The doldrums of summer are in full effect. Here in Florida, the weather alternates between torrential downpours and blazing heat—summer needs to bugger off. Another thing that summer is doing to us crazed hockey fans is depriving us of our most cherished sport. So, we waste time creating lists, rankings, and projections because there is literally nothing else for us to write about this time of year.
There will be two assumptions made for this projection piece—that both Brayden Point and Adam Erne will be signed, and that Louis Domingue will be traded. I won’t get into the monetary/cap implication discussion since that’s Geo’s domain. He can provide a far more in-depth analysis of that side of the roster. I’ll just be tackling what lines and pairings the Tampa Bay Lightning should be using entering the season.
I’ll be using Sean Tierney’s (@ChartingHockey) WAR (Wins Above Replacement) lineup creator to provide a visualization of my ideal lines. WAR isn’t a perfect stat, but it is a sound foundation to analytically look at a team in terms of what a player, team, or line provides compared to a replacement level player in the NHL.
With this lineup, the lineup tool has the Lightning projected at 130 points with a team WAR of 40.94. Now, I, personally, don’t think Tampa Bay will replicate their 62-win season—that is something we probably won’t see again for a while. However, this is still a top team in the league. There doesn’t need to be any overreacting to Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois bargain shopping to bolster the depth of his roster—this team is set, and doesn’t require a lot of upgrades.
Now, someone is probably going to nitpick that I have the top two lines situated the way I do. Both top lines are going to be getting roughly equal amounts of ice time so don’t worry about who is line one and who is line two. Given their absurd projected WAR entering 2019-2020, it’s safe to assume that the Lightning will have one of the most deadly top two lines in the league. That said, a rookie bursting into the lineup during camp isn’t out of the question. Nor is the fact that Jon Cooper might want to mix and match the lines to see what other combinations can work.
Line One - Ondrej Palat-Steven Stamkos-Yanni Gourde
I know, I know. “Palat on the top line!? He had 34 points last season! He’s a bum!” I get it, not a lot of you like Palat here. But hear me out, Palat has been ravaged by injuries for what feels like an eternity. He’s only managed to play 81 games once in his entire career and has only played 70 or more games three times. The key moving forward is that Palat finished the season relatively healthy. Given that he’s had a nagging lower body injury over the past two years, maybe he can now focus on actually training instead of rehabilitating.
Palat is still an effective playmaker and drives play. He’s positive in possession (51% CF%), scoring chances for (51% SCF%), and high danger chances (54% HDCF%). If the Lightning can get a healthy Palat out of the gate and he doesn’t somehow get injured again, then it’s entirely possible for Palat to have a bounce back year.
Now, here’s my own counterpoint to what I just wrote. Palat has struggled mightily to stay healthy and that’s probably not a good bet to improve as he inches closer to 30. Even when he was in the lineup this year, he was too inconsistent when on the ice. Yes, his possession numbers were solid, but when you dig a little deeper using Evolving-Hockey’s RAPM charts, things get rather ugly.
So, putting Palat on a line with Stamkos and Gourde is risky, but we’ve seen Palat bounce back before. We just have to have a little hope that he can maintain his health and improve on the ice. Because if he doesn’t, then his contract is going to look real ugly real quick.
Having Stamkos in this spot is a no brainer. He’s improved his game to be a more all-around center and he’s still one of the best goal scorers in the league. Putting Gourde here is a bit interesting only because he doesn’t have the top flight skill you’d expect for a player in this position. But Gourde is a forechecking maniac who excels at creating chaos in the offensive zone. Stamkos noticeably isn’t as fast as he was prior to the leg injuries so to help compensate, you have Gourde race in to pressure the defense and recover the puck. He then has a playmaker in Palat or a shooter in Stamkos to feed to the puck too.
Line Two - Tyler Johnson-Brayden Point-Nikita Kucherov
I think this line is self explanatory. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This was Tampa Bay’s best line last season in terms of production and it wasn’t close. Johnson isn’t the play driver he was a few years ago, but he’s still an effective player that can produce. The play driving comes from Point and Kucherov. I know some people would like to move Johnson to the third center position and slide Anthony Cirelli into the top six, but Johnson isn’t effective as a third center, and he has shown to be a great wing man for Point and Kucherov. Unless this line falters early and struggles to regain the chemistry from last season, you keep it the same.
I could be talked into slotting Gourde here and moving Johnson to flank Stamkos, but I’m hesitant due to the fact that Johnson and Stamkos were not particularly great together last season. In limited ice-time (128 minutes), these two managed a 45% CF% and an even worse 41% xGF%. Johnson’s effectiveness with Point and Kucherov mixed with his ineffectiveness with Stamkos pigeonholes him on this line if you want to optimize his production.
Line Three - Alex Killorn-Anthony Cirelli-Mathieu Joseph
This third line should’ve stayed together for most of the year. This was the possession monster that the Lightning could throw out as a third line to crush their opposition. This trio dominated possession (57% CF%), expected goals (57% xGF%), scoring chances (57% SCF%), and high danger chances (55% HDCF%). The only reason this group wasn’t kept together longer is due to Killorn and Cirelli being slightly better with J.T. Miller on their line. With Miller now in Vancouver, this opens up a spot for Joseph to lock down a position in the top-nine.
