Believe it or not there are only 23 games left in the regular season for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Therefore, I can officially start using the phrase, “sprint to the end” in reference to their remaining games. As of Wednesday afternoon they sit comfortably in second in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference. While Montreal and Toronto are nipping at the heels, an argument can be made that the Bolts are among the best teams poised to make a strong run to and through the playoffs.
The Olympic break could not have come at a better time for the team as they were in a mini-slump having dropped four of their previous six games. Injuries were also starting to take their effect on the team as goaltender Ben Bishop was banged up and big free agent signing Valtteri Filppula suffered a foot injury that caused him to miss the Olympic competition in Sochi.
Luckily for the team, both Filppula and Bishop should be ready to go in Nashville as the Lightning kick off the sprint with a four-game road trip against the Western Conference. Following that road trip, the super-extra-awsome-about-time-thank-god news is that Steven Stamkos, goalscoring extraordinaire should be back on the ice firing pucks into opposing goaltender's nets.
So with 20 some games to go their:
Number 1 goalie is rested and healthy
Number 1 defenseman (Victor Hedman) is rested and playing with a chip on his shoulder
Most prolific scorer is coming back.
I would say that's a good place to be.
I haven't written much about this season's team mostly because of superstitions. Any time I write about a team or player doing well they tend to go careening off the track (a phenomenon that began with a post about Ryan Craig a long, long time ago). I also had the feeling that this team was winning with smoke and mirrors and that sooner or later they will realize that nine of their players on their roster were on the Syracuse Crunch last year, that their starting goaltender was traded twice in little over a year and had never played in more than 22 NHL games in a season, oh and their leading scorer is 38 years old.
I was certain that when I broke down their wins and losses I would find that they were feasting on west cost teams while struggling against their own division. Maybe they had racked up their points against weak competition. So it was kind of surprising to find out that the only division they've struggled against is the relatively easy Metropolitan. Against their fellow Atlantic Division they're a comfortable 13-6-1. Granted, three of those losses are against the Bruins, but if the Bolts play out strongly that wouldn't be a problem until later in the playoffs.
Statistically the team isn't doing any one thing great (except being gritty!). They are 11th in goals scored per game, 11th in goals against per game, 23rd in penalty kill and 19th in power play. So in the traditional numbers....a pretty average team. The new age stats are a little friendlier as they are 7th in PDO (1009) and 11th in Corsi. I don't really, really know what that means, but I'm pretty sure it's good. There are other sites that break that stuff down way better than I can.
So, if the team isn't gang busters in scoring or throwing up brick walls on defense, how are they winning? First and foremost Ben Bishop. He has been sparkling in net for the Lightning, posting a 1.98 SAA and .933 SV% as the number one goalie. He's also managed, on more than one occasion, to bail the team out and flat out steal games that they should have lost.
The team's first win of the season, beating Chicago 3-2 in a shootout, was the first and probably best example. If you remember, and I do because I WAS THERE!, the Lightning went an entire period without a shot. Yet Bishop kept them in the game until they were able to put a little offense together.
In the past few seasons the net-minders haven't been able to cover for the skaters on their off nights. Hence, the rotating cast of characters that have trickled through the crease over the past three years. Bishop has been the MVP for the team so far this season and his health, more so than Stamkos' is the key to the team going far in the playoffs.
Stamkos' injury is another key factor in Tampa Bay's shocking run to the top. I'm not crazy enough to say that I want a 60-goal scorer routinely shelved for almost four months, but his time away from the ice did allow other players, especially Tyler Johnson, time to develop their game on the NHL level.
Going into the season, how the Tampa-cuse players such as Johnson, Radko Gudas, Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik adjusted to the NHL was the biggest question mark for the team. For the fans and for coach Jon Cooper, luckily they all, except for Panik to a degree, answered the call. Johnson is a leading Calder candidate and Gudas has provided solid time on the blue-line. Palat has picked up his game over the last two months and is quietly making a case for the Calder himself.
|Tyler Johnson - He's pretty good at hockey.|
When Stamkos comes back, it will be interesting to see how Cooper adjusts the lines. I would think that Johnson is moved to the second line, possibly with Alex Killorn and Teddy Purcell while Stamkos centers Marty St. Louis and Palat. Other players get bumped down the line until one of my favorites, J.T. Brown, finds himself back in Syracuse through no fault of his own.
