A deeper look at the Tampa Bay Lightning struggles
- The Bolts have had a rough go of it in the 2016-17 season, and there's plenty of possible sources for the struggles–but is there a solution?
To call the current season a disappointment doesn’t do justice to the emotions that must be felt throughout the Tampa Bay Lightning organization and its fan base right now.
This summer many pundits thought GM Steve Yzerman would have to pull out the Jedi Mind Trick to keep his talented core together. When he started that project by signing Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to reasonably priced long-term deals and then managed to get Nikita Kucherov on a bridge deal, the Lightning rocketed to the top of many “Cup Favorite” lists.
As of the All-Star break the Lightning found themselves 22nd in the standings and their once lethal offensive attack had netted them a paltry 2.68 goals per game played (16th).
So what happened?
Let’s start with the obvious. Tampa Bay has suffered a lot of injuries this season.
Thanks to a cool tool from NHL Injury Viz, there are lots of different ways to visualize just how bad things have been, but the charts below are probably the most instructive.
The first shows how much of each team’s cap hit was allocated to injured players in each game (CHIP). The blue areas indicate a team that’s healthy; the red ones, a team that’s thoroughly depleted.
Of course, as every fan knows, even clubs as smart as the Lightning occasionally make mistakes or end up with players on long-term deals who provided value at one point but are now overpaid. So while injuries are never a blessing, the loss of an overpaid but under-performing vet doesn’t hurt as much as the chart above might indicate.
Which is why the following visualization is even more awesome. The circles indicate the specific games a player missed due to injury (the colors reflect his position, so goalies are green, forwards blue, and defensemen red).
Tampa Bay’s CHIP started to look ugly as soon as Steven Stamkos went down with a knee injury at the 17 game mark, but Ryan Callahan, who has been out for most of the season as well, was clearly in decline anyway. So he’s less of a loss than his $5.8 million cap hit might suggest.
But during a five-game stretch the Lightning were also without Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.
In light of the carnage, Yzerman must have been wondering if he had enough juice left to suit up.
There’s no doubt injuries have hurt the Bolts. But this narrative belies a more fundamental problem that was starting to become obvious before the Stamkos injury.
As we noted last month, Tampa already had worse than coin toss odds of making the playoffs at the 25 game mark. Many may have snickered at the time, but we bucked the “experience matters in a long NHL season” conventional wisdom and gave the rookie-laden Toronto Maple Leafs squad, which was two points behind Tampa Bay at that point, a 62.5% chance of making the playoffs vs. the Bolts' 44.3%.
We based this largely on the fact that the Lightning’s offensive attack had more or less sputtered. Suddenly a team that had been known for generating both shot attempts and quality scoring chances struggled to produce either.
To be fair, Stamkos had already been gone for eight games by then, so let’s turn back the clock and see what the team has done over the past few years during the regular season.
The chart below shows Tampa Bay’s shot attempt percentage (CF%), scoring chance percentage (SC%) and high danger scoring chance percentage (HDSC%).
You might notice a pattern.
In 2014-15 the Lightning dominated by pounding opponents with their speed and skill. They didn’t just outshoot other teams, they often undressed opposing defenses by getting more than 55% of the high danger chances.
Most pundits missed how good they were at the time, but it was why we predicted them to win the Stanley Cup that season. They had another strong effort in 2015-16, although not quite as impressive.
This season, however, has been a different story from the start.
In every category Tampa Bay stumbled out of the gate, and surprisingly their underlying performance has mostly improved in Stamkos’s absence. It appears that even before Stamkos got hurt, other teams had started to learn how to shut this team down.
To his credit, coach Jon Cooper has acknowledged the problem, which suggests he’s probably spending a lot of time thinking about a solution.
The chart below provides further context for what’s going on here. Specifically, it shows the number of shot attempts against per 60 minutes (CA/60), scoring chances against per 60 minutes (SCA/60) and high danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes (HDSCA/60).
Put simply, Tampa’s team defense was horrendous at the start of this season. Its CA/60 remains solid and only a modest decline from 2014-15, but the real problem has been shot quality.
We can debate whether or not the Lightning were actually good at playing defense or were simply the embodiment of the adage that the best defense is a great offense. Regardless, the effect was that during the 2014-15 season they kept opponents to 8.4 high danger chances per 60 minutes, which was eighth best in the league. That number actually improved to 8.2 last season, the NHL's second best.
