When Mathieu Joseph made the 2018-2019 Tampa Bay Lightning roster, I was surprised. Only a year removed from a 53 point debut with the Syracuse Crunch, but still thought to be behind other prospects like Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk, Mitchell Stephens, and Anthony Cirelli. Yet, after camp finished, there he was suiting up for a the team that would light the regular season on fire. He represented himself well with a 26 point rookie season (13G, 13A). The prevalent thought process around Joseph entering this past season was, “if he can iron out his defensive game and show he’s committed, he has a spot”.
He managed to make the opening night roster, but he struggled to find the same spot he did in 2018-2019. And, as a result, his point totals plummeted. The Lightning gave him chances though, they didn’t send him back to Syracuse until after his 37th game; by that point he only had seven points. With players like Alexander Volkov and Stephens pushing for spots themselves, and the Lightning’s mantra of “next man up”, they sent the young winger back to the AHL to help find his confidence.
After a slow start, Joseph did well during his 29 game stint in Syracuse, racking up 21 points, and eventually securing a spot as one of Tampa Bay’s black aces for the playoff bubble during the summer. Unfortunately, he never got into any of the 25 games the Lightning played on route to the 2020 Stanley Cup.
Thankfully, Joseph still got his name on the cup due to playing at least 50% of the regular season with the NHL club. So, in that regard, Joseph is a champion; it just sucks we never got to see him bring his patented speed and aggression to the ice during the postseason this year.
In our voting, both the readers and writers were quite close in their perception of Joseph. We writers were a smidge higher on him whereas his disappointing 2019-2020 season seems to have affected his ranking among the readers. Personally, I ranked him sixth on my list. I am a bit biased though, given I loved his rookie season.
I won’t dive into any of the analytics on Joseph (though those are fine for him). I feel as though we all know the argument for him making the roster in 2020-2021. The issue lays with himself and how he plans to address the issues that plagued him during the 2019-2020 regular season.
Joseph’s dip in effectiveness from his rookie year to year two was interesting to me. From my own eye, I felt he never adapted to what NHL defenses were doing to him (forcing him to the outside and below the net). For as quick as he is in a straight line it never seemed to pay off in 2019-2020. Joseph’s offensive creativity seemed to be limited at the NHL level. If he was unable to cleanly beat a defender with his speed, he’d drive below the net and try to make a play out of nothing. We’ve seen other speedsters for the Lightning do this in years past; Brayden Point had a similar approach in his first year and a half in the NHL. However, Point adjusted his game and made himself unpredictable in the offensive zone. Joseph, for some reason, has yet to do that — and that bothers me.
His shot isn’t something that wows anyone, but it’s still a NHL caliber shot. His defensive game still leaves much to be desired, as does his playmaking ability, but I still believe he has the potential to be a NHL caliber player. Sure, he isn’t a top six forward, but a spot on the third line isn’t something I feel is out of reach for him. Whether it was commitment, inability to adapt, or a sense of feeling safe on a roster loaded with talent—we’ll never know, but something was off for the young speedster this past season.
From a managerial perspective, I suppose it’s good Joseph had a rough year. It makes negotiating his next contract (he’s a restricted free agent) easier on the financial side—especially since he doesn’t have much leverage. An aspect from the managerial side that does help Joseph is the salary shedding that has to take place if Tampa Bay wants to keep Erik Cernak and Cirelli.
With Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, or Yanni Gourde all being possible players that Julien BriseBois could move it opens up a roster spot for someone to take hold of. Joseph has competition with Volkov, Raddysh, Katchouk, and whomever else surprises at the Lightning’s next training camp, but the opportunity is there. Whether or not he capitalizes on it remains to be seen.
I, for one, hope we see a refined version of Joseph; one who has the confidence of the rookie from 2018-2019 and one who has learned from the disappointment of the 2019-2020 regular season. He knows he’s a NHLer, and he knows the spot is there for him, but he has to earn it.
Go out there and earn it, Joseph, and don’t let anyone take it away from you again.