Tampa Bay Lightning Team Report: A New (False) Hope

After playing somewhere between mediocre and poorly for most of the season, the Lightning are finally playing better, but it will likely be too little too late.

For most of the season, these team reports have focused on how poorly the Lightning have played relative to what most analysts expected them to accomplish this year. That isn’t the case anymore. They are finally playing like the team that was able to win two playoff series last season. Unfortunately, the changes are probably too late to make a difference.

I wrote before the trade deadline that the Lightning should sell as many of their expiring or overpriced assets as possible. The team seems to have agreed with that assessment and successfully moved the expiring contracts of Brian Boyle and Ben Bishop, as well as Valtteri Filppula’s expensive deal. Those were the right decisions because they put the Lightning in the best position to be able to re-sign their restricted free agents this summer.

The moves also probably weakened the team on the ice just a bit. Filppula and Boyle were reliable if not spectacular, and a combination of Adam Erne, Greg McKegg, Yanni Gourde, and Luke Witkowski likely won’t be able to completely make up for that loss. Moving Bishop means more minutes for Vasilevskiy, which should be fine. But the backup minutes that go to Peter Budaj will perhaps be a downgrade.

The Lightning still sit outside of the playoffs with several teams to pass. That, combined with the roster changes, indicates that any improvement is too late to change the course of this season. But it doesn’t invalidate the improvement.

As always, all data in this report is via corsica.hockey. The team stats are adjusted for score and venue (home/away). The player stats are adjusted for score, venue, and zone. We’ll start by looking at the team’s performance at 5v5. All of the running total charts reflect the last month of hockey.

The most significant area of improvement is in shot suppression. The Bolts are now comfortably in the top ten in both shots against and expected goals against. That’s a massive improvement from earlier in the season, and the improvement in shots against is evident even in the last month as shown on the chart.

The improvement in shot generation is less dramatic but still noticeable. That improvement, combined with the change in shot suppression has moved the team from 16th in the league in both shot share and expected goal share, to 12th in the league in both.

That improvement in play has translated directly to an improvement in results. Over the same timeframe, the goaltending has also gotten better. All of that adds up to allowing less goals, which obviously leads to more wins.

This recipe is similar to the one the Bolts used to reach the conference finals last season. The only difference is that this year, the adjustment in play came too late and it will take lots of help for the Lightning to even make the playoffs let alone see any success.

Having looked at 5v5 play, let’s now look at special teams. The following chart shows the team’s performance at both 5v4 and 4v5.

The power play continues to get some of the best results in the league. The team is now 3rd in the league in both goal scoring rate and shooting percentage on the power plays. However, the shot metrics don’t align very well with those numbers. The Bolts sit 19th in both shot and expected goal generation on the power play.

While shots aren’t the best way to assess play at 5v4, that big of a gap does suggest that the Lightning are experiencing some good shooting luck. If they want to continue to see this kind of success, they will likely need to do a better job of generating more shots from dangerous areas.

The penalty kill remains below average. The Lightning give up a fair amount of shots on the power play but do a decent job of limiting the most dangerous chances as evidenced by the expected goals against numbers. Goaltending at 4v5 is in the bottom half of the league which is the reason for the gap between the expected and actual goal numbers.

As we transition to looking at individual players instead of the team as a whole, the impact of the recent roster changes becomes obvious. The Lightning only have nine forwards left on the roster who would meet the TOI requirements to be included in these charts, which are limited to players with at least 350 minutes. Because of that, I’ve left Filppula and Boyle on the charts so that we can look at their numbers one final time.

The statistic used in the player charts is Dom Luszczyszyn’s game score, which measures how well a player performs in an individual game. Only 5v5 data is included here.

I’m running out of superlatives to describe Nikita Kucherov. He’s one of the best players in the league and if if the circumstances align correctly, he’s good enough to have a year where he’s in the discussion for the Hart trophy. Brayden Point has been a star since he returned to the lineup. He’s quickly climbing into the top half of forwards league wide and as a rookie, his future looks bright.

Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson are also moving in the right direction. Both are benefiting from being reunited with Kucherov and the triplets seem to be rediscovering some of what made them one of the best lines in the NHL two seasons ago.

On defense, the Lightning only have five players who qualify to be included. Jake Dotchin hasn’t played enough minutes yet but if he remains in the lineup, likely will be included when we revisit these numbers in a few weeks.

Switching the defensive pairing seems to have helped prop up the bottom half of the Lightning defense. Victor Hedman is still great and Dotchin being effective as his partner has allowed head coach Jon Cooper to finally split up the pairing of Jason Garrison and Andrej Sustr that was such a problem all year.

Garrison’s numbers have gotten much better playing with Anton Stralman. Sustr has also gotten a little better playing with Braydon Coburn. The loser in this shuffle is Stralman who is not putting up the numbers that he has in the past. But just keeping Garrison afloat is a huge accomplishment and if he can continue to do that, he’ll be doing his part to stabilize the blue line.

Finally, we’ll take a quick overview of all the forwards and defenders. Players high up on the chart have a positive impact on the teams’ expected goal share and players far to the right score at a high rate. Again, we’re only looking at 5v5 performance.

The Lightning have become a team of two stars this season. Kucherov drives the offense and Hedman drives the defense. Both are great but both bore far too much of the responsibility for far too long this season. While others have improved lately, that help likely comes too late to make much of a difference this season.

Seeing this improvement late in the year is bittersweet. As a fan, I enjoy seeing them playing better. But I can’t help wondering what would have happened if the defensive adjustments occurred earlier in the season. Even three or four extra wins during the fall and winter would put the team in a completely different position now.