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Lightning Round: Comparing Mathieu Joseph and Mitchell Stephens’ NHL play

They’ve been more similar than you might think.

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Tampa Bay Lightning v Winnipeg Jets Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

The Lightning have one of the deepest forward groups in the NHL. The top is anchored by Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point. The middle is flush with talented player like Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, and Yanni Gourde. But the bottom still has some room for players to earn ice time. One of the few meaningful changes the Lightning have made among their forwards this season is to swap Mathieu Joseph for Mitchell Stephens.

Joseph is now in Syracuse where he has played well. Despite a paper transaction to assign him to Syracuse during the All-Star break for cap reasons, Stephens appears locked into bottom six forward role with the Lightning.

If you took a poll of general fan sentiment, I suspect most would be excited about Stephens’ play since he joined the team and a little bit down on Joseph. But that perception isn’t supported by the way the two played during their time in the NHL. In fact, they’ve put up numbers so similar in terms of total impact that distinguishing between the two is difficult.

In xG impact, Joseph and Stephens both put up slightly positive impacts. Joseph is 12th among Lightning skaters and Stephens is 14th. They differed a bit in the way they accomplished those impacts in that Joseph posted outstanding defensive impacts and poor offensive ones while Stephens is more balanced posting good offensive impacts and average defensive ones. In scoring, Stephens has put up 1.22 points per 60 minutes and Joseph 1.06. That’s good for 16th and 17th on the team respectively. Again, very similar.

The difference in the player perception is likely due to Stephens being a new rookie, which is always exciting while Joseph was in his second year and maybe not showing the type of growth that fans and possibly even the coaches hoped to see.

I’ve always been reserved on my projections for Joseph. I think his offensive upside is limited. But I do think he’s a capable modern bottom six forward with an ability to carry the puck with speed through the neutral zone and tilt the ice in the right direction. Stephens has a similar profile but with a bit more defensive acumen and ability to contribute on the penalty kill.

In some ways, Stephens and Joseph represent two different prototypes for useful third or fourth line players in today’s NHL. Joseph is a burner who can create havoc with his speed. Stephens is a puckhound and a reliable penalty killer.

For a team that has lots of puck carriers, a player like Stephens in the bottom six might make more sense than a player like Joseph. And that more than anything is justification for keeping the lineup the way it stands now.

But Mathieu Joseph is still an NHL level talent and would be playing for most teams in the league. Only the Lightning’s deep forward group gives them the luxury of making decisions based on role fit as opposed to purely impact. And if the Lightning find themselves needing an injection of speed in the lineup during the second half of the season, expect Joseph to make his return to Tampa.

Lightning Org News

Joe Smith surveyed scouts and analysts around the NHL to get a feel for the overall state of the Lightning prospect pool. If you have a subscription to The Athletic, the article is worth your time. And it not, you can read up to five free articles per month on the mobile app.

But you have to wonder if there’s a bit of an untimely lull in the Lightning’s prospect pool, at least in terms of NHL-ready players. Mathieu Joseph, who spent the last year and a half with the Lightning, received a humbling demotion to Syracuse in late December in hopes of rediscovering his game and his confidence. Wing Alex Volkov’s play was up and down during his latest call-up, living up to his label of “intriguing” but enigmatic.

There are some nice prospects in Syracuse, from former first-round pick and defenseman Cal Foote to AHL All-Star Alex Barre-Boulet and second-year pros Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk. Nolan Foote, a 2019 first-round pick, impressed for Team Canada at the World Juniors, and University of Minnesota star Sammy Walker has got a shot in a few years.

But are the Lightning lacking impact players? It probably comes with the territory considering Tampa Bay hasn’t had a top-10 pick since 2013 (Jonathan Drouin, No. 3).

Other Hockey News

The AHL suspended former NHL player Brandon Manning five games for use of a racial slur. The target of the slur was former Lightning prospect Boko Imama. Five games hardly seems enough for this type of language in 2020. Currently, the AHL does not have mandatory suspensions for use of slurs. It seems about time to implement a consistent automatic escalating suspension policy for behavior like this. And not just in the AHL but in the NHL as well.

The Bruins beat the Golden Knights 3-2 last night meaning Boston heads into the All Star Break with 70 points and an 8 point lead over the Lightning in second place. The Bolts have three games in hand and will play twice before the Bruins play their next game.

The Panthers beat Chicago 4-3, which puts them a single point behind the Lightning for third place and drops the Leafs four points behind with several teams to jump if they want to get back into a playoff spot.

The only Atlantic team to play tonight will be the Red Wings meaning this is how we’ll enter the All-Star break in the standings.