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A deeper dive into the Lightning’s play

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Tampa Bay’s last 15 games haven’t been their best, why is that?

2019 NHL Global Series - Sweden - Team Practices Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

All statistics used are from Evolving-Hockey.com. All visualizations used are from HockeyViz.com

Slumps are nothing new in the NHL. Every team goes through them, and each one contains a differing root cause. The Tampa Bay Lightning are in the midst of a month-long slump that has seen them go 11-9 over their last 20 games. Upon first glance, this doesn’t seem overly worrisome; they’re over .500, still boast a good goal differential, and are locked into a playoff spot. However, relying strictly on results leads to false conclusions. There has to be an analysis of the underlying numbers to gauge what has happened to Tampa Bay’s play over the past month.

Offense

For this exercise, I started with splitting Tampa Bay’s season into two 23-game segments to provide a cursory glance at how their two halves of the season have gone.

Tampa Bay Lightning Season Split

Dates GP TOI CF% GF% xGF% GF/60 GA/60 xGF/60 xGA/60 Sh% Sv%
Dates GP TOI CF% GF% xGF% GF/60 GA/60 xGF/60 xGA/60 Sh% Sv%
01/13 - 03/07 23 1061.15 51.99 60.77 52.26 2.6 1.68 2.46 2.24 8.52 93.86
03/08 - 04/20 23 1114.7 54.04 50.48 52.36 2.52 2.48 2.17 1.97 8.38 91.17

Things to take note of: Tampa Bay’s GF% plummeting in the second half of the season without a large variance in their shooting percentage, quality of chances staying the same, and an increase in their shot volume. Their goals-against has risen even though they’re allowing less quality, and their goaltending has taken a dip.

If we sharpen our focus over Tampa Bay’s last 10 games, we get a different story.

Tampa Bay Lightning Last 10 Games

Dates GP TOI CF% GF% xGF% GF/60 GA/60 xGF/60 xGA/60 Sh% Sv%
Dates GP TOI CF% GF% xGF% GF/60 GA/60 xGF/60 xGA/60 Sh% Sv%
04/03 - 04/20 10 486.08 53.07 41.95 49.72 2.35 3.25 2.02 2.04 8 89.25

The Lightning’s GF% drops even more in this segment, yet they’re still not giving up a lot of quality, overall. Goaltending has dropped. The offense still controls volume but not enough quality to compensate for the save percentage dip. This brings the question of, “why is the offense still ‘controlling’ play, but not scoring even though the shooting percentage hasn’t wildly changed?”

TB 5v5 Offense, Unblocked Shot Rates
Micah Blake McCurdy, @Ineffective Math, hockeyviz.com

For the first time during Jon Cooper’s tenure as head coach, the lion's share of shots comes from the point. This isn’t to say point shots have been uncommon under Cooper, but Tampa Bay’s offense has consistently been one of the best teams in the league at generating shot volume from the slot. So, this change has been surprising, to say the least.

There are other factors at play as well. Injuries have clearly played a part on both sides of the ice from the Lightning, but the most glaring issues stem from the absence of Nikita Kucherov. His creativity and forechecking ability are sorely missed by Tampa Bay, and it’s clear how much the offense benefits from him being present, especially on the power-play.

Nikita Kucherov, Unblocked Shot Rates 5v5 19-20
Micah Blake McCurdy, @IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

This is the kind of shot generation the Lightning are missing with Kucherov out of the lineup. Brayden Point, his most common linemate, has a near-identical visualization. Without number 86 out there, this is what Point has generated this season.

Brayden Point, Unblocked Shot Rates 20-21
Micah Blake McCurdy, @IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

This isn’t to disparage Point, he’s been good this season, but it’s clear who the bigger driver of offense is here. For reference here are Ondrej Palat’s visualizations from last season and this season.

Ondrej Palat, Unblocked Shot Rates 5v5 19-20, 20-21
Micah Blake McCurdy, @IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

So, the next question that comes to mind is, “if Tampa Bay’s offensive scheme this season isn’t as strong as it was before, then why are they still one of the top five scoring offenses in the league?” Power-play and exceptional shooting talent.

The Lightning boasts the fifth-best power-play in the league even with their inconsistent play at 5v5 over the past month. The power-play has scored 36 goals this season, only two behind the NHL leading Washington Capitals with 38 goals, which helps elevate an offense that averages 2.56 goals per game (9th in the NHL) to one that averages 3.29 (5th in the NHL).

Tampa Bay Lightning Finishing 2020-2021
Micah Blake McCurdy, @IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

The second thing that has helped buoy Tampa Bay’s offense is their latent shooting talent. Ever since Steve Yzerman was brought on over a decade ago, Tampa Bay has consistently looked for players who have a high hockey IQ, can skate, that battle, and can shoot. The above chart shows how good of a shooting team they are. Looking through HockeyViz’s history of the Lightning only reinforces the notion of Tampa Bay consistently outperforming their xG relative to league average.

These two factors have helped buoy their overall scheme adjustment, but eventually, the reality of where the majority of their shots are coming from would rear its ugly head. Over the second half of the season, the past 10 games, especially, have done just that.

Additionally, these past 15 games have not been kind to Tampa Bay’s second line. Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn are the lynchpins of that line with Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson spending the most time as the other wing, but they’ve all struggled mightily over that span.