Cirelli proved to be one of the best third line centers in the league last season. His play driving, defensive acumen, and production were far above what anyone could’ve anticipated. He even saw time in the top six when the Lightning faced elimination against Columbus in the postseason, and he acquitted himself quite well with Stamkos and Kucherov flanking him.
That said, I’d rather spread the center talent around the lineup than pack it all into the top six. With the top two lines being offensive monsters that aren’t as concerned with the defensive side, having a line with Cirelli anchoring it seems like a no brainer. Additionally, keeping Killorn pinned to Cirelli’s side is a must. This pairing was outstanding for the Lightning last season. From even-strength to the penalty kill, Killorn and Cirelli were a duo that controlled play against nearly every opponent they came across.
Killorn gets a lot of negative attention due to his contract (which, again, is simply two years too long), but he’s the Swiss Army Knife on the team. He can move up into the top six in a pinch, consistently produces 40 points a season, is one of the team’s best penalty killers, and is known for his playoff heroics. Just because he doesn’t score 20 goals and isn’t a top flight winger doesn’t mean he’s bad or overpaid. But if there is one thing to repeatedly hammer him on, it’s taking penalties at inopportune times. Some improvement in that area this season would be nice to see.
Lastly, there’s Joseph, the lightning quick rookie who stole plenty of fans hearts last season. Joseph is likely to be a top-nine mainstay moving forward, but expecting him to elevate into the top six is unlikely. He has elite speed, but his vision and decision making isn’t quick enough to keep up with the top of the lineup—which is fine! Joseph is still a voracious fore-checker and his speed alone befuddles defenses most times. The issue for Joseph moving forward is to know how to change gears. Too often last season we saw Joseph fly up the wing only to have nowhere to go with the puck and then lose it as he was outnumbered in the offensive zone.
Line Four - Adam Erne-Cedric Paquette-Danick Martel
This line is a bit of a question mark for me. Their ice time isn’t going to be especially high, but Cooper’s stubbornness in playing Paquette a few minutes more than needed was an aggravating thing to see. Paquette did have a career year in points and goals, but expecting your fourth line center to do that consistently isn’t wise. That isn’t to say Paquette is terrible or due to regress to scoring five goals a season. It’s just Paquette is as close to a replacement level forward that the Lightning have.
Erne is a player I love to watch. I feel like he can be better than a fourth liner and could push Joseph for a spot on the third line. That said, he’s going to have to earn it with his play on the ice. Netting 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) was a great start for Erne, but I’m hoping to see him get a few more opportunities higher in the lineup. The only forward he’s likely to usurp is Joseph, but given Joseph’s speed and slightly higher production, I feel as though Erne will be stuck on the fourth line.
Martel is an enigma. He only appeared in nine games and recorded two assists. He’s quick and tenacious, but his small sample of games makes it difficult to gauge how to project him. If one of the rookies breaks through in camp, then Martel will be the first one on the chopping blocked to be replaced.
Wildcard Line - Brayden Point-Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov
This is the line Cooper should stack when he needs to throw all the marbles on the table. This is line is fundamentally terrifying. In the 41 minutes that Cooper experimented with this combination, it generated a 59% CF%, a 56% xGF%, a 61% SCF%, and a 60% HDCF%. Here’s how this line looks using the WAR Lineup Creator.
There’s only one line in the NHL that generates a higher WAR, and it’s Boston’s terrifying top line of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand. I am all for this line being used a bit more often.
Bubble Players: Cory Conacher, Carter Verhaeghe, Alex Barre-Boulet, Alex Volkov, Mitchell Stephens
Any of these players could play their way onto the roster next season. Conacher seems like the safe option in case any injuries happen, but Verhaeghe really found his game over the past two seasons in Syracuse. Expect him to get a real shot at camp this year. Barre-Boulet exploded in his rookie year with the Crunch and could make noise at camp this year. I’d suggest caution there though. Given the crowded forward corps in Tampa Bay, they might have him penciled as a Crunch player but at the top of the call up list if injuries occur.
Stephens is a player who could push for Paquette’s spot in the lineup (or Erne/Martel), but unless he completely outshines the competition, I’m unsure if we will see him in a Lightning uniform this season. He only played 34 games due to injury last year and the Lightning probably want to see how he rebounds with a clean bill of health.
Then there’s Volkov, a player who was one of the final cuts the past two seasons. He’s been productive in Syracuse and his fellow Russians on the Lightning believe in him. However, as previously mentioned about Barre-Boulet, he’s more than likely penciled onto Syracuse due to a logjam at forward. Volkov and Barre Boulet aren’t players you want at the bottom of the lineup and unless injuries begin to ravage the main roster, it’s unlikely we’ll see them make the team out of camp. Never say never though, Joseph burst onto the scene last season during camp so we know the coaching staff will give a young player a shot if they feel like they deserve it.
It should also be noted that Conacher, Verhaeghe, and Martel all require waivers to be sent down to Syracuse at the beginning of the season. Just something to keep in mind.