Speaking of Brown, the line of him, Nate Thompson and Nikita Kucherov are another huge factor in the success of the team. Any line that Nate Thompson has ever been a part of has been great at playing defense, playing in the offensive zone, keeping the other team pinned back. However, they've never really chipped in too many goals. Ever since Kucherov and Brown joined him that is different. They still do a good job of defense, but now they can throw in a goal every once in awhile. Which gives the Lightning basically three lines that can do that.
Of course, no fan base is ever content at the trading deadline. No matter how successful, or how much of a surprise a team is, moves must be made. So, what moves will the Lightning make over the next week or so?
Unfortunately for the masses, I don't think they do anything. After all they are essentially adding a 60-goal scorer at the deadline in Stamkos. And since it cost's them nothing but a roster spot, I will go ahead and declare them the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline Winners!
Other than kick the tires on some defense-men I don't think General Manager Steve Yzerman pulls anything off. The team that is on the ice is pretty much the team he envisioned putting together when he took over the reigns of the organization. A fast-paced, aggressive offense backed by solid (young) goal-tending and a defense that can add scoring while also playing responsibly in their own end.
I wouldn't be surprised to see him make some minor deals to either acquire draft picks or help deepen the organizational talent, but as far as blockbusters....I just don't see it.
Which brings us to the mite-sized elephant in the room. If I had written this two weeks ago like I planned, this part of the post would not have to be written. I would be trying to come up with some ending that actually ties it all together cleverly. Instead, I have to ask the question, “What is the deal with Marty St. Louis?”
|Sad Marty is Sad|
It started innocently enough. Boomer Esiason tweeted some tweets about the Rangers making a deal and the speculation fire that roared up paired the Rangers and Lightning together in a St. Louis for Ryan Callahan deal. I made some sarcastic tweets about it and then promptly dismissed the talk. In my mind, why would:
A. The Lightning trade their captain and leading scorer in a playoff year?
B. Why would St. Louis waive his no movement clause for a team that isn't a better bet to win the Stanley Cup?
C. Why would the Lightning settle for a return of a player who is going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season when they have St. Louis under contract for another season?
Now it seems there is talk from reputable sources (Bob McKenzie) that St. Louis has asked for a trade. That throws a little bit of different shade on the topic. As does the lack of a firm denial from either St. Louis or Mr. Yzerman.
|Hey There Tommy!|
To quote Tom Cruise in Cocktail, “Jesus, everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn't end.” It's starting to look like this is going to end badly. Even without the rumors that are running amok, what to do with St. Louis was going to be a story lurking in the background in the near future. He has another year remaining on his contract after this one and it doesn't look like he's ready for retirement anytime soon.
So what were the Lightning going to do in 2015-16? Despite his production he would be 40-years-old so a long term deal would be fool hardy. Especially since Stammergeddon II would be right around the corner. Do they offer him a one-year deal? Let him walk?
Throughout my career I've been all over the map on St. Louis. Way back when I first started writing I was in the “Trade Marty” camp. I always thought Pittsburgh would make a great fit for him. Then over the years I reversed myself as it became more apparent that he was the foundation of the organization.
However, this isn't the first time St. Louis has expressed doubts about his future with the organization. Following the 2009-10 season he openly questioned the direction of the team and his role with it. That was quickly forgotten as then new GM Mr. Yzerman signed him to an extension and the team went off on the great run to the Eastern Conference Finals the next season.
Trading him now would be an interesting move. It would undoubtedly alienate a large portion of the fan base. No matter who or what they got back in the deal it would hurt the team on the ice as well. Mr. Yzerman has proven that he is willing to trade a fan-favorite (see Lecavalier, Vincent) if it helps the team. But, for him to do this to a team that has a good a shot as any to make a deep run in the playoffs? I don't see it.
Now, does he make a trade this summer? That's a totally different story. Moving St. Louis in the off-season, while still not a politically friendly move can be justified (he's old, salary cap, bring value while you can, etc). Trading him now would be handcuffing the team and I don't see Mr. Yzerman doing that.
About the only good news is that it does have the rest of hockey talking about Tampa Bay for a change!