense-first player and a metric like Game Score that focuses on offensive production undervalues him. But it doesn’t get any better when we move to the heatmap below.
This chart shows how all of the regular skaters have performed in key metrics. Here, blue is good and orange is bad.
Not only does Stralman look bad by game score, he looks even worse in terms of play driving at 5v5. This used to be the are where he was dominant. These were the numbers that made him an underrated favorite of analysts. Now, these numbers tell a different story. A story I don’t like but one that I’m increasingly unable to push back against with any conviction. As much as I hate to say it, he’s been the worst defender on the team this year. If that continues, the coaches will have some tough decisions to make about where he fits on the blue line.
Among the forwards, the third line continues to look strong when looking at the whole season despite their struggles over the last ten games. Kucherov is driving play in terms of shots but not in expected goals. If he could get both of those numbers headed in the right direction and continue to score at anywhere near his current pace, he’d make a strong case for the MVP.
With a good idea of how the skaters are playing, we can move on to the goalies. The first chart shows game-by-game goals saved above expected for Andrei Vasilevskiy and Louis Domingue. Bars that go up indicate good games and bars that go down indicate weak ones.
Domingue only started one game in the last ten and was fine so we’ll focus on Vasilevskiy. He’s had some ups downs. But more ups. He hasn’t played the way he’s shown he can when he’s at his best but he hasn’t been part of the problem. For the most part, he’s kept the team in games and given them a chance to win.
The next chart shows cumulative goals saved above expected for both goalies. Like the chart above, Vasilevskiy is blue and Domingue is orange.
Vasy continues to hover around average at 5v5. His recent play has pushed him back upwards in the right direction but not enough to get him near the top of the pack. Strong play on the penalty kill buoys his all situations number. On that chart, he’s above average. And while not quite in the group of the best goaltenders so far this season, he’s not far away from pushing into that conversation. With strong play over the next ten to twenty games, he could reenter the group at the front of the pack.
The Lightning are one of the best teams in the NHL. But they haven’t been that over the last ten games, no matter what the results are. In the scope of a full season, ten games is relatively meaningless. And even moreso in the scope of a full season plus a playoff run. An optimist would say this is a temporary blip for a great team. And one they navigated with little damage.
Let’s hope that’s the case. Because if this is an indication of what to expect over the second half of the season, we could be in for a spring just like the last one. Watching the team coast their way to the post season giving up playoff positioning along the way.