Victor Hedman-Mikhail Sergachev
It’s whimsical to dream about, but the Lightning have continually given Hedman subpar partners since becoming the number one guy on the backend. Sergachev is one of the few left handed defenders who can play on the right side. In the 211 minutes these two played together they generated a 53% CF%, a 52% SCF%, a 51% xGF%, and a 52% HDCF%.
Nothing needs to be said about Hedman. He’s a Norris Trophy winner and a perennial candidate. He’s carried poor defensive partners for years and it’s time to give the giant Swede some love with one of the Lightning’s best young defenders. Sergachev was given a more expanded role on defense this season and he handled it well. His offensive numbers weren’t as good as his rookie season, but the sophomore slump was only on the production side.
If you go through all of Tampa Bay’s defensive corps through the RAPM charts from last season, there is only one defenseman who looks better than Sergachev—it’s Hedman. With the second pairing being locked down, and Braydon Coburn anchoring the third pairing on the left side, it only makes sense to give Sergachev more ice-time. The only way to reliably do that is to stick him with Hedman.
The hesitation in regards to this pairing stems from the aggressive play-styles of both defenders. It could lead to some defensive misplays and turnovers—specifically from Sergachev. Additionally, Sergachev has shown to get a bit to brazen with the puck in his own zone at times. It isn’t a massive problem, but one that needs to be known. Regardless, lets give Hedman an actual good partner for once and see what he can do. Sergachev also has been sparingly used on the penalty kill, which is something the coaching staff could look into changing—he only played 15 minutes shorthanded last season.
Ryan McDonagh-Erik Cernak
In 2017-2018, it was the McDonagh-Anton Stralman pairing that rose to be the shutdown pair for the Lightning. In 2018-2019, it was the arrival of Cernak that helped bring a new shutdown pair for Tampa Bay. Cernak’s ascension was something no one really anticipated—most thought he was at least a year away from making the roster. However, once he was called up halfway through the season, he never looked back.
Cernak doesn’t drive play as well as you’d like, but he’s one of the best defensive performers on the team. Add in the physicality he brings to the defense corps and you now have someone who will push back when teams begin to take liberties against the Lightning. McDonagh has been exactly what you’d expect of a former number one defender. He’s anchored the second pairing, eaten a lot of hard minutes to ease the workload off of Hedman, taken over as the top defensemen with Hedman was out with injury, and provides an offensive punch from the backend that shouldn’t be dismissed.
When this pairing was on the ice this season, it generated a 50% CF%, a 52% SCF%, a 53% xGF%, and a 53% HDCF%. As long as Cernak doesn’t take any big steps back, this pairing will be an anchor for the Lightning.
Braydon Coburn-Jan Rutta
Coburn had a renaissance season last year. It was thought prior to the start of the season that Coburn’s age and ineffectiveness from the 2017-2018 season would see his minutes dwindle and playing career come to and end. Instead, Coburn was one of the better defensemen for the Lightning last season. Potting 23 points as a third pairing defenseman isn’t bad either.
Rutta is an interesting player to analyze. The eye test showcases a defensemen who has slow feet, and isn’t a quick decision maker with the puck, but solid in his own zone. The metrics showcase a defender whose offensive contributions are obfuscated by his teammates driving play and not him, but is quite good in his own end.
Given that Rutta only played 18 games for the Lightning, his metrics should be viewed with a grain of salt. The sample is too small to reliably gauge his effectiveness, but the positive spin of it is that the sample is good so far. Rutta could end up being a very effective third pairing defender for Tampa Bay or he could end up being a replacement level player (thus one part of the Luke Schenn signing).
We shouldn’t expect a ton out of this pairing, but with Coburn anchoring it and Rutta hopefully feeling more comfortable in Tampa Bay’s system it should be a solid third pair to soak up the minutes that the top four aren’t able to take on.
Wildcard-Cal Foote, Dominik Masin
I’d expect Foote to get a prolonged look during camp this year. He’d have to beat out Luke Schenn and Jan Rutta for the sixth spot on the rotation, but competition is never a bad thing. Personally, I think Foote pushes for a spot, but is ultimately sent back to Syracuse to soak up big minutes for the Crunch.
Masin is intriguing in that he’s a steady defender who hasn’t really been given much of a shot with the big club. I’ve only seen him in preseason games and in those games, I wasn’t overly impressed. But preseason games shouldn’t be taken at face value, he’s likely to get a look this year. At 23 though, it’s make or break for the former second round pick. He isn’t going to get many more chances to break onto the big club.
Two-time Vezina Trophy nominee. One-time Vezina Trophy winner. It’s the Big Cat’s crease and no one elses.
McElhinney was one of the better backups last season in Carolina and should be an upgrade over Louis Domingue. Domingue didn’t have a bad season (the win streak record is irrelevant when gauging a goaltender), but given that he was looking for more playing time and a raise after this coming season, Tampa Bay wanted a cost controlled option at back with a proven track record. Hopefully, the Lightning coaching staff will look at the teams who made deep playoff runs and lighten the load a little bit more on Vasilevskiy. McElhinney should be capable of doing that.