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Ten Game Report: A mediocre start to the long trudge of the regular season

The Tampa Bay Lightning have officially played ten games this season. And with that, we can take our first dive into the numbers and try to see how the team is performing. From a high level, they’re 5-3-2 and sit 5th in the Atlantic. They’ve played fewer games than most of their competition and that gap is going to get worse with the upcoming trip to Sweden. So for the early part of the season, we’ll have to keep that in mind.

If you’ve read these reports in the past, this one will be a little different. First, some of the data sources have changed. And second, the NHL had an issue with their shot location data that has delayed the release of some of the statistics we typically use. But I’ve cobbled together as close to a full report as I can and hopefully, by the time we get to the 20th game, most of these issues will have been resolved.

The Team

The first chart we look at is mostly unchanged from the past. This one is designed to give us a high level view of how the team is performing. Because we’re only ten games into the season, we can’t compare to the previous ten games so I’ve removed the orange and gray dots we’d typically overlay on the bars. The data here is via Corsica.

On the whole, this is a picture of middling performance buoyed by good shooting. The offense has been mediocre in terms of shot metrics. Same for the defense. And overall, the team has been nearly exactly average in expected goal share. If we look at shots alone, they’ve been even worse but a good job of limiting shot quality defensively has helped them mitigate their problems in controlling shot quantity.

At 5v5, they’ve also gotten good shooting and goaltending, which helps. This was a big part of the story last year as the finishing skill of the forwards and Andrei Vasilevskiy turned a good team into a great team during the regular season.

The special teams side of the graph looks rough. The power play has been poor by shot metrics. This has always been a group that relies on their shooting talent with the advantage but that trait is particularly pronounced in the first ten games. And on the flip side, the penalty kill looks slightly above average in limiting expected goals against but the goaltending has not been good.

The Skaters

At this point in the report, we normally look at a heat map that attempts to give a comprehensive view of how a player has performed. We can’t do that yet this season because the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus (RAPM) stats that we rely on from Evolving Hockey for those charts are not published yet. So instead, we’ll have to settle for a scatter plot of expected goal impacts based on a relative to teammate calculation like it’s 2016 or something. All data in the remainder of the article is via Evolving Hockey.

On this chart, being in the top right means having a positive impact both offensively and defensively while being in the bottom left means the opposite. We see several players right where we’d expect to find them. Nikita Kucherov has been dynamic offensively at a slight cost to their defense. Anthony Cirelli and Ondrej Palat have been the opposite. Brayden Point has been just wonderful as always.

The player that interests me most here is Kevin Shattenkirk. He seems to be finding some early success despite bouncing around from pair to pair after a start to the season where he made several obvious mistakes. If he can be this good in terms of shot impacts and marry that with his contributions on the power play with his shot, the Lightning would be thrilled with that.

The other thing we have to address here is the gap between Luke Witkowski and Carter Verhaeghe. The former is in the lineup and the latter is not. And unfortunately, I suspect every one of these reports will have a Witkowski paragraph until that changes. Not only are his impacts poor, but he’s been part of the early season parade to the penalty box that has cost the team. The Lightning have 3-4 forwards in the organization who are better players.

Carter Verhaeghe is one of those. The common logic on scratching him is that he doesn’t fit on the fourth line. But I’m not sure I buy that. Pat Maroon is a large man, yes. But he’s also skilled. I don’t see why he and Verhaeghe couldn’t form the core of a balanced 4th line.

But even if we accept the notion of what the coaches appear to think a fourth line should be, why not move Mathieu Joseph down and put Verhaeghe on the third line? Joseph, at least to this point in his career, has shown limited finishing ability. So putting him on the fourth line as a pure play driver and trying Verhaeghe on the third line to give Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn a little more offensive pop seems a reasonable idea.

The Goalies

This is is the section of the report where we need to be most careful because of the issues with the NHL data. Comparing how many goals a goalie has allowed to the amount they would be expected to allow will make them look worse than usual for games before October 16th. For the Lightning, that means looking at their first five games of the season. Hopefully, the NHL will fix the data soon but for now, just know that for the first five games in these charts, the goalies will look worse than they were.

The first chart shows how each netminder has played in individual games. Being above the axis means allowing fewer goals than expected and being below it is the opposite.

Vasilevskiy’s numbers are similar to what we saw in the team chart. He’s been mostly fine at 5v5 aside from one terrible game. But if we look at all situations, which includes the penalty kill, his numbers get much worse. By that measure, even if we exclude the games with questionable data, he’s still only had one game that could be considered a strong performance. The team will need better numbers than this if they want to get the most out of this season.

Vasilevskiy’s backup, Curtis McElhinney has been as good if not better than Vasy in his three starts. If he can do this all season, the team would be thrilled with that and be justified in having swapped him in for Louis Domingue.

The next chart shows the running totals in goals saved above expected for both goalies in comparison to the rest of the netminders in the NHL so far this season.

In all situations, Vasilevskiy’s struggles are apparent from this view. He’s among the bottom of the league in allowing more goals than expected though his first seven games. McElhinney, meanwhile, is hovering right around league average which is the best case scenario for a backup.

Wrap Up

The Lightning are not off to a start that will remind anyone of last regular season. Instead, through ten games, they look average. They’ve flashed some of what made them dominant last season but have mixed that with stretches of poor play. That, mixed with spotty goaltending, is not a recipe for success.

So far, the team has been buoyed by their finishing talent, which has allowed them to steal some games. They’re also fortunate in that the worst of the goaltending was confined to one game instead of being spread across all ten games.

After the failure in the playoffs last season, most of the talk around the team has been about how the regular season doesn’t matter. If that’s case, then getting worked up over a mediocre first ten games makes even less sense than it normally would.

Still, it would be nice to see a little more evidence that this team can put together entire games where they look like a threat to make another run at a championship. They have plenty of time to do that though. And doing so in April and May is far more important than October and November.