Only eight months removed from their Eastern Conference final appearance, the Tampa Bay Lightning have fell way short of the expectations that people had for them this year. They are currently in a three-way tie for last place in the Eastern Conference with the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders with only 40 points and have the second worst goal differential in the league with a -33, only bested by the Columbus Blue Jackets -39. Many bloggers, pundits and hockey fans had this team making another playoff appearance this year and rightfully so. The Bolts didn't lose much of their core from last season and were a terrific possession team with a 54.4% Fenwick rate with the score tied.
Most are pointing at goaltender Dwayne Roloson's sub <.900 save percentage as the root of their problems and while he has been atrocious, there's a lot more wrong with this team than just goaltending. Even if we were to adjust their team save percentage to the league average (.912), their goal differential would still be in the negative range and the Bolts would be a bubble playoff team going by Pythagorean expectations. Their goaltending is clearly an issue (and has been for as long as I can remember), but Tampa Bay has also gone from being one of the top possession teams in the league to one of the worst. Their Fenwick rate when the score is closed is a horrible 48.45%, which is bottom-10 in the league so their goal differential and place in the standings accurately describes their play this season. What's the cause for such a huge drop-off? Most of it stems from injuries and under-performance from nearly all of their depth players.
We'll explore this more closely after the jump
When looking at some of the Lightning's forwards counting stats, they appear to be only a little worse than last season. They are getting another terrific season from Steven Stamkos (31 goals & 51 points) and Vincent Lecavalier's production has been pretty solid, as well (18 goals & 36 points) but keep in mind they had two elite performances by Stamkos & Martin St. Louis last season. While St. Louis' point production isn't bad (37 in 40 games), it isn't nearly what it was last season (99 in 82 games) so the drop-off there has effected their team's performance a little bit. The bigger problem is that St. Louis isn't the only player who has seen his production take a tailspin this year, it's been almost every core player on the team. That speaks in both point production and underlying numbers.
One of the things Tampa Bay and Steve Yzerman did so well last year was sign low-cost players who could gauge puck possession in the right direction even when playing tough minutes. This year, those players have either regressed or left town. The table below shows this year's Lightning players who were also on the team last year along with their corsi tied percentages from both seasons. You'll notice a drop-off from just about everyone.
Ryan Malone and Blair Jones are the only players who saw their possession metrics improve this year and the latter was traded only two weeks ago. The drop offs from Stamkos and Purcell don't mean much as they are both still very effective players and the play is north when both of them are on the ice. Same goes for Marc-Andre Bergeron but his high corsi percentage last season was due to a small sample size. The ones to be concerned about are that of St. Louis, Brewer, Hall, Hedman, Kubina, Thompson, Downie, Clark and Moore. Most of these players are some of Tampa Bay's regular tough minute guys and their inability to drive possession has damaged the Lightning's depth. St. Louis' drop looks very bad, but he is at least putting up points and should be able to play easier minutes on the top line or with Lecavalier to help give Tampa's offense a boost. It clearly hasn't been working with Steve Downie who is failing to drive possession AND score despite playing the same type of minutes as St. Louis.
Adam Hall and Dominic Moore played a big role on the team last year as part of the Lightning's shutdown line and Moore in particular was outstanding but his play has regressed a ton this year. His 18 goals plus his ability to tilt the ice in Tampa Bay's favor despite taking tough zone starts made him a great bargain for $1.1 mil. per year but he hasn't been nearly as good as he was last season. Same goes for Hall and, to an extent, Nate Thompson. You need your top scorers to produce but having depth and secondary behind them is just as important and most of that has disappeared for Tampa this season.
Tampa Bay's tough minute defenders are also seeing some major regression and the biggest one without a question is Brett Clark. He wasn't depended on for the heaviest assignments (those went to Brewer, Hedman and Ohlund) but he did log about 17-20 minutes a night and was relied on as an all-around defender. He is getting hammered in his own zone with the same assignments and has only eight points in 45 games so both sides of his game have taken a huge step back. Not having Mattias Ohlund on the blue line is really hurting them because of how many tough assignments he took on (39.6 OZoneStart%) and it has forced Eric Brewer and Victor Hedman to take over in his spot. With Hedman now on the IR with a concussion, Pavel Kubina has stepped into the top-two role and you can see that his play has suffered because of it. Every team goes through injuries but losing two heavy lifters like Ohlund and Hedman on a team that is already underperforming is hard to recover from.
Some people are attributing the regression of Moore, Hall & Thompson to the loss of third-line extraordinaire Sean Bergenheim, who was a terrific tough-minute forward for Tampa last year who they decided to let walk over the summer because he wanted too much money (signed a four year deal worth $11 mil. with Florida instead). I can't say that I don't blame Steve Yzerman for that because players like Bergeneheim can be signed for a lot less but replacing him hasn't been terribly easy. Neither has replacing Simon Gagne who left a bit of a hole in the second line that hasn't been filled yet.
To illustrate this, here are the corsi tied rates of the players who the Lightning let walk this summer compared with those who are new to the team this year.
*Note: I included Ohlund in here because he has yet to play a game for Tampa this year.
Smaby, Roy, Harju, Pouliot and Vernance didn't play that many games last season so don't pay too much attention to them. The main guys that are gone would be Lundin, Gagne, Bergenheim, Jones and Ohlund who were all decent to great in their roles while their replacements have struggled. Bergenheim's replacements (Tom Pyatt & Ryan Shannon) have been very poorly and it is possible that it has effected Moore's play. Brett Connolly has played top-six minutes on some nights and could be considered a replacement for Simon Gagne but he hasn't filled the void at all. Matt Gilroy and Bruno Gervais haven't been ideal replacements for Mike Lundin and Randy Jones in their respective roles, either and I already talked about how difficult it is to replace Ohlund.
Tampa Bay had a great run last season and they did it through good coaching and getting low-cost depth players that fit Guy Boucher's system well. It appeared that this team was legit as their underlying numbers were terrific but everything is prone to regression and that's what happened to nearly all of Tampa Bay's depth players. Couple that with bad goaltending, injuries and horrible special teams and you have yourself a team heading for a bottom-10 spot. There is still a chance for the Bolts to right the ship but it is going to take a lot more than trading for another goalie like last year.