What might've gone wrong with the Tampa Bay Lightning defense

The Tampa Bay Lightning’s season – and its subsequent collapse after the Olympic break – has further frustrated an already aggravated fan base. The scoring was inconsistent after Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis (though Vincent Lecavalier did score more after the Olympic break), and the goaltending was very bipolar. One night, one goalie would be fantastic, and then the next night, he wasn’t so much. Luckily, injuries weren’t as big an issue as they were the previous season.

Hockey is a team game, and we all know that. But perhaps the most vexing part of this team was the defense. On paper, the defense looked great. But in on the ice, they struggled. While all parts of the team struggled now and then throughout the season, it was the defense that had the most problems overall.

I had put together a table of each defenseman’s statistics over the last three years expecting there to be some kind of a trend. That is, this past season being worse than the previous two. But if you look for that trend, you’ll probably find that it doesn’t exist. I know that I didn’t see anything.

For most of the defense, the only number that dropped was their plus-minus – which many statisticians claim is just a junk stat, anyways. I looked at not only goals, assists, points, and plus-minus, but also hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, shots on goal, and shooting percentage. Therefore, for most of the defensemen, it all stayed relatively consistent.

If you looked at them on paper, the defense played fine. If you watched them play in any of the games, however, then you were left scratching your head. So you can’t actually fault the defense because each individual was playing pretty much as he had been for the previous two years.

But clearly, something was wrong with the defense. They were constantly out of position, bunching up together, trying to help out the forwards a little too much, and making all kinds of mistakes. The only two aspects left are chemistry and coaching.

In regards to chemistry and defensemen…well, let’s just say that it’s not a topic normally discussed. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s taken for granted. People just assume that you throw two defensemen out on the ice together and it’ll work. In a way, that’s sort of true. Mostly because they’re required to communicate so well with everyone on the ice, that helps with the chemistry.
Defensemen tend to be better on one side of the ice than the other. Again, this isn’t an issue that’s typically discussed, but just like there are right wingers and left wingers there are right defensemen and left defensemen. While you can play two defensemen that favor one side better than the other, it doesn’t always work. Guys will naturally go where they feel more comfortable. That’s when you get into both guys being in the same corner to get a puck, or on the same side of the net.
Of course, defensive tandems are created by the coaches – who should be fully aware of which side each defenseman prefers to play on. But when you see the defense bunching up on one side or the other, then you have to wonder if the coaches know the players as well as they should. If you can help it, you make sure you have a right defenseman playing with a left defenseman. To use the forwards as a more commonly referenced example, it doesn’t always do you a lot of good to have two left wingers out on the ice on the same line.
So once you get past statistics (which are an indicator of ability) and chemistry, all you have left is coaching.
Chemistry is often a factor of coaching – as we all saw with former head coach Rick Tocchet and his constant line juggling. A coach has to know and understand his personnel in order to get what he wants out of them. And putting players together that can bring out the best in each other is a part of that.
The fact of the matter is, former defenseman coach Rick Wilson – for all of his coaching experience – wasn’t able to put the defensemen together in a way that benefitted the team best. And maybe there was a conflict of coaching philosophy between him and Rick Tocchet, I don’t know. But the reality is that Wilson was unable to bring the defense together and create a coherent group, for whatever reason.
The simplest way to say it was that the defense looked really bad, despite everyone having an average season statistically. When one or two players have a problem, then likely it’s the player that has a problem. But when most or all of the players have a problem, then it’s likely the coach. And, honestly, most of the eight defensemen looked like they had problems most every night.