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2018-2019 Tampa Bay Lightning player grades: Steven Stamkos returned to form

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The captain’s new normal saw him hit a career high in points.

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

The Tampa Bay Lightning season is over. With a long summer ahead of us, we’re going to hand out grades to each player on the roster. You did your part submitting your grades via the reader survey, and they are presented along with our writers’ grades. All told, about 360 of you submitted grades, which is less than last season, but that’s understandable considering how the season went. Follow along with the series through the month of May and share your thoughts in the comments.

After missing nearly two full seasons in four years due to injuries, Lightning fans saw a healthy Steven Stamkos post a career high in points and lead the franchise to a record setting regular season. Tampa Bay’s flame out in the first round does provide an ugly smear on what appeared to be a special season. But what Stamkos and company did through 82 games was something that will be remembered down the line—for better or for worse.

After returning from a torn meniscus in 2016-2017, Stamkos bounced back for an 86 point 2017-2018 season and another Eastern Conference Final. The interesting thing from that season was how Stamkos did it—through playmaking rather than goal scoring. In 2017-2018, Stamkos had a career high 59 assists to go along with his 27 goals. It was thought, at the time, that Stamkos wouldn’t be the prolific goal scorer he once was and instead would morph into more of a playmaker to compensate for his new normal due to his previous injuries.

Stamkos then decided it was time to show what a full offseason without rehabilitation could do for him. A return to the 40-goal mark, another 50+ assist season, and a career high in points saw Steven Stamkos remind everyone that he was still one of the best players in the NHL. Stamkos did begin the 2018-2019 season rather slowly compared to the 2017-2018 season, but hit his stride in November and December and kept that momentum up as the season progressed.

In October, Stamkos had eight points in 11 games, but he would go on to score at least 14 points (capping at 21 in December) from November to March to help spearhead the Lightning’s torrid rampage through the league. The slow start did provide some poorly thought out statement’s about Stamkos being past his prime and washed up, but the Captain’s play from November on turned those opinions into a joke rather quickly.

Steven Stamkos, 2018-2019 5v5 Shot Rates For/Against
Micah Blake McCurdy, @IneffectiveMath, www.hockeyviz.com

From the visualization above you can see Stamkos’ impact at even strength on both sides of the ice. Offensively, he was strong and defensively he was surprisingly adequate. Also, take into account that for the majority of the season Stamkos was doing this without Nikita Kucherov on his wing. The two did share a line early in the season, but once the team played around 20 games, the coaching staff kept them on separate lines that saw them both flourish offensively.

Steven Stamkos, % of 5v5 Icetime w/ Teammates
Micah Blake McCurdy, @IneffectiveMath, www.hockeyviz.com

The fact that Ondrej Palat spent the most time with Stamkos this season and failed to produce much offensively is a bit depressing, but hopefully a healthy season is in his future so we can gauge what Palat is moving forward. Yanni Gourde had a solid season and aside from Brayden Point and Kucherov, he was the most productive player to share a line with Stamkos this season. With the Point, Kucherov, and Johnson line producing well, maybe Gourde and one of Palat or J.T. Miller could solidify a spot next to Stamkos to provide a more consistent line next season. Stamkos has proven throughout his career that he can drive his own line, but at some point he needs consistent wingers.

Of course, we can’t talk about Steven Stamkos without talking about his effect on the power-play and how much he produced there. This season, Stamkos scored 40 points on the man advantage with 19 of those being goals. Compared to the 2017-2018 season (33 points and 15 goals), this is a huge improvement for Stamkos.

There is some legitimate worry after the 2017-2018 season that Stamkos’ 5v5 scoring pace would dip from a first line forward to a second line forward only to be bolstered back to first line territory due to his scoring prowess on the power-play. In 2017-2018, Stamkos scored 55% of his goals and 38% of his points on the man advantage. This season, he scored 42% of his goals and 40% of his points on the man advantage. It’s too early to fully buy into this mindset, but one to keep an eye on as Stamkos inches closes to his 30th birthday.

Looking at advanced metrics gives us a bit more context with Stamkos. At 5v5, Stamkos controlled 52% of the shot attempts and generated an xGF% of 51%. Good, but nothing otherworldly in this category. However, if we take a look at Stamkos’ overall impact through the GAR metric then the narrative shifts more toward his favor.

Goals Above Replacement, Tampa Bay Lightning 2018-2019
Evolving Hockey, @EvolvingWild, https://evolving-hockey.com

If what I’ve said so far hasn’t been understood fully, it’s as simple as this—Steven Stamkos is really good and looks to be just fine after spending an offseason training rather than rehabilitating.

Unfortunately, given then team’s embarrassing postseason exit, the great year that Stamkos (and the team) had will be overshadowed. To a degree this is fair, a 62-win team had no business losing to a wildcard team. However, our propensity to hyper focus on a tournament that consistently shows the unpredictability of the NHL instead of the larger sample size of performance through a full season is indicative to a larger problem—it devalues our perception of the regular season. It also inspires the overreactions toward dismantling teams. Yes, a hard self assessment has to be made for the Lightning organization moving forward, but getting ahead of oneself is a dangerous path.

As for grades, I gave Stamkos an A+ while all of you gave him an overall grade of an A-. Once again, we’re close folks! Given Stamkos’ surge back toward the upper echelon of scorers in the league and his ability to drive a top line without Point or Kucherov, it was hard to not give him an A+ for his career year. However, the playoff loss still stings so I don’t blame the A’s, A-’s or B’s. Two points in four games (with both points coming in Game 4) isn’t a good look and will continue to stain Stamkos’ playoff reputation. In his playoff career, Stamkos has 53 points in 70 games, good for a 0.75 point per game pace (PPG). Not bad, but compared to his regular season numbers of 766 points in 746 games, a 1.02 PPG pace, the drop in production is noticeable.

With Tampa Bay’s cap crunch looming in the very near future, Stamkos is the beating heart of the franchise moving forward. He’s never shied away from his duties as a captain. He’s the brunt of the blame for the organization’s failures and has never cast blame on others. Too often, I feel, we blame his leadership without understanding what it is to lead an NHL hockey team. It’s easy to pass off our frustration and anger on something as easily said as “Stamkos isn’t a leader” without having any tangible evidence to back that up (and no, just because they’ve lost in the playoffs before doesn’t equate to evidence, that’s a weak argument).

Before any of us know it, Stamkos’ career will be over. Whether or not he brings a championship shouldn’t alter the importance he has in the Tampa Bay area, both on and off the ice. He’s the centerpiece of this era of Lightning hockey and overall, it’s been a successful one. He hasn’t won the ultimate prize yet, but his team is in the conversation every year—something everyone should stop taking for granted.