Looking back at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s October

The first month of the season was a mixed bag of results

It may not have been the best start of the season for the Tampa Bay Lightning as they only picked up one win in their first four games. They struggled to score at 5v5 and their defense was a bit chaotic at times. The good news is that they finished October on a winning streak with four wins in their last five contests. They found their 5v5 offense, but their power play success plummeted. So yeah, nine games into the season and we’re still not sure what team we will be watching for the rest of the season.

The Numbers

Tampa Bay Lightning October Numbers

NHL Rank15
Goals For ( Per Game)3.11 (19th)
Goals Against (Per Game)3.11 (18th)
Power Play23.5% (13th)
Penalty Kill80.7% (13th)
Shots (Per Game)30.9 (19th)
Shots Allowed (Per Game)32.2 (16th)
Following stats are at 5v5
xGF/602.74 (15th)
xGA/602.75 (18th)
SCF/6032.37 (26th)
SCA/6030.65 (26th)
High Danger Chances/6013.67 (27th)
High Danger Chances Against/6012.09 (19th)
Shooting Percentage8.70% (15th)

Those numbers are decidedly middle of the road, and for the amount of talent the Lightning have on the roster, a little disappointing. The 3.11 goals for per game isn’t horrible and has been creeping up over the last outings, but seeing them 26th and 27th in Scoring Chances and High-Danger Chances is really disconcerting. Part of their struggles early on have been in sustaining offense and generating multiple opportunities at even strength. Again it’s getting better, but not quite were they should be given their line-up.

We knew it was going to be a struggle defensively as they figured out their rotation. One of the hallmarks of the defense over the past few seasons has been their ability to control the front of their own net. Keeping rebounds and second chances away from Andrei Vasilevskiy is key to them winning games. They are more than happy to let teams fire away from distance, as long they are first to the puck after Vasy makes the save. Allowing him to see the shot and keeping players out of dangerous areas for deflections is also something they have been trying to improve as the season wears on.

There are signs that the pairings are starting to come together and the communication is getting better. Better communication leads to fewer coverage breakdowns and fewer open opponents skating around in wide open areas. It also helps prevent turnovers, a plague that has reared its head way too often this season. Don’t we all love those passes to the middle of the ice that just end up on the opponent’s stick?

The good news is that there is plenty of room for improvement. The team has stayed healthy (yay!) and there has some stability in the lines over the last few games. While they may not have put together too many 60-minute efforts, they are playing better for longer stretches in each and every game. Every day seems to be a step in the right direction.

Do you want even better news? While the numbers we’re seeing are decidedly average, they are way better then they were at at this point last season. Remember that? Remember the power play that was clicking at a whopping 15.4%? Or that they were giving up goals at an average of 3.38 per game? Despite those struggles they rebounded from a 4-3-1 record to end up in the Stanley Cup Final. This team knows how to fix their problems and improve as the season goes continues.

November is going to test them a little bit more as the level of competition ratchets up a notch. Looking back at the teams they played in October there is really just one quality win - the one against the Florida Panthers. Three of the wins came against teams toward the bottom of the standings: Anaheim (32nd), San Jose (30th), and Columbus (29th).

They have been in pretty much every game, even the losses. There were really only two real duds: a 3-1 loss to the Rangers on opening night and a 6-2 loss to the Penguins in their third game. The Flyers loss (3-2) was frustrating because they really controlled the game early and couldn’t cash in on their chances. The Kings loss (4-2) wasn’t a good game, but no one was up to watch that one.

If you break out the Deserve-O-Meter for the five wins, they pretty much deserved to win most of them (maybe not the Florida game). The one dominating win was the 5-2 win over Columbus. The 4-2 win over Anaheim was pretty solid as well. The wins over the Islanders and the Sharks were okay, but they never really put the games away when they had the chance and had to sweat out the endings.

The Goaltenders

As goes Andrei Vasilevskiy, so go the Tampa Bay Lightning. We all know that this team doesn’t win two Stanley Cups without the Big Cat. Heck, without him they are basically the Toronto Maple Leafs. He played well in the first month of the season, not quite at the Playoff Vasy level, but still pretty good.

