The Lightning have started the season poorly. After an unlucky 13 games, they sit in sixth place in the Atlantic Division. That’s last among the six good teams in the division but still well ahead of the two truly terrible teams at the bottom of the division. Their standings positions is going to get worse over the next couple weeks as the team only has two games during that time due to their trip to Sweden. By the end of that trip, they will likely have a bit of a mountain to climb to get back up to pace in the division.
At 6-5-2, the Lightning have the record of a mediocre team. And if we dig deeper, their statistical profile supports that. They currently sit 19th in expected goal share at 5v5 according to Evolving Hockey. That number drops to 25th in all situations, largely because of their poor penalty differential.
No matter how we slice the numbers, the Lightning have not met the lofty expectations of their fanbase, the rest of the hockey community, or themselves. The whiplash from an historic regular season to an historic playoff burnout to a month of boring mediocrity has consequences. Those are evident in the fanbase.
After every loss, Twitter is full of people calling for major changes, with firing head coach Jon Cooper being the most common. I’ve even noticed an uptick in that sentiment among commentators here at Raw Charge who tend to be less quick to advocate drastic action.
I suspect that part of what has contributed to this frustration is the way the Lightning have lost games this year. They’ve played four particularly woeful ones. It started with the third game of the season against Carolina, which was one of the most lopsided games in the modern stats era. But the team has had three more awful outings since then. One came against the Ottawa Senators less than a week after the Canes loss. The other two were the most recent two games before this international road trip.
On Thursday, the Lightning somehow won a game against the New Jersey Devils in which they were dominated. And then on Saturday against the Islanders, the Bolts put up another lifeless performance ending in a 5-2 loss.
In all four of those games, the Lightning posted less than two expected goals. To put that in context, the team had six of those games all of last season. The following chart shows what that looks like. And just to be clear, these weren’t games where they traded offense for defense. They lost the xG battle in each by a wide margin. These were just games where they did nothing offensively.
To transition from speaking generally to speaking more personally, I think this is the source of most of my frustration. I understand that teams will go through ups and downs over the course of a season. So a 6-5-2 stretch isn’t a reason to get worked up. But the way the Lightning have lost these games has been hard to watch.
They’ve been boring. Losing games is one thing. But being boring is another. Especially with this roster. The team has been so bland this season that fans, including me, are growing weary. That weariness doesn’t help the feeling that a malaise has been hanging over the franchise since the playoff exit last season.
This team has so much talent. The forward group is overwhelming. They have 11 forwards who would be a lock to play in most teams’ top nine. They have several more forwards who look to be on the cusp of being good NHL players. And while the blue line isn’t quite on the same level, they have five above-average players and a sixth spot that can be filled by a rotating cast of competent veterans.
And this isn’t speculation. We saw them do it last year. We aren’t projecting something that hasn’t happened. We know this group can be dominant. So to see them repeatedly spit and sputter there way to less than two expected goals over sixty minutes is disconcerting.
Even worse, we’ve probably reached the point in the competitive cycle where this team will get slightly worse each season. They already had to offload J.T. Miller to make space over the summer. Next summer will almost certainly see the departure of more useful players, whether it’s a forward like Tyler Johnson or a defender like Mikhail Sergachev. The front office will do their best but the reality of a hard cap league is that a team can only keep so much talent.
The Lightning’s days as the upstart are over. Every year from now until this core group of players ages out of greatness will be a season where they are expected to compete for a Cup followed by a summer where the front office tries to navigate the salary cap to keep as much of the team together as possible and make smart additions at the margins.
For fans, that’s much less fun than a team with lots of young talent and low expectations. Couple that feeling with the impotent brand of hockey we’ve seen from the team in almost a third of the games so far this season, and the source of the frustration starts to become more evident.
We know this window isn’t open forever. We know hockey is a sport governed by luck and so disappointment is inevitable. But good lord, can we at least see the exciting skilled team we know exists somewhere in that locker room instead of whatever has shown up on the ice so far this season?
In terms of calling for change, I hear that sentiment and I understand it. But I’m not there yet. One of the best regular seasons in history earns more than a quarter of the following season even if the team did suffer an embarrassing first round sweep in between those two things.
If you asked me how I would approach this from an evaluation perspective, I wouldn’t even start thinking about any major decisions until December 1st. If the team still looks this bad come December, I would start diving deep into what’s happening to try to understand it. Which players are diverging the most from their past performance? In what ways? Has anything changed in their approach to suggest why that might be?
Depending on what I found during several weeks of analysis, I might consider big changes come January. I don’t think this franchise is in a position to just punt on seasons during this team’s prime. So if we’re still talking about mediocre results and bottom third shot metrics in mid December, then I’m willing to participate in a larger conversation at that point.
But for right now, all I can say is that watching this team is frustrating. They’re better than this. We’ve seen scarcely little of their best and far too much of a worst that frankly, I didn’t even know they had.
So for now, I don’t know what else to do but wait and hope they improve. Jon Cooper is a good coach. This team is stacked with good players. They’ve been to a Stanley Cup Final and two Eastern Conference Finals. Yes, things could get bad enough that the front office has no choice but to make a change. But for now, the right decision is to let them try to work this out. And I hope they do. This is the best period of sustained success in team history and they deserve at least one more run at putting the cherry on top of the sundae.