Monday, January 5, 2015

It's NOT A Major Award! Mid Season Lightning Report

We’ve made it to the halfway point of the Lightning’s season and I’ve managed to write about them all of twice. But seeing how I’ve apparently only written four articles (yes I count the one at Raw Charge) since the hockey season has begun, at least the percentages are pretty good.  Really, four posts since October?  I am so sorry loyal readers (Hi Mom and Dad!).  I will resolve to write more. After all, I can’t really write less, eh? As a reward for your patience - let’s hand out some awards! Welcome to the 1st Annual Mid-Season Random Lightning Awards column.

Before we hand out the hardware let’s take a pulse on the team’s season. After 41 games they find themselves tied at the top of the Atlantic conference with Montreal. Granted the Canadiens have played in two fewer contests, but for now the only thing that matters is points and both teams have 54 of them. Which is one more than the mumps-ridden Penguins and the surprising New York Islanders.  All-in-all the Lightning are holding up to the pre-season predictions many folks had for them.

Despite my lack of writing, I have actually been following the team closer than in recent years (thank you NHL Game Center) and have even managed to get to a game or two in other cities.  Based on many, many hours of watching this team I’ve come to one conclusion - this is a fun team to watch.

As a long time Lightning fan I’ve seen teams of the past barely able to string together two successful passes, let alone any kind of coherent offensive plan, it is so delightful to watch a team that, on most nights, is decidedly better at putting the puck in the net than most of the other teams that they line up against. (Congratulations, you just made it through the first run-on sentence of 2015).

This team is an amazing team to watch on transition.  Other than the Blackhawks, I would venture that no one can switch from defense to offense more efficiently than the Bolts. And while their fondness for cross-ice passes tends to get them in trouble from time to time, when they are clicking they are one of the prettiest teams to watch play hockey. Even Link, who has spent his life watching Pittsburgh teams with the like of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jaromir Jagr, Milan Kraft and Mario Lemieux play was impressed with the Lightning’s offense.

A team has to be fun when Steven Stamkos can’t crack the top line. Almost as  fun to read/hear people wonder what’s “wrong” with Stamkos since he only has 21 goals.  Granted, his projected 42 goals would be the fewest he’s scored in an 82 games season since his rookie year, but 40+ goals is nothing to sneeze at.

Part of the reason it seems like a down year for the former Sarnia Sting Sniper (first unnecessary alliteration of the year!) is that whatever line he has been playing on has constantly been overshadowed by the Triplets. Or #ThatLine. Or #ThatTripletLine. Or the #TKOLine or #TheBestLineInHockey.  Whatever you want to call them, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV (MBNK) have simply been dominant when on the ice together.

The Russian, who bounced around on a couple of different lines to begin the season, has found a home with his fellow Syracuse alumni. They each fill a specific role: Tyler - The Creator, Ondrej - The Net Front Presence and MY BOY NIKITA KUCHEROV - the Shooter. They are all gifted with speed and a sense of knowing where the others are on the ice as evidenced by the Kucherov fake-slapshot-pass to Johnson in the Ottawa game Sunday night.

"We're The Three Best Friends Anyone Could Have"

MBNK is third on the team in shots despite averaging almost 5 minutes less than the leader Stamkos and  3 minutes less than the second place player Johnson.  So everyone in the building and everyone watching was 100% certain that when he got the puck in the slot he was going to unload a cannon on the Ottawa goalie.  Yet, despite bringing his stick back to maximum slapshot height he managed to torque it so that he sent an ankle high pass across the ice (because that’s what they do!) to Johnson, who swiftly knocked it down and into a wide open net.

Where was Palat on the play? In front of the net screening Robin Lehner, of course.  Each has their role and they’ve each played it to perfection so far.  Which leaves their opponents with a match up question. Do you stick your best defensive players out against the Lightning’s best line (Johnson, Palat, MBNK) or against their best player (Stamkos).  Because you can throw Matt Carle and a bag of pucks on Stamkos’ line and he’s still going to score 35 goals every season. Having that option is one of the reasons the Lightning can go on the road and still keep scoring.  They are not restricted to just one line.  Heck, depending on the night the so-called 3rd line is going to either have their best offensive prospect (Jonathan Drouin) or the player with the best hands/vision on the team in Valtteri Filppula.

Throw in a defense that not only is doing better at stopping pucks from going in (12th in the league in goals against), but knows how to get it on net as well (Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison all have 14 or more assists) and things are looking bright for the second half.

But I’ve droned on enough about the team, let’s get to the awards.  So without anymore accolades or delay here are The Hopeful Chase Mid-season Awards for the Tampa Bay Lightning:

The What ‘Cha Talkin’ About Sophomore Slump Award: Tyler Johnson

He narrowly beats out fellow Calder Finalist Ondrej Palat simply because he’s been healthier. One of the questions going into the season would be how the Young Guns would perform in their second season and I think the answer is - not that bad.

The It Seemed Like it Was a Good Idea at the Time Award: Evgeni Nabakov

Look, he hasn’t been as bad as Twitter would make it seem. His goals against is under 3. During the Mike Smith-era we would have built him a statue for those kind of numbers, but if Ben Bishop is ever seriously injured I don’t think Nabokov is going to be the answer. Which leads to….

The Every Time He Goes Down I Say a Little Prayer That He Gets Back Up Award: Ben Bishop

Not something we ever, ever want to see again

The big net minder beats out Ryan Callahan by the width of an ant’s hair on this one.  Let’s face it, should Bishop break himself the options are Nabokov and rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy or Vasilevskiy and Nabokov or Vasilevskiy and other rookie Kristers Gudlevskis.  While all of those options are better than Anders Lindback I don’t want to have to test them down the stretch run.

The Shouldn’t He Suck Or Be Hurt Now That He Signed a Big Contract Award: Ryan Callahan

"Whooooa I GOTS PAID!"

Hey, Ryan Callahan has played in 36 of the 41 games so far! If he plays in 10 more games then that will be the most he’s played in a season since 2011-12. Better yet, he’s been pretty good while he’s been on the ice. Twelve goals and thirty points while mostly causing havoc in front of the net on Stamkos’ line. This is the Callahan that General Manager Yzerman was looking for when he signed him to the six-year deal this off-season.

The Maybe He Is Who We Thought He Is Award: Ben Bishop

The second award for the big guy.  There was a lot of talk at the end of last year about Bishop perhaps being a bit “lucky” or that he couldn’t sustain his play. After all the Lightning were the third team he’d played for in four seasons.  Well, it seems that if he’s riding a lucky streak it’s sustained itself for this season as well. His numbers are down a bit (2.37 GAA vs. 2.23 and .911 Save Percentage vs. .924) but it’s not like he’s fallen off of a cliff. He’s still capable of stealing a game or three and despite the occasional soft goal he’s kept the Lightning in games long enough for their offense to catch up.

The Charlie Brown You’re the Charlie Browniest Award:  Matt Carle.

Sometime this week I’m going to write a whole article about Matt Carle. I really, really do like him as a player, but man….sometimes he does boggle the mind.  Let’s play fill in the blank.   _______ fired a pass up the middle of his own zone that was picked off and led to a 2-0 against his own goalie.  _______ bounces a pass off of Radko Gudas past his own goalie from center ