After 60 games that included much consternation during the first half of the season, the Lightning enter the final six weeks of this campaign one point behind the Boston Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy. For all the hemming, hawing, hubbub, and hullabaloo during the first few months of the season, the Lightning are right where everyone expected them to be.
Beyond the standings, the Lightning still have a strong overall statistical profile. They’re second in the NHL in 5v5 expected goal share, meaning they’re still one of the best teams in the league at controlling play. From that perspective, they might be in an even better position than they were at this time last year.
With that as background let’s get into the numbers. As always, we’re going to rely on a mix of data from Natural Stat Trick and Evolving Hockey to give us an overview of how the Lightning are playing.
To start, we’ll look at the team as a whole. On this plot, the bars represent the whole season, the orange dots are the last ten games, and the gray dots are the ten games before that.
The previous stretch of ten games, represented by the gray dots, was probably the best of the season for the Lightning. They were dominant at 5v5 and competent on special teams. The most recent stretch hasn’t quite lived up to that pace but has still be strong. They’ve slid backward both in terms of 5v5 offense and defense, resulting in a weaker expected goal share. They also haven’t been quite as dangerous when it comes to finishing chances.
But one area that has excelled is the goaltending. What was a weakness for much of the season has been outrageous over the last ten games. We’ll look at the goaltenders individually later but Andrei Vasilevskiy and Curtis McElhinney have combined to be the best part of this team in recent weeks.
On special teams, the penalty kill has been about average and buoyed by more good goaltending. But what really stands out is the power play. That group is mired in a horrendous slump. In the last ten games, they haven’t generated nearly enough shots and while the quality of those shots has been better, the result is still a worse expected goal rate overall.
But what’s really hurt them is their shooting. They aren’t finishing their chances at all with the advantage. That will change at some point. This team has far too much talent to continue shooting like this on the power play for much longer. But even if the shooting does improve, the process needs to improve along with it to get the most out of the offensive talent on this roster.
Having looked at the team’s performance as a group, let’s transition into the individual skaters. On this plot, blue means performing well in a given statistic and orange means performing poorly.
We’ve talked all year about the stars leading the way. Brayden Point’s Hart Trophy case is only getting stronger as he’s now moved into third place in WAR in the NHL. Anthony Cirelli and Steven Stamkos continue to have great years. Nikita Kucherov is showing the kind of well rounded game we got used to seeing in the early part of his career. The return of Ondrej Palat is real.
In the interest of not treading the same ground as we have all season, two new names standout in the forward group. First, Mitchell Stephens finally meets the time on ice requirements to be included. He hasn’t scored much but his play driving has been solid and he’s earned consistent minutes on the penalty kill. That’s an encouraging sign for a young player. All in all, this has been a successful rookie campaign and if he can sustain this level of play, he should find a permanent home in the NHL.
The other new name here is the recently acquired Blake Coleman and lo, he looks right at home among the Lightning forward group. He’s an outstanding play driver with some scoring punch. His offensive game is all about shots with very little passing. But look at those shot suppression tiles. He’s put up unreal defensive numbers this year and if he can replicate that in Tampa, he’ll make a huge impact on an already great group of forwards.
On the blue line, Victor Hedman has returned to his normal place as one of the best defenders in the NHL and is deserving of Norris Trophy consideration again. Kevin Shattenkirk continues his excellent play and really, everyone on the blue line aside from Braydon Coburn is performing well in their role. Erik Cernak seems to have righted whatever the issues were from the beginning of the season and is back to being a shutdown defender.
The skaters have been good for most of the season but the goalies have not. So let’s check in on what has been the most volatile part of the Lightning this season. This plot shows cumulative goals saved above expected on the season where the zero line indicates average. The highlighted orange line is Curtis McElhinney and Andrei Vasilevskiy is in blue.
A strong run of recent play by McElhinney has him performing like an above average goaltender, which is impressive for a backup. Not many teams can sit their starter and expect to get results this good from the second netminder on the depth chart. This kind of showing is why the front office decided to spend to upgrade this position last summer. That decision is paying off.
But of course, the front office also signed another goaltender to a contract last summer. Andrei Vasilevskiy’s eight year deal that pays him $9.5 million per season won’t even start until this fall and wow did he have a rough beginning to the season after signing that deal. But as bad as he was in the first 30 games or so, he’s been just as good over his last 15.
He still hasn’t made it back to the zero line here and might not have enough time left in the season to do so. But over the last few weeks, he has once again flashed the ability to play at an elite level. It doesn’t erase what happened in the first part of the season but it does provide some hope that those struggles were an extended blip rather than an indicator of what to expect over the length of the new contract.
Despite winning all of them, the Lightning haven’t been quite as dominant over their last ten games as they were during the previous ten. But they’ve still been a good team during this stretch and mostly deserving of the results they’ve gotten.
The forwards continue to be outstanding. The addition of Blake Coleman only makes them even better in an area where they were already one of the best in the NHL. The blue line has rounded into form erasing some early season issues. And the goaltending, wow. Vasilevskiy and McElhinney have been dominant in the last ten games.
Unless General Manager Julien BriseBois surprises us by dipping back into the trade pool, this is the roster the Lightning will ride with into the playoffs. We’ll get to see how Coleman fits starting tomorrow with a tough road game against the Vegas Golden Knights.
On paper, this team is doing everything it takes to win. But as we’ve said all year, while winning regular season games is fun, what really matters is what happens after the next 22 games. They have six more weeks to get everyone in position to succeed come the second season.