After 26 games, the Tampa Bay Lightning are currently mired in the muddy middle of the Atlantic Division with 29 points, which technically puts them in sixth place. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
The Bolts have still played anywhere from two to four games less than the rest of the teams in the division due to some odd early season scheduling. Despite that, they’re only two points behind teams tied for second place. They also have a +9 goal differential which is comfortably second best in the division as every other team aside from the first place Bruins is currently in the negatives.
Based on that, we can immediately get to a more positive picture of the team than is often being presented. Especially by fans on social media. Pointing out that the Lightning are technically not in a playoff spot right now is disingenuous at best. They’ve played well enough through the first third of the season to be in a playoff spot in a weak division.
But just being in a playoff spot in a weak division is not the expectation for this team. Their last five seasons consist of one of the best regular seasons in history last year and three deep playoff runs in the four years before that. Squeaking into the playoffs feels like a step back.
The relatively slow start to this season combined with the Hindenburg-esque flameout in the playoffs last year has led to lots of negativity around the team. Some fans have even called for head coach Jon Cooper to be fired. But before we make any drastic suggestions like that, let’s dig in a little more.
So far, we know the team’s place in the standings looks worse than it really is because of a light early season schedule. We can do better than that though. Starting at a high level, we can look at the team’s expected goal share. According to Evolving Hockey, they currently rank 10th in that metric at 5v5 and 8th in all situations. If you’re a person who’s been convinced the team is bad this year, that number make you reconsider.
Being top ten in both 5v5 and all situations expected goal share is not the profile of a bad team. It’s the opposite. Coincidentally, those ranks are nearly identical to how they finished last season (9th and 6th respectively). So in terms of shot metrics, the Lightning are basically the same team they were last year. That begs the question, what’s different?
To start to answer that, we can look at how this team’s pace compares to previous seasons in Cooper’s tenure in terms of expected goal differential and actual goal differential. All data in the following plots is via Evolving Hockey and includes all situations.
The first chart shows each stat separately so we can compare this season to previous ones.
This is our first indicator of a gap between this season and the rest of Cooper’s tenure. We see that this year’s team is middling in goal differential. But in terms of expected goal differential, they’re third best and in a nearly identical position to last season. That suggests that something is different in the way that the team’s goal results relate to their shot metrics.
To try to get a better look at what that might be, we can compare goals and expected goals by season.
This is where we really start to see the issue. The Lightning have a history of overperforming their expected goal differential. With Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and now Brayden Point, they have elite shooting talent that has allowed them to score at a much higher rate than a team with average shooting talent would.
What we see so far this season is that pattern has not held true. The goal differential line is right on top of the expected goal differential line, which hasn’t happened since 2016-2017. That year happens to be the last time the team missed the playoffs.
This tells us that the big difference between this start that has them stuck scrapping for a wild card spot and last season’s historic point total is that they aren’t outperforming their expected goal differential the way they usually have under Cooper. That issue can have two causes. Either they aren’t adding as many goals with their shooting talent or they aren’t saving as many goals with their goaltending.
The next plot looks at goals added via shooting and goaltending separately.
This visual highlights the problem clearly. In past seasons, the Lightning have mostly gotten average or slightly above average goaltending on the whole. They’ve paired that average goaltending with exceptional shooting to pump up their goal differential.
The difference this year is that they haven’t gotten the average goaltending. The way the two lines diverge is telling. The shooters are still doing their job as well as they have during most of this run as one of the top teams in the league but the goalies have not held up their end of the deal. They’ve been well below average to this point in the season, which has deflated the goal differential and thus, is the reason the Lightning sit in a much different place in the standings despite playing largely the same way in terms of shot metrics.
Watching this team sputter after the disastrous end to last season has been frustrating. And fans are entitled to express that frustration. But based on the way they’ve played this season, there’s very little to suggest that they aren’t one of the better teams in the NHL. Cooper has them playing like a top ten team in the NHL and unless you think a new coach would make them better than that, arguing for change is difficult.
If the frustration is to be directed anywhere, the goalies are a more fair target. And specifically Andrei Vasilevskiy. Curtis McElhinney has been fine as a backup. The big change from last season is that Vasilevskiy has been among the worst starters in the NHL so far this season in terms of goals saved above expected. That would be concerning under any circumstances but particularly in light of the contract he received over the summer that made him the highest paid player on the team along with Kucherov.
We wrote at the time about how risky that bet was. Vasilevskiy has only played 19 games so far this season and that shouldn’t be enough to meaningfully impact anyone’s opinion of his talent level. If you thought he was one of the best goalies in the league before the season, you should still think that and expect him to return to form. All we can say with any sort of confidence is that to this point in the season, his struggles are the primary reason the team’s results are so different from last year.
If his performance improves and the team continues to play the way it has in front of him, the results will start to head back in the right direction. The Lightning will probably never have another season like last year. But if they can get a few more saves as they close the gap between themselves and the rest of the division in games played, they should find themselves back in a more comfortable place in the playoff picture.