This year they’ve been giving up 10.4 HDSCA/60 (16th), and the disturbing part is they’ve improved from 10.7 to 10.2 in the 33 games since Stamkos was injured.
It’s fair to ask who are the culprits here. The table below, which shows every Tampa Bay player with more than 300 5-on-5 minutes played in 2016-17, is sorted from the most to fewest HDSCA/60.
As Tampa Bay Times beat writer Joe Smith recently observed, Brian Boyle has made a strong case for a new contract this season.
Kucherov, meanwhile, ranks third on this list, but he is also pummeling his opponents on shot attempts, scoring chances and high danger scoring chances. So while he’s no defensive stalwart, he’s clearly on the winning side of the ledger.
Jonathan Drouin, on the other hand, continues to make glaring errors that arguably undo his marginal advantage on possession.
And if you’re wondering why Nikita Nesterov was moved to Montreal for very little compensation, it’s not just the fact that he’s up for a new contract this summer. He also has given up a lot of quality chances while logging third pairing minutes. So despite his strong CF/60 and CA/60 numbers, it appears that deficiency has made him expendable.
But really the problem is all the way up and down the lineup.
Two thirds of the fabled “Triplets” have struggled mightily, with Palat doing only slightly better than Drouin, and Tyler Johnson getting demolished in terms of shot attempts, scoring chances and high danger chances. He may not have missed a single game, but something is clearly wrong with Johnson, and it’s not obvious what that is.
Meanwhile Cedric Paquette, who was formerly a reliable shut down guy, has imploded defensively.
Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman continue to anchor the Bolts’ blueline by logging the most minutes, playing the toughest competition, and still outplaying their opponents. But their underlying numbers have followed the team’s inevitable decline.
Seventeen games certainly isn’t a huge sample, but a decent case could be made that the team shouldn’t expect things to change much once Stamkos returns.
Assuming he hasn’t concluded Cooper is the problem, there appear to be two equally valid choices facing Yzerman: Either he stays the course and sees if the team can right the ship and eke out a playoff berth, or he could make a bold move before the trade deadline that gives Tampa Bay the help it need right now.
Given the defensive woes, that player sounds a lot like a defenseman who can be part of a credible second pairing for the 35 minutes or so a game when Hedman and Stralman aren’t on the ice.
The problem is there aren’t many teams with surplus quality defensemen. The Nashville Predators, who have a very strong top four in P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis, may be one such team.
It’s a bit difficult to judge the Predators’ defensemen because the team’s system seems to be built around limiting the quality of shots goaltender Pekka Rinne is forced to face, meaning there may be a “coattails” effect for some players. But as the tables below show, Ekholm, and to a lesser extent Ellis, appear to have been key parts of that story, logging big minutes and tallying impressive advantages on both shot quantity and quality.
|Mattias Ekholm Underlying Stats|
|Ryan Ellis Underlying Stats|
And as luck would have it, Nashville’s middling offensive attack (12th in goals per game played at the break) probably gives GM David Poile some concern that he will watch yet another early playoff exit in which they struggle to find goals.
With Palat, Johnson and (the formerly petulant) Drouin all up for new contracts this summer, what was unthinkable only a few months ago, namely moving one of Tampa Bay’s core pieces, might be a very good idea if the Predators were willing to part with Ekholm or Ellis.
A further dynamic that favors such a trade is this summer’s expansion draft, which gives teams the option of protecting seven forwards and three defensemen or eight skaters total.
Unless the players waive their no movement clauses, Tampa Bay will be forced to protect three forwards: Stamkos, Callahan and Valtteri Filppula. That leaves only four additional forward spots, and it’s fair to say that Stamkos would be the only lock on that list if the team had its druthers.
Meanwhile the Preds, who have maximum roster flexibility (they need to protect one goalie, and Rinne is the only player with a no movement clause), certainly could protect their talented top four D, but the cost of doing so is exposing 3 additional forwards. Is that the right call for a team that struggles to find the back of the net?
The Department of Hockey Analytics employs advanced statistical methods and innovative approaches to better understand the game of hockey. Its three founders are Ian Cooper, a lawyer, former player agent and Wharton Business School graduate; Dr. Phil Curry, a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo; and IJay Palansky, a partner at the law firm of Armstrong Teasdale, former high-stakes professional poker player, and Harvard Law School graduate. Please visit us online at www.depthockeyanalytics.com