Dissecting Tampa Bay Lightning’s Defense
Are there systemic issues with this year’s defense corps? Three Raw Charge writers think this through.
Tampa Bay is 7-10-3 when allowing a power play goal against this season, and 12-6-1 when they don't allow one. That is a stat that follows some logical sense. When you allow opposing teams easier goals, they’re more likely to beat you. On the other side, the Lightning are 3-11-2 when they fail to score a power play goal, and 14-5-2 when they score on the power play. The same logic follows.
Ultimately, Jon Cooper is responsible for the whole team, but what are Rick Bowness's two areas of focus? The defense and the penalty kill. What are the main problems for the team this season? The defense and the penalty kill.
Bowness was brought in because of his NHL experience to be something of a mentor and guide to Cooper as he adjusted to the NHL. Now Cooper has adjusted, and that mentor role is no longer needed, or at least not needed as much, which brings us to looking at the Lightning's defense, PK, and Bowness. What Bowness brings to the team now must come from the team’s performance on the ice, and not from the intangibles he brings to the coaching staff.
Going back to 2013-14 when Cooper and Bowness took over full time, the Lightning’s penalty kill percentages have been 80.7%, 83.7%, 84.0%, and 79.7% this season. The first year the defensive corps was understandably bad. The next two seasons the penalty kill did quite well. Any time you’re over 80% by any real margin, you’re doing a good job. So what happened this season?
We can obviously look at the defense personnel: Jason Garrison has regressed. Andrej Sustr has been placed in a spot that’s over his skill level and capabilities. Braydon Coburn has been solid as a third pair defenseman. Slater Koekkoek has shone at times but is still young and prone to some off games. Nikita Nesterov is Nesterov and we pretty much know what kind of defenseman he is and was going to be this season. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman are the bright shining beacons on top of the defensive tower.
But this is pretty much the same line-up as last season, minus one Matt Carle (May he Retire In Peace).
The penalty kill has lacked a little something with Ryan Callahan out of the lineup for so much of the year. But that’s hardly an excuse. Penalty killing mainstays Valtteri Filppula, Brian Boyle, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat have been healthy for most of the year. Alex Killorn and Cedric Paquette have gotten less time, but are more than capable. Even Joel Vermin served on the penalty kill during his recall and he’s a capable defensive forward.
The lineup really hasn’t changed over the last three seasons. So what’s the problem on the penalty kill? What’s the problem on the defense? Is this system related? Or are we just seeing some very hard regression as a few players age? Or is Bowness coaching less effectively than he has been?
Trying to diagnose defensive issues on a team that sits 15th in shots against and 10th in expected goals against while being 20th in shots for and 21st in expected goals for seems a little strange. Those numbers suggest that the Lightning’s issues are more related to offense than defense. And given the slew of injuries to the team’s forwards, that certainly could be part of the problem.
When watching the games, it certainly feels like the problems start in the defensive zone. To my eye, the team seems to struggle to recover the puck in the defensive zone and to break out of the zone cleanly. They go through long stretches where they can’t get through the neutral zone and therefore can’t generate prolonged stretches of pressure in the offensive zone.
I don’t have any data or evidence to support this opinion, but that’s how it looks to me. The way to check would be with zone exit data for multiple seasons to compare how the Bolts are getting out of the zone this season to how they did in previous seasons, but unfortunately, we just don’t have access to data like that.
If we’re looking for things we can measure, the Lightning defense does have one glaring error. The pairing of Sustr and Garrison has struggled this season. Among 90 NHL pairs with at least 175+ minutes TOI together, they have the 14th-worst impact on their team’s expected goal share. For a second pairing, that’s bad.
If we look deeper, we see something even more unusual. Even though they are obviously struggling, they are seeing some of the toughest deployment in the league in terms of defensive zone starts. If we account for that usage, their impact on expected goals goes from being terrible to just being bad. I’m not sure why the coaching staff is choosing to bury their worst defensive pairing, but that decision is exacerbating an already significant problem.
Trying to diagnose specific defensive issues without detailed player tracking or extensive video work is difficult, but if we’re looking for a place to start, adjusting the usage of Garrison and Sustr is an idea. The coaching staff has split them for the last couple of games. The early returns have not been great, Garrison and Koekkoek have been shelled as a pairing.