In 6 games he went 3-3 with a .910 SV% (22nd) and a 2.87 GAA (27th). Despite those numbers being well below his career averages, some of his peripheral numbers indicate he is playing slightly better than it appears. His Goals Saved Above Expected is 2.74, indicating he should have allowed closer to 19.74 goals than the 17 he has in all situations. He’s also slightly above on his first save percentage (.932 versus an expected .924).

He’s going to be okay (casually stuffs the numbers of the first game in November under a rug) once he gets into his routine. With the number of back-to-backs and off-days in October Vasilevskiy didn’t get into his usual workload. We all know he likes it when he’s playing more often and would play all 82 games if Coach Cooper let him. With a more regular schedule in November I wouldn’t be surprised to see these numbers look a lot better when we do this again in a few weeks.

The back-to-backs have allowed Brian Elliott to face a few more shots than he normally would in the first month of the season. The veteran back-up has appeared in 3 games and produced a 2-1 record. He isn’t threatening Vasy’s job by posting a .900 SV% (36th) and 3.35 GAA (45th), but like his goaltending partner, he has played slightly better than the numbers expect. As is the case with Vasilevskiy, Elliott is stopping the first shots better than expected (.930 versus an expected .918) and allowing fewer goals than expected (10 goals allowed versus an xGA of 11.68).

As the defense in front of them improves, so will their numbers. No need to fret about the goaltending or lament the premature demise of Vasilevskiy’s career.

The Skaters

We’ll keep this one brief. The MVP of the offense in the month of October was, without a doubt, Nikita Kucherov. In 9 games he put up 12 points (3 goals, 9 assists). That puts him at a 109 point pace for the season, not MVP level, but pretty darn good. He’s recorded points in 8 of the 9 games and multiple points in 4 of them. After not being able to buy a goal in his first six games, he scored in all three of the final games last month.

He does have an individual expected goals of 3.34 and is shooting below his career 15% mark. So there is a chance he could pick the pace up. One thing to look out for, though, is that he averaged 22:27 of ice time over the first month. That’s more than four minutes more than he has over his career (18:13). Coach Cooper has been relying more on his big guns than ever before as Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos are also seeing time close to their career highs. It’s something to keep an eye on if the scoring doesn’t start spreading out as the season progresses.

It’s always fun to check the scoresheet and see who hasn’t recorded a goal yet (everyone but Cole Koepke and Ian Cole had at least one point in October). There were nine players that didn’t find the back of the net in the first month of the season (we’ll cut Gabriel Fortier some slack since he played just one game) and five of those players were defensemen.

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Pat Maroon also made the list, but the two kind of surprising ones were Koepke and Vlad Namestnikov. As a rookie, Koepke hasn’t really generated a ton of chances, generating just six shots on net and only 11 shot attempts overall. It’s no surprise that Evolving Hockey has him at an individual expected goals of just .45 with Bellemare as the only forward with lower numbers.

Namestnikov is a different story. Evolving Hockey has him at 1.07 ixG with 10 shots on net and 15 shot attempts. He’s seen a lot of time on the top power play unit as well (where he did have two of his assists). While the Lightning aren’t expecting him to put in 20 goals they would like to see some scoring out of his line, which, along with Ross Colton, has yet to record a goal at 5v5 this season.

There is some good news from that third line, though. When they are together (which has been for 19:22 of 5v5 time through 7 games) they are controlling the pace of play. Natural Stat Trick has them with a 74.19% CF% and they are producing 62.50% of the scoring chances when they are on the ice. They have only allowed one high-danger chance and just 8 total shot attempts against. That’s the type of possession that Coach Cooper loves out of his third line and should hopefully lead to goals at some point.

Steven Stamkos has had a streaky start to his season. He popped in 7 goals in his first 5 games, then went without one over the last 4 despite directing 13 shots at the net. Taken on a whole, he is about where the numbers say he should be (expected goals of 6.17 for October) but the way he got there was weird. While he was on his goal binge he was overshooting his expected goal number (2.56) but during this drought is a bit unlucky since the numbers have him at an expected goals of 3.62. Shooting streaks are weird, man.

So there you go. October was a month that had a rocky start for the Lightning and then corrected itself a bit during their trip to California. They aren’t firing on all cylinders quite yet, but are, as their coach likes to say, munching points. They will play with pretty much the same roster (health gods be willing) with Anthony Cirelli and Zach Bogosian not expected back until the end of November at the earliest. That should give them a little more time to work on the cohesion that has been a bit of a problem at times for them.