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Lightning Round: Analyzing the NHL debut of Mitchell Stephens

Stephens could not escape the frustrating doom that was NYI vs TBL

New York Islanders v Tampa Bay Lightning
TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 9: Mitchell Stephens #67 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against Scott Mayfield #24 of the New York Islanders during the third period at Amalie Arena on December 9, 2019 in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images

Add one more to the tally of Syracuse Crunch graduates that have made their debut on the Tampa Bay Lightning. The list is long, with most players still on the NHL roster today, now including one more forward: Mitchell Stephens.

The 22-year-old center was in the middle of his third full season with the Crunch, amassing 36 goals and 76 points in 131 regular season games. Stephens is a good player by AHL standards, a genuine top-six player.

The Lightning had other, more bona-fide options to call up to the NHL, including Danick Martel, Luke Witkowski, or even a return for Alex Volkov, they still decided they wanted to give this right-shot kid a chance. A properly earned chance.

Stephens stepped into the lineup for a struggling Mathieu Joseph, who after having a hot start to his season, was really starting to struggle. Joseph has not managed a shot at even strength in seven straight games and hasn’t looked his best on the third line. I don’t think the Lightning are ready to give up on Joseph, but a night off from the game might help him refocus before he comes back in again in the near future.

Another thing that might motivate Joseph is the potential for some competition with Stephens for the job. In his first game, Stephens played really well on a quickly-edited fourth line that got quickly coined as the “Crunch Line.”

The average height of the Cory Conacher - Mitchell Stephens - Carter Verhaeghe line is a whomping 5’10.5”, so the idea of them being a “Crunch” line is quite funny. That said, they played a determined and feisty game. They laid a grand total of four hits and absorbed seven, which lines up nicely with the shot share that showed the trio having the puck and playing with it in the offensive zone more than they didn’t.

Stephens started the game with Pat Maroon and Cedric Paquette. They played about two minutes together and genuinely didn’t do anything on the ice. No shots for, none against. Well, they did do something; Stephens drew a power play for his team, forcing Adam Pelech to the penalty box for tripping.

After the first period, Stephens was with his Crunch boys and did great at 5v5. They were positive in shot attempts (10-5), including one scoring chance for Stephens. Unfortunately, they were dinged with two goals against.

The Lightning absolutely trounced the Islanders in this game, beating them in shots and chances and goalposts with over 60% of the possession all game. It was a totally frustrating 5-1 loss that Stephens ended up being a victim to, finishing his debut a -2.

The first goal was super unfortunate for Stephens, who was working his ass off to catch the Islander heading to the front of the net after a bad (long) change by his guy. Conacher had just gotten robbed on a breakaway while the Lightning were changing. Unfortunately, the Islanders pushed the play back up the other way too quickly for the fresh legs to get in position. Stephens was fighting an uphill battle across two zones of the ice before Ross Johnston threw a whiffle puck past Curtis McElhinney. Super unfortunate.

The second goal Stephens was on for was an awful, awful bounce. The puck was rung around the boards by Verhaeghe, trying to get it to Luke Schenn to clear. It would’ve worked, but the puck skipped off the boards right to Brock Nelson right in front of the net. Stephens was in a good position — low enough that he could cover the middle of the ice and moving to be an outlet for Hedman on the breakout — but the puck didn’t go where it should’ve and Stephens had to jump back in an instant to try and stop Nelson who scored. I was actually quite impressed with Stephens’ change of direction on the play. A lot of players wouldn’t have been close.

So that was his debut — unlucky, just like the rest of his team. The Islanders have been on a season-long run of this sort of form. Their downfall is coming eventually... right?!

Lightning Organization News

I’m going to start with sharing the preview for the Islanders game because it has a great update on the injury situation facing the Lightning. Tyler Johnson will miss about a week and Braydon Coburn is on the IR, out week-to-week. [Raw Charge]

We are approaching the NHL holiday roster freeze date (December 18th to December 28th). During this time, NHL teams are not allowed to make any moves, including assignments. There are some injury rules that might affect Coburn returning to the team. Katya at our Toronto sister site PPP has a really good write-up about all that over there. It’s obviously about the Leafs, but if you squint and just look at the blue and white on the jersey, it’s pretty much the same. [Pension Plan Puppets]

Back to Tampa Bay, Alan wrote the QuickCap for the game, going in much more depth about how frustrating the loss to the Islanders was. Some “pundits” (I hate that word, it’s a Hindu word, TV commentators bastardize the word and we should kick it out of our vocabulary) thought the Lightning looked bad in the game. They did not. And Alan explained why. [Raw Charge]

Geo covered the call-ups for Stephens and Conacher, including their cap implications. I encourage reading his work to get a more full picture that I failed to provide in the intro here. [Raw Charge]

Lauren looked at the correlation(?) between U18 World Hockey Championships and whether groups of teenagers can recreate it at the U20 level, also known as the World Juniors. It’s a really interesting piece that Lauren has been mulling over since the summer (yes, Lauren, I remember) and I think she did a really good job looking at the facts. [Raw Charge]

Last but not least, Tracey updates us on all things Orlando Solar Bears from the past week. Highlights, roster moves, and... *squints at cue card* Christmas tree jerseys??? [Raw Charge]

Other Hockey News

In a press release on Monday evening, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman outlined a “course of action for inclusion and diversity” that the league will implement to combat the discrimination and abuses that have been revealed to be rampant throughout the league. There are many measures that I commend the league for putting together with assistance from former player Akim Aliu.

I have included two articles from the NHL website that covers what was said by Bettman and what the NHL intends to do, as well as the above post by Frank Seravalli at TSN. He is a trusted journalistic voice in processes like this and covers the news completely and accurately.

One of the two NHL articles is from William Douglas, better known as the founder of the Color of Hockey blog. His voice is fair and honest and his experience speaks for itself. I especially liked the quote “by outlining a course of action, Commissioner Bettman reinforced that Hockey Is For Everyone and the League’s Declaration of Principles aren’t hollow slogans.” Those two “initiatives” by the league always felt hollow, but no longer, and I couldn’t be happier.

When I launched my Color of Hockey blog seven years ago this month, I dedicated it to hockey fans and people of color who love this game and enjoy witnessing change, especially one that reflects the shifting demographics in North America.