If that continues, the Lightning face a difficult decision. They have one elite pairing: Hedman and Stralman. They have one above average pairing: Coburn and Koekkoek. That leaves some combination of Sustr, Garrison, and Nesterov as the options for the third pairing. As unlikely as it might seem, the best combination of those players this season has been Garrison and Nesterov. They’ve been breaking even in terms of their impact on the team in about 120 minutes together.
The obvious issue is that if the team goes with those three combos, that would mean sitting Sustr, which seems impossible given the team’s usage of him over the last two seasons. So unless something significant changes, the problem of how to get minutes out of Garrison and Sustr that aren’t a drag on the team will continue to be an issue.
Yesterday, Alan, Geo, and I discussed the state of the Lightning defense. Alan is one of the more analytically inclined staffers, and his dissection of the defense lines up quite well with what I have seen over the course of the season. To put it plainly, this is a defense that last season was extremely efficient at shot suppression and limiting high danger chances. No major personnel moves were made on the defensive side so all was expected to continue. That is not the case.
The Hedman/Stralman pairing continues to be our anchor, with the Coburn/Koekkoek pairing performing surprisingly well given their usage. However, the Garrison/Sustr pairing has just been ghastly. When Alan brought up numbers on how bad the pairing was, I was honestly shocked.
I knew they were our worst pairing, but I was not expecting it to be that bad. The chart below shows just how bad the pairing has been. They are the 5th worst pairing among 57 defensive pairs in the NHL that have played more the 175 minutes together. 5th worst! Side note, though: two NYR pairings are even worse (suck it Rags).
How does a defense that was great last season suddenly dip to bad using the same pairings? The first thought that comes to my mind is the regression of Coburn and Garrison, the two oldest defensemen on the team.
For Garrison, you can just tell from watching him that he has lost a step and has trouble with speedier forwards. Coburn, though, hasn’t regressed much. I was critical of Coburn early in the season, but as time has progressed Coburn has found a nice consistency to his game that has helped his pairing with Slater Koekkoek to not be a black hole. It still doesn’t entirely answer the question, why is the defense this bad?
Is it goaltending, maybe? Last season Ben Bishop had a Vezina-caliber season (second time in 3 years) which only helped make the defense look better. Even ignoring Bishop’s season, last year doesn’t show as much of a marked downgrade in defensive efficiency. Yes, goaltending hasn’t been great this year for the Bolts, but the chart below indicates that at 5v5, Bishop is hovering near a .935 SV%, while sinking down to an .815 SV% while shorthanded. That massive swing from 5v5 to 4v5 is ridiculous, by the second metric he is the second worst goalie on the penalty kill behind only Thomas Greiss. Vasilevskiy is hovering around a .914% at 5v5 and around an .860% shorthanded.
From looking at footage of the Lightning this season, it can be plainly seen that outside of 77 and 6, our defensemen are just not good enough at transitioning from the DZ to the NZ.
When we are pinned in our DZ, 5 and 62 don’t win enough puck battles and are skated around often. 55 and 29 do a little better, but they also freely let the opposing team come into the DZ without challenging.
If you watch our defensive corps carefully, you’ll notice that our D-pairings are always backing up. That’s giving the forwards permission to take an angle and force the defender into a bad position. With the struggles our bottom D-pairings have had, the forwards have been put into a situation where they have to pick up more of the defensive slack as a result. Forwards can only do so much to help inefficient D-pairings.
Geo brought up the idea that it could possibly be Bowness’ defensive structure that could be the culprit. As far as I know it’s the same system we’ve been running for the past few years. It doesn’t make sense how his system would fail this much.
From just a day of sifting through some film and numbers, I think the Lightning’s defensive woes are more of a cumulative problem. Perhaps Bowness’ system has been “figured out,” as some might say. Or maybe it’s due to the regression of Garrison and the stunted growth of Sustr (personally I think Sustr has peaked as an NHL defensemen and is suited to 5/6 D-man minutes). Or the goaltending dipping and the penalty kill being absolutely painful are the culprits. To me, it’s all of these issues combined that have caused the Lightning’s defense to take a step back.
In order to make a truly educated assessment, though, Alan, Geo, and I would need more than just a day of brainstorming and data sifting. We’ll more than likely return to this topic at season’s end and have a better idea of what exactly is wrong with the Lightning defensively.
As of this moment, though, I’m saying it’s a conglomeration of issues that weren’t foreseen by any of us.