Analyzing the Lightning: The sweep, the future

This season was a success story for the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was a tale of a team surviving adversity as they rallied after losing their best player to injury, Steven Stamkos, and one of the NHL’s marquee stars, Martin St. Louis, when he demanded to be traded. And this occurred under the tutelage of a unique coach, Jon Cooper, in his first full season as an NHL bench boss.

The Lighting not only made the playoffs, but earned home-ice advantage for the first round. Then the playoffs started. Tampa Bay lost a competitive first game in overtime – although there were harbingers of doom throughout the contest — before things really spun sideways.

The most widely recognized problem happened before the playoffs, when the Lightning lost starting goaltender Ben Bishop to a wrist injury, which will require surgery this offseason. His candidacy for the Vezina Trophy got a lot of buzz, and he finished fourth in GVT among goalies. His backup is the highly erratic Anders Lindback, who has a poor save percentage in his NHL experience with Tampa Bay. Moreover, the Lightning’s opponent, the Montreal Canadiens, came in and played like gangbusters.

The Short-lived Series

The Canadiens dominated the puck possession game, posting a significantly better Fenwick Close. Montreal has the second best shots on goal differential per 60 minutes — when the score is five-on-five and close – behind only the Minnesota Wild. Also, the Lightning could not score enough on goalie Carey Price when the games were competitive. The Bolts shot 3.4 percent in close games at five-on-five. Translation: Tampa Bay scored on only 2 of 58 shots taken. Meanwhile, in five-on-five scoring, the Canadiens currently are second in the NHL Playoffs.

Tampa Bay was unable to sustain zone time on the forecheck – thus the significant disparity in Fenwick percentage. Even when the Lightning did make a successful zone entry, they could not establish offensive success because the Canadiens disrupted the passing and shooting lanes and harassed the puck carrier. Montreal collapsed the net very effectively, and the traffic stymied the Lightning’s scoring.

Mostly, though, Montreal did a good job at keeping Tampa Bay to the perimeter and out of the middle. Even when play was on the outside, the Habs dominated along the walls and in the corners. The Canadiens collected a great quantity of chances on the rush because of the Lightning’s errant play in the neutral zone. “Giveaways” is a subjective statistic and can be highly questionable but it was noticeable that the NHL tracked the Lightning with 40 giveaways in four games. In this case, the stat revealed a team conceding possession far too frequently.

Defensively, the game was a slaughter, too. The Lightning defensemen were too slow, too immobile, too aggressive at the wrong times, and too passive at other times. The Canadiens were able to stickhandle freely without any repercussions, constantly exposing the Lightning’s lack of speed. The Lightning had poor spacing in their own zone, and were too slow and chaotic in their rotations and recognitions of assignments. Frankly, their lack of accountability in their defensive coverage was stunning.

This cannot all be chalked up to the Lightning defensemen because Tampa Bay’s forwards are culpable as well. In contrast, Montreal’s forwards provided strong puck support for their defensemen and good help defense in their own end. This allowed the Canadiens to get fluid breakouts, leading to speed through the neutral zone. But if the outlet pass to lead the rush was not there, Montreal’s defense went over the top of the Lightning with some Hail Mary area passes that tangled up Tampa Bay into a ball of yarn. For four straight games, the Canadiens employed the area pass to exploit their forwards’ speed advantage against Tampa Bay’s defense, and the Bolts had no successful answer.

The four-game sweep Tampa Bay suffered in the first round should not blemish their season though. They were one of the best teams in the NHL in conventional statistics and advanced statistics – even without the injured Stamkos, and later, St. Louis. This team has a very bright future, and some intriguing pieces. From offense to defense, this is where they are and where they are going.

Forwards:

Stamkos is back, so that is a major asset in their pocket. Stammer was not completely healthy in this series, but showed flashes of the dominance he possesses when he is 100 percent. He got off to a torrid scoring pace this season before the injury and, when healthy, is one of the elite players in the game. (In 2012, Hockey Prospectus ranked him second overall among skaters in GVT.)

Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson were both named finalists for the Calder Trophy, and were both havoc-wreakers on the forecheck and rush this season. The Lightning unearthed high-impact players in those two, and Alexander Killorn and Nikita Kucherov provide top-six forward promise as well. The Ryan Callahan situation is dicey because he is looking for top-end forward money and term, and his impact was barely felt in the playoff series. In many ways, Callahan’s skillset is redundant for Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay is a young team that succeeded through collective effort this season, and that is something at which Callahan excels. However, the money he is asking would be better doled out to a scheme-destroying forward. Callahan is a good forward, but Tampa Bay is replete with players who establish the cycle and assail the opposing defensemen when they have the puck. A lot of their success can be attributed to a good forechecking game. Tampa Bay struggled to accomplish that in this series, and Callahan failed to differentiate himself from his teammates.

What was evident in this series is that Tampa Bay needs more players who can create room when faced with one-on-one battles. The Lightning consistently lost vis-à-vis clashes for the puck, and having another player who presents a dynamic skillset opens up room. Fortunately, the Lightning have uber-prospect Jonathan Drouin, whom they selected No. 3 in the 2013 NHL Draft. Drouin has been crushing the competition in juniors this season, and appears to be NHL-ready.

The 2013 NHL Draft is already shaping up to be a memorable one. Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones, Sean Monahan, and Valeri Nichuskin were impressive in their rookie seasons, and a retroactive look at what was said – and is being said about Drouin – should augur good things.

In September of 2013, Hockey Prospectus writer Corey Pronman described Jonathan Drouin in glowing terms: “He is an elite puck possessor with ridiculous skills and offensive hockey sense…. Combining those traits with his great puck abilities make him a nuisance to stop. He has game-breaking potential.”

When you have two supernovas at forward like Stamkos and possibly Drouin, it makes it easier to fill the depth of your roster (unless you are Pittsburgh, just kidding!). The Lightning will be fine at forward – the Stamkos and Valtteri Filppula 1-2 center punch is formidable if they can both stay healthy — but Callahan’s age and decline in scoring make him a stay-away.

Defensemen:

Victor Hedman had a terrific regular season. He was the bastion of the back end and heavy tilter of the ice, flourishing an outstanding relative Fenwick. That said, he had an awful postseason. Tampa Bay frequently dressed seven defensemen in the regular season, but the playoffs saw them dress nine in total over the span of the four games because things went so far south.

Hedman will play with a $4 million AAV against the cap for the next three seasons – which has potential to usurp Ryan McDonagh’s contract as the most cost-efficient for a defensive anchor. This also softens the blow of the Matt Carle contract, which will count against the cap for four more seasons at $5.5 million.

Carle was very bad in the playoffs, and he did not have a very good regular season either. (He was the worst on the team in Relative Fenwick this season, and his Fenwick for percentage was below 50.) When Steve Yzerman inked Carle, he likely envisioned that the former Hobe Baker winner would eat minutes and help provide veteran experience and playing time while the team’s young defensemen developed. While Carle has shake-your-head moments, he does accomplish the task of being an offensive defenseman who plays big minutes.

The rest of Tampa Bay’s healthy defense – excluding Mattias Ohlund — has less term and that is a good thing. Radko Gudas has two more years until he becomes a RFA, and Andrej Sustr is a project who has shown flashes and needs to be signed, but this is a team still constructing and molding their blue line. It will remain a work in progress, but Bishop’s return to health should help ease the process.

Goaltender:

Bishop is having wrist surgery but should be able to rehabilitate this offseason. Tampa Bay seems to have acquired a franchise goaltender who, at 27, is smack in the prime of his career. Another reason why the Callahan extension would be crippling is that Bishop needs a new contract — and Tampa Bay will likely want to re-ink him to a nice, long deal.

Tampa Bay has some very good pieces in place, and a good coach and general manager. Also, their drafting and developing is topnotch. This season was a step forward, and soon they can start to seriously vie for the Eastern Conference crown.

Sam Hitchcock writes extensively about the NHL and is the founder and writer of intelligenthockey.com. You can follow him on Twitter @IntelligHockey.

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