The myth of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s bad defense

The Lightning are, and have been, a good defensive team.

The general consensus among fans and most prominent “analysts” around the NHL is that the Tampa Bay Lightning are a great offensive team that plays poor defense and gets bailed out by a great goaltender. You can hear this refrain anywhere you go to find mainstream hockey discussion. Whether among casual fans on Twitter or from talking heads on national game intermissions, you’ll hear these same thoughts repeated.

I’m not sure where this idea started and I don’t have any reasonable way of figuring that out. But it’s been around for seemingly the entirety of this recent run of success under Jon Cooper. If I had to guess, I’d say this is a narrative grounded in very little other than the idea that skilled, high scoring teams must inherently be bad defensively. Or, if I want to be a little more charitable, maybe it stems from the blue line being the obvious roster weakness through the first several years of Jon Cooper’s tenure.

It could also because of the tendency of coaches and players to harp on it after losses. Sometimes that harping is warranted. But much of the time, it’s a cover for the goalie. Coaches and players rarely criticize the goaltender so if the team gives up a bunch of goals in a game, the party line will be about cleaning up defensive mistakes. And if you have a bunch of games where the goalies struggle, you end up with a bunch of quotes in the media about how the defense is the problem.

But whatever the origin, the reality is that it isn’t and hasn’t ever been accurate. At least based on any reasonable analysis using the data the NHL provides. So that begs the question of what kind of team are the Tampa Bay Lightning? And fortunately for us, they do fit a specific type that can be wrapped up in a neat package. Most of the media has just been wrong about what’s inside the package.

What type of team are the Lightning?

The following chart contains data from Evolving Hockey. It shows where the Lightning have ranked in the NHL since 2007-2008 in four key areas at 5v5: defensive play, goaltending, offensive play, and shooting. Cooper took over as head coach at the end of the 2012-2013 season.

The 13-14 seasons was a transition year but starting in 14-15, the Lightning start to have some distinct characteristics that stretch across the entirety of the rest of Cooper’s tenure.

We’ll start with the headline of this article: The Lightning have been a good defensive team for six consecutive years. In the cup year (14-15) and the following season, they were one of the very best defensive teams in the NHL. They are that again this year. In between, they were always above average and frequently in the top 10.

The companion to defense on this dashboard is goaltending. And they’ve never been great in that area. They’ve always been in the bottom half of the league when including both their starter and backup. Earlier in Coopers tenure, the goaltending was near the bottom of the entire NHL but recently, it has hovered closer to average.

So to summarize, the Lightning have been a good to great defensive team with bad to average goaltending during Cooper’s tenure. Switching to the other side of the game, we see a different story.

During the early part of Cooper’s tenure, the Bolts weren’t particularly strong on offense in terms of shot metrics. But they were a great shooting team, which allowed them to outscore their opponents despite not generating many expected goals.

Over the last three years, that trend has shifted with the offensive play becoming much better while the shooting has stayed in elite territory. That’s a dangerous combination and we’ve seen it in the results as the Lightning put together an historic season last year and just went on a 10 game winning streak this year.

So to answer our question as to what type of team the Lightning are, they’ve always been good defensively but have at times been let down by subpar goaltending. The biggest change over the last few seasons is their improvement from a team that relies almost entirely on their shooting talent to score goals to one that can still shoot the lights out, but also generates good both quality and quantity in terms of the shots they take.

Time to put the old narrative to bed

From a narrative perspective, this might finally be the year that the idea of the Lightning being bad defensively disappears. Not only do the numbers refute it, but Victor Hedman won the Norris Trophy last year and could get a fourth consecutive nomination this year and possibly even a second consecutive win. Anthony Cirelli is starting to get buzz as one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL and will get Selke hype. We made the case that he should’ve been considered last year as well.

If the Lightning have both the defending Norris Trophy winner and a Selke candidate, it seems silly to say that they’re bad defensively. The rest of the roster would have to be so catastrophically terrible in their own zone in order to drag down a top end of the defensive talent pool that looks like that. And we know that’s not the case.

Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde, Ryan McDonagh, and Ondrej Palat are all proven excellent defensive players. Erik Cernak looked to be another name on that list but struggled at the early part of this season. Over the last couple weeks, he’s started to come around and if he does, that’s another player to detract from this narrative.

If pundits want to pick nits with this Lightning roster, they need to find something other than a generic notion of “defensive play.” The goaltending is an option. As is a tendency to rely on shooting talent instead of generating the most dangerous offensive chance. This isn’t a perfect team. No team is. But if you’re going to criticize something, at least choose an area that hasn’t been an obvious measurable strength for five years running.