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Tampa Bay Lightning Ten Game Report: Arguably the best team in the NHL once more

Yep, they’re back.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Los Angeles Kings Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

We’re officially through the NHL All-Star break and the Tampa Bay Lightning have played fifty games this season. They sit second in the Atlantic division after a rough start to the year in terms of results. Most of their struggles were due to the play of the goaltenders but over the last couple months, the team has been playing much better in all areas of the game.

As we always do when the team hits a round number of games, let’s take a walk through the team’s performance through those first fifty games and get prepared for the final 32. All data in this report comes from either Natural Stat Trick or Evolving Hockey. Specifically, the team data is via NST and the skater data is via EH.

The Team

The first chart shows how the team has played both recently and over the entire season. The bar represents the full year, the orange dot is the last ten games, and the gray dot is the ten games before that.

The Lightning have been great pretty much everywhere in terms of shot metrics this season. They currently sit first in the NHL in expected goal share both at 5v5 and in all situations. Their strong play hasn’t been focused on one side of the ice. They’ve played well both offensively and defensively. They’ve continued to shoot well.

One area that stands out as a big difference over the last ten games is the goaltending. What was previously an area of weakness has been a strength lately. We’ll dig into each goalie’s performance more later in this report but as a tandem, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Curtis McElhinney have been excellent over the last ten games.

On special teams, the penalty kill has been good both in terms of shot metrics and the play in net. But if we’re looking for an area to nitpick, the power play is it. The team hasn’t done a particularly good job of generating quality shots. That’s typical for the Lightning because of their reliance on one timers from the circles, which don’t look like good shots to an expected goal model.

But the more surprising thing is that they’ve struggled to finish. They’ve been a bad shooting team over the last ten games and it seems unlikely that will last much longer. Especially given how well they’ve shot at 5v5. I don’t think they suddenly forget how to shoot when they get the advantage so I consider much of the recent run of poor results to be some bad luck in an area where we know this team excels.

I expect the power play to correct itself and the shooters to get back to putting more pucks in the net. But it wouldn’t hurt to work on bumping up that shot quality measure. When the one timers aren’t going, that’s a time to start working Brayden Point in the slot or creating some chaos in front of the net with Yanni Gourde or Pat Maroon. Maybe mucking it up for a few games and finding a couple goals that way would loosen things up for the shooters again.

The Skaters

With a good view of how the team is playing as a whole, the next chart shows how each individual skater is performing in a series of key metrics. On this chart, blue means the player is performing well in that area and orange means they’re performing poorly.

Point continues to be a star among the forwards. The only thing he could do to improve is look for his own shot a little more but that’s nitpicking. We wrote last week about why he should be in the Hart conversation and that holds true as he’s currently 6th in the NHL in WAR. Nikita Kucherov has also been great and showcasing his full well-rounded games as opposed to last season when he became a more one-dimensional player.

Anthony Cirelli and Ondrej Palat are among the other standouts here and wow does it feel good to be able to say that about Palat again. He hasn’t been getting the credit he deserves this year but he’s back to being one of the best left wings in the NHL and is playing like a lock top line forward again, just as he did in the early part of his career.

On the blue line, Victor Hedman is still one of the best in the game and Kevin Shattenkirk is still putting up big numbers on his revenge tour as he looks to position himself for a big raise this summer. Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak haven’t reached the heights they did last year as a pair but have been improving. Jan Rutta is making the most of playing with Hedman every night. Yes, that’s an optimal situation and we’ve seen players like Jake Dotchin thrive in that role. But Rutta is doing his part to maximize his results in those minutes.

The Goalies

Now, the fun or not so fun part depending on your perspective. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve written many times this year about the poor goaltending the Lightning received through the first 40 games or so. So much that I got to the point where I was tired of writing about it. So let’s check in on the trends.

This chart shows goals saved above expected on a game by game basis. The blue line is Andrei Vasilevskiy and the orange line is Curtis McElhinney.

Let’s start with the backup. He continues to hover around average with a little dip in his last couple games. Getting league average performance from a backup on an inexpensive deal is an optimal outcome from the team’s perspective. While McElhinney hasn’t been quite as good this year as he has in the past, he’s still been better than most backups. And that’s a win for the Lightning.

But about Vasilevskiy. After struggling for most of the season including a low point where he was one of the worst regular starters in the league, he has begun to rebound. He started to stabilize around his 20th start of the season when he posted back to back excellent performance. But his results dipped again after that. The turnaround picked up more consistently over his last ten starts. For the first time this season, he’s consistently allowing less goals than expected over an extended stretch.

That’s a positive trend but it doesn’t do much to answer the bigger questions about what type of performance we should expect from Vasilevskiy over the long term. I know the urge is strong to call the last ten games, which look a lot like his 2018-2019 season, the return of the real Andrei Vasilevskiy. But that ignores the first three seasons of NHL data we have on him, which look much closer to the first half of this season.

This recent ten game stretch is encouraging. But he’s dug himself such a deep hole that it would be a huge accomplishment just to get back to level in terms of goals saved above expected before the end of the season.

The Wrap Up

The Lightning are one of the best teams in the NHL. Arguably THE best depending on how comfortable you are relying exclusively on shot metrics and ignoring standings points. Even by a more traditional metric like goal differential, the Lightning are still first with a +39.

The re-emergence of Kevin Shattenkirk gives this group blue line depth they haven’t had during the Cooper era. The forwards are still great. The goaltending remains a point of contention but if Vasilevskiy can sustain the way he’s played over the last ten games for the rest of this season, the Lightning are going be as hard or harder to beat than they were last year.

So with 32 games left, we head into the early part of the march toward the playoffs. February starts tomorrow. That means the trade deadline is less than a month away. So any evaluations of potential options need to be wrapped up in the next couple of weeks. And after that, it’s really go time with a little over a month until the second season starts.

As of this writing, the Lightning are in about as good of shape as they possibly could be to make another run at it. The next couple months will determine if they can put themselves in a position to erase last year’s memory.