Cirelli had an actual GF% of 31% and an xGF% of 43%. Killorn was 30% GF% and 44% xGF%. Stamkos, before his injury, was 28% GF% and 50% xGF%. Johnson was 47% GF% and 50% xGF%. Only Stamkos and Johnson were treading water in xGF, but Cirelli and Killorn drowning was not helping the Lightning’s offensive woes.

This is the biggest reason why Ross Colton’s hot streak (66% GF%, 48% xGF%) was magnified so much. He was scoring at such an unsustainable rate that it helped buoy the Lightning in clutch situations. The positive outlook for Colton is that, while he won’t keep scoring like this, he is controlling possession quite well (53% CF%).

Defense

Defensively, the Lightning has been fine from an analytical standpoint for the majority of the season.

Tampa Bay Lightning, Defense, 5v5 Unblocked Shot Rates
Micah Blake McCurdy, @IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

However, just as the offensive side had some underlying issues, the defensive side does as well. The most glaring area is backup goaltending, where Curtis McElhinney and Chris Gibson have combined to allow 35 goals on 242 shots (.855 save percentage). But, raw save percentage is an imperfect state to rely on when gauging a goaltender's performance. That is why I also look at Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA), a stat representing how many goals a goalie has saved compared to a league-average netminder. McElhinney has allowed 9.87 more goals than a league-average netminder, whereas Gibson allowed 2.54 more goals than a league-average netminder in his single game.

The second underlying issue stems from defensive breakdowns from the Lightning themselves that have placed their goaltenders in precarious situations. The biggest contributor to this over the prolonged slump has been Victor Hedman. The reigning Conn Smythe winner’s play has plummeted over the past few weeks. His overall numbers are pedestrian with a GF% of 49% and an xGF% of 50%. Thanks to a dreadful stretch of 15 games where the Lightning went 7-8 (before last night’s victory over Columbus), Hedman’s numbers are atrocious. His actual GF% is 33%, xGF% is 43%, Tampa Bay has been outscored 17-to-8 when Hedman is on the ice over that stretch. Abysmal doesn’t begin to describe it.

The recent beating Tampa Bay received from Nashville provides examples of McElhinney’s poor play and the Lightning doing him no favors.

Little reason a shot from this distance and angle should beat an NHL goaltender, especially on the short side.

An unbelievable amount of puck watching by a lot of Lightning players here.

This goal is a microcosm of Hedman’s poor play over the past 15 games. He fails to pick up Victor Arvidsson streaking through the neutral zone as the last man back. That’s unacceptable for a player like Hedman. You can clearly see him picking up speed off crossovers on the right of the frame at the five-second mark, and Hedman’s awareness is focused on the puck.

Bad plays by Luke Schenn and Mikhail Sergachev with the puck, followed by poor rebound control by McElhinney, are excellent ways to get scored on.

The first inclination is to blame Ryan McDonagh for pinching so aggressively in the offensive zone, but that part of the play isn’t the issue here; it’s Blake Coleman failing to recognize his responsibility to cover for McDonagh until it’s too late. Even his body language indicates he knows his mistake.

These are just from one game, arguably the worst game Tampa Bay has ever played under Cooper, but these lapses in the defensive zone and poor play by their backups are not isolated incidences. They’ve been an issue that has even affected Andrei Vasilevskiy. The difference is Vasilevskiy has a GSAA of 21.55 and is having the best season of his career. The statement that Vasilevskiy has carried Tampa Bay for stretches of the season is not an exaggeration—he’s been that good (like Hart Trophy good).

Additional Thoughts

Plainly put, Tampa Bay is still one of the elite teams in the NHL. Laden with talent up and down the lineup, especially when they’re healthy. However, it’s apparent they’re not as strong as last season and haven’t found a consistent formula for success that doesn’t involve Vasilevskiy becoming a wall combined with opportunistic goal scoring. To me, the most jarring aspect of their play has been their inability to consistently generate pressure in the slot this season. I’m not inclined to believe it is solely due to Kucherov’s absence, it’s hard to fathom one player altering their shot locations that drastically. Does it hurt them? Absolutely, but this shift the Lightning has taken seems deliberate, and it’s unclear why. No amount of conjecture is going to provide an answer.

Gaining Kucherov and Stamkos back for the postseason will bolster Tampa Bay. I’m not completely sold that will fix their offensive issues, but slotting in those two will slide others into positions they’re more suited for, and, in turn, give the Lightning a more balanced forward corps. As it currently stands, there has been a gaping hole on the top line’s right-wing that no one has reliably filled.

Still, the recurring issues they've had this year were masked for the majority of the season because they were winning (which is why relying solely on results isn’t wise). Tampa Bay’s zone entries appear too rigid, always utilizing a curl near the half wall trying to find the trailing forward/defensemen (which is another facet as to why their shots are coming from so far out). The issue is it becomes too predictable and teams have adjusted to that. A criticism of Cooper’s tenure is he takes too long to adjust, and there is some credence here. Though, I’d counter Cooper has an undying belief in his players and might see changing things too soon as an indication he doesn’t believe in them. Belief and sticking to their game won them a Stanley Cup less than a year ago, and hockey culture is infamous for its rigidity and “stick to what works” approach.