After their first 20 games, the Tampa Bay Lightning sit sixth in the Atlantic Division with 24 points. That number is a little misleading though as they’ve played at least three games fewer than all of their division rivals with the gap as big as five for some teams due to early season scheduling quirks.
At first glance, it looks like the division might have five or six competitive teams this season. But upon a deeper look, none of those teams have a particularly strong statistical profile. The Lightning have as much a claim as anyone else in that group to having played the best so far this season. The Bruins have racked up points and a big goal differential but they’ve relied on shooting and goaltending to get there. Their 5v5 shot metrics are middling.
So while the Lightning have a bit of a hill to climb, none of the teams in front of them have been playing in a way that suggests they’ll run away with the division. As they catch up to the pack in games played, they should also have a chance to close the gap in standings points.
Last time we did one of these reports, we were limited by data issues at the NHL and the unavailability of many of the metrics we typically use. Those issues have been corrected and we can take a look at the full suite of metrics we typically use. The first chart in the report is via Natural Stat Trick and the rest are via Evolving Hockey. Please support their work here and here if you can.
In the first chart, we’re looking at the team’s overall play. The bars represent the full season, the orange dots represent the last ten games, and the gray dots represent the ten games before that.
Starting with the overall picture, things look okay. The team is closing in on the good range in expected goal share. They’ve been shooting as well as they usually do to turn their shot metrics into better results.
The big thing that stands out in terms of 5v5 play is the difference from the first ten games to the second. At both ends of the ice, they’ve made slight improvements in shot quantity but taking big steps back in terms of quality. That’s led to a step back in terms of expected goal share at 5v5. While the improvement in quantity is good to see, it would be nice to see them regain more control of the quality of chances.
If we’re looking for an explanation for the better results over the last ten games despite the worse 5v5 shot metrics, the answer is staring at us in the special teams section of the chart. The power play has been outrageous. They’ve been generating tons of shots and averaging above average quality on those shots. On top of that, they’ve been shooting the lights out. That’s an outrageous combination and the team has its power play to thank for its recent success.
The penalty kill has been mostly average but the goaltending has been outstanding, which has resulted in fewer goals than expected. This is one area where the team has been prone to wild swings so a consistently above average performance to start the season is a good sign.
With a good idea of how the team has played as a whole, we can start looking into the individual players. The following is a heatmap of key stats for the skaters. Dark blue is best, dark orange is worst, and light gray is average. The offense and defense measures are regularized adjusted plus minus (RAPM) calculations.
To start, we see a lot of blue on this chart. But let’s get the negatives out of the way first. I know some folks feel like we’ve been unfair to Luke Witkowski in our coverage here at the blog but this chart pretty much tells the whole story. There’s not a single stat where he has a meaningful positive impact on his teammates.
The only other players that haven’t played well to start the season are Braydon Coburn and Erik Cernak. Coburn isn’t particularly surprising considering his age and the contract he signed in the offseason. He appears to be in a competition with Luke Schenn and Jan Rutta (who didn’t meet the TOI requirements for this chart) for the sixth defender spot so him putting up below average results is fine.
Cernak is a bigger concern. He emerged last year as a defensive stalwart alongside Ryan McDonagh and those two formed a second pair that stabilized the Lightning blue line after year’s of struggles. He hasn’t been able to achieve the same level of success so far this season. If he continues to struggle, the Lightning might need to consider mixing up the pairs to take some of the pressure off him and see if he can rediscover his form from last year.
Moving on to the players who have excelled, Kevin Shattenkirk has been a revelation on the blue line. I was skeptical of the fit early in the season but he’s settled in and been arguably the best player on the blue line for the Lightning. If he keeps this up all year, his decision to take a one year contract in Tampa is going to pay off for him huge next summer.
Among the forwards, Yanni Gourde, Brayden Point, and Anthony Cirelli have been the stars to begin the season. We covered Gourde at length last week so we won’t dwell too long on it here but all the blue in this chart does a good job of illustrating how he’s been a well rounded contributor this season.
Brayden Point’s performance shouldn’t surprise anyone. He’s been putting up numbers over the last couple of years that suggest he’ll be in the Hart Trophy conversation during his career. The only area where he’s off to a bit of slow start is on the power play but he’s been solid everywhere else.
Cirelli is particularly interesting. He’s doing his normal thing of posting dominant defensive numbers. But he’s also done some scoring to start the season, which is new. However, that bump in scoring isn’t matched by a bump in offensive play in terms of how many shots he’s taking or or contributing to so I wouldn’t bet on this newfound scoring to continue. Even so, he’s a valuable player and just his defensive impact alone makes him one of the most important players on this roster.
While we were able to focus mostly on positives with the skaters, that’s not the case with the goalies. The first chart shows each goalie’s performance on a game by game basis. Being above the horizontal axis is a good game and below is bad.
Starting with Andrei Vasilevskiy, he hasn’t posted many games on the good side of this axis. His most recent start was his best in a couple weeks and hopefully, that will send him back in the right direction. Because outside of that, he’s been having a rough run in the last ten games. Curtis McElhinney has been solid as a backup. He’s avoided any terrible games and hovered mostly around average, which is perfectly fine for his role.
The last chart we’ll look at shows the cumulative performance for the goalies.
This shows just how rough Vasilevskiy’s start has been. He’s among the worst starters in the NHL so far this season. And considering the contract he signed over the summer, that’s a concern. I’m not going to get too worked up over 14 bad games to start a season for a goalie but this is a trend the Lightning would like to see reverse course over the next few weeks. McElhinney again shows well posting slightly above average numbers in all situations.
This report is a mixed bag for the Lightning. So far this season, the Lightning are posting good but not great shot metrics. The emergence of their power play as a dominant force again has allowed them to outperform those numbers. The biggest area for concern is Andrei Vasilevskiy in net.
The 20 game mark is the point in the season where we should start to put some stock in the numbers we’re seeing. Teams will obviously change over the course of the season but 20 games is a large enough number of observations to have some confidence in what we’re seeing.
Based on that, the Lightning look like a good team with some clear areas for improvement. To start, they need to show they can be a dominant team at 5v5. They’ve rarely done that this season even against bad teams. They also need Vasilevskiy to sort himself out. Goalie performance fluctuates greatly and part of being a successful long term starter and weathering bad stretches without letting it impact future performance. The team needs him to bounce back and play the way he did last season.
Last year’s team peaked in November and December. After the playoff elimination, much was made about the team needing to peak at the right time. If this start to the season is part of slow build to crescendo in the spring, that could bode well for the team. But we won’t know that until we do.
Analyzing the regular season this year is going to be difficult because everything is couched in the knowledge that aside from just making the playoffs, the team has little else to accomplish. The team isn’t playing great but they also aren’t playing poorly enough to raise any alarms about missing playoffs. So for now, we’re still in wait and see mode. And likely will be at least the next couple months.