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Time for Lightning to start ramping up ice time

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Cooper has managed ice time well, but it’s time to start conditioning the players for more playing time.

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper and his staff have done a phenomenal job at limiting the ice time of the Lightning’s top players. Even with their top players playing less, the team has put in one of the best season’s of the past 20 years while winning the President’s Trophy. This has meant that a lot of the roster is fresher going into the playoffs as compared to last year. With their legs fresh, they’ll have more gas in the tank for a long playoff run.

However, these players probably shouldn’t jump right up to much higher ice times when the playoffs come. With just a couple weeks to go, now is a good time to start conditioning players to higher ice times so that they’ve adjusted to it and are ready for it going into the playoffs.

All stats are as of 3/20/19 prior to the game against the Washington Capitals.

Victor Hedman

Hedman is one of the biggest examples for the Lightning of a player whose ice time has really decreased. In 2017-18, he average 19:52 at even strength, 2:35 short handed, and 3:24 on the power play. During the 2018-19 campaign, he is averaging 17:27, 2:05, and 3:14 respectively. His power play time is basically unchanged, he’s at 30 seconds less short handed, and almost two and a half minutes less at even strength. Dropping three minutes a game over an 82 game season means playing 246 less minutes. That’s roughly 9 or 10 games worth of ice time from last year. I should note though that he has also missed eight games, which further adds to his freshness level.

We know Hedman is more than capable of playing 25-28 minutes a night. He’s an absolute horse on the ice. Ryan McDonagh has allowed him to take a step back and have a more manageable workload. His 22:45 is the lowest since he averaged 22:41 during 2014-15. As a point of reference, he average 26:04, 27:26, and 23:58 over the past three playoff runs.

Ryan McDonagh

McDonagh’s ice time has dropped almost two minutes from his years with the New York Rangers. He’s averaging 21:54 TOI this year compared to 23:55, 23:20, and 24:21 the past three seasons in New York. Assuming he holds around that 22 minute mark the rest of the way, it will be his lowest average TOI since he average 18:44 in his rookie season in 2010-11. He’s another player that is certainly capable of playing more minutes and the coaching staff’s bringing his ice time down makes sure that he will have the gas to keep it going in the playoffs as he’ll be tasked, along with Erik Cernak, of taking on the toughest match-ups.

Steven Stamkos

Stamkos’ ice time actually hasn’t changed much this season. he is playing 50 seconds less at even strength and overall has dropped 30 seconds per game compared to last year. He’s sitting at 18:16 TOI. Stamkos has averaged under 19 minutes only three other seasons in his career; 14:56 in 2008-09, 17:52 when he only played 17 games in 2016-17 after tearing his meniscus, and 18:46 last season. Stamkos has five seasons of playing over 20 minutes a game. Granted, he has had a broken leg and that torn meniscus since then, but at 29 years old, he’s not an old man in hockey terms. He’s also looked really healthy this year and as the year has gone on, his skating and speed has looked better and better.

Brayden Point

Brayden Point has added a minute of ice time from last season on the power play, but he has also been removed from the penalty kill unit, with that duty falling more on players in the bottom six this season. He averaged 2 minutes per game last year and has just seven minutes in total all season shorthanded. Overall, his time on ice has dropped 52 seconds per game. He’s still a young gun at 23 years old and his hockey IQ and skating should allow him to play even bigger minutes. He skated 18:54 during the playoffs last season.

Nikita Kucherov

Perhaps the biggest gun the Lightning have on the roster, Kucherov actually hasn’t had his time on ice drop. His even strength time is down 19 seconds, but his power play time is up 11 seconds. Overall, he’s had a five second change to his ice time. His 19:44 TOI is tops for the Lightning forwards and is in line with what he has played the past two seasons. Kucherov played 20:09 during the 2015-16 playoffs, but only averaged 17:55 last season. Part of that is due to him often playing 15-18 minutes in games the Lightning were handily winning.

When the team has been trailing late in games, or needing a spark, Cooper has not hesitated to double shift Kucherov with other lines this season. He has topped 20 minutes of ice time in 35 out of 73 games with a season high of 25:29. Kucherov can be leaned on harder than what he has been. Compared to some of the other top forwards in the game, his ice time looks pretty light with his TOI average being 34th among forwards in the league. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Aleksander Barkov, Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar, Sean Couturier, Mark Scheifele, and Nathan MacKinnon are all averaging at least 22 minutes. And skating and conditioning wise, I’d put Kucherov right up there with anyone in that group as being capable of playing those kind of minutes in the playoffs.