Despite having one of the best regular seasons in recent memory last year, the Lightning front office did some tinkering with the roster over the summer. Most of it occurred lower in the lineup with the J.T. Miller trade to Vancouver being the most notable move as he spent some time in the top half of the forward group during his season and a half in Tampa. Aside from the Miller trade, Dan Girardi and Ryan Callahan retired. Anton Stralman left to the Florida Panthers as a free agent. Adam Erne was traded to the Detroit Red Wings. To replace them, the team added Kevin Shattenkirk, Patrick Maroon, and Luke Witkowski as free agents. Carter Verhaeghe made the team out of camp following his breakout season in which he won the AHL scoring title.
The Lightning haven’t even played ten games yet this season so we haven’t had enough time to draw confident conclusions about player performance. But we can look at some numbers to get an idea of how the new players are adjusting to being a Bolt. All four of the players mentioned in the previous paragraph have played significant minutes. Shattenkirk is currently on the second pair. Maroon and Witkowski have formed the core of the fourth line initially centered by Gemel Smith. Verhaeghe took Smith’s place when Brayden Point returned from injury and Smith was demoted.
To get an overview of each player’s performance, the following plot shows their offensive and defensive impacts in terms of relative to teammate expected goal rates. Players in the top right have positive impacts both offensively and defensively while players in the bottom left are the opposite. The new players have orange labels to make them more noticeable. All data for this chart comes from Evolving Hockey.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Witkowski is on an island by himself in the bad part of this chart. We have to apply some caveats here that we’re dealing with players who have played small amounts of minutes with and away from each other. When Maroon and Verhaeghe play away from Witkowski, they’re playing with better players on the third line like Mathieu Joseph or Yanni Gourde. Thus, the results here might be a little exaggerated by early season weirdness.
Even acknowledging that the impact might be inflated, Witko is in a bad spot. Not even a generous analysis can fully excuse how much worse he’s been than the rest of the team. And frankly, that shouldn’t be a surprise. He’s spent most of his career in the AHL for a reason. He’s an excellent player at that level but in the NHL, he’s a tweener at best who won’t be among the best twelve forwards on a good team. Considering the Lightning’s unusual forward depth, he’s probably 15th or 16th on the depth chart if we’re going based purely on on-ice impact.
But we all know he’s not in the lineup because of his on-ice impact. He’s in the lineup to be a tough guy and so far, the coaches seem content with his performance in that role. He’s thrown some hits and skated hard on every shift. Whether all that effort and physicality accomplishes anything is debatable.
The player most affected by the team’s seeming commitment to keeping Witkowski in the lineup is Carter Verhaeghe. He appears to be headed for the press box upon Paquette’s return and that’s unfortunate because he’s been solid in his opportunity so far this season. He’s earned shifts on the third line and hasn’t looked out of place in those minutes. If I was constructing the roster, keeping Verhaeghe in over Witkowski would be a no brainer but the coaches have different priorities this season.
Verhaeghe is also waiver eligible and while he would have been a risk to send to Syracuse before the season, it now seems even more unlikely he would pass through waivers after showing he can play at the NHL level. He would be an immediate improvement for most teams and could skate on plenty of third lines around the league. If the team intends to stick with this group of forwards, Verhaeghe could be headed for lots of time in the press box and limited minutes as an injury replacement.
Maroon has the most solidified role of any of this group of newcomers. He’s going to float around the lineup and play his style of game, which is effective. He’s not the offensive dynamo he appears to be on the chart. Those numbers are likely inflated by how much better he’s been in the few minutes he’s had away from Witkowski. Maroon knows what he is and adds more of the physicality the Lightning sought this offseason. But along with that physicality, he brings some skill around the net and a well-rounded game at both ends of the ice.
While the debate over Witkowski and Verhaeghe is interesting, the impact of a fourth line wing is minimal and even if the coaches make a sub-optimal decision, it likely won’t have a major impact on winning and losing games. Kevin Shattenkirk’s usage, on the other hand, represents a real impact. He’s played on all three pairs so far this season and seems to be taking some time to adjust to his new surroundings.
To the eye, he’s made some big mistakes but also had some highlight reel plays. If you asked me what his numbers would look like, I’d expect a player with bad defensive impacts and strong offensive impacts. But we don’t see that at all on the chart. He’s been a neutral impact player offensively and solid defensively.
We already stated that we have to be a little bit careful drawing big conclusions from so few minutes. But what I take from these numbers is that maybe my eyes are exaggerating his gaffes and missing the smaller good plays he makes. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time someone has made that mistake evaluating a defender.
If he can hang in the second pair with McDonagh and free up Erik Cernak to be the defensively responsible partner who lets Victor Hedman reach his full potential as a freelancer, that will be huge for the Lightning. That top four with the always strong third pairing of Braydon Coburn and Mikhail Sergachev is probably the optimal lineup for the Bolts. But it hinges on Shattenkirk meshing well on the second pair and being able to play tougher minutes with McDonagh.
Of the four new entrants to the Lightning lineup to start the season, three have shown well and one has struggled. Unfortunately for Verhaeghe, it doesn’t look like he’s done enough to overcome the coaches’ desire for Witkowski’s physicality on the fourth line and so the skilled winger is likely headed to the press box.
We’ll follow that competition for ice time as it continues but the other two veteran additions appear to be locks to stick in the Lightning lineup. Maroon looks to be exactly as advertised and is contributing in a similar fashion as he did for the Blues last season. Shattenkirk is taking longer to find his ideal fit among the defensive group but seems to be settling in on the second pair and has put up acceptable numbers in the mean time.
The new players, for the most part, appear to be contributing. Now the players who were part of last year’s run need to rediscover their games. Because if you scroll back up and look at that chart, the new guys aren’t the problem early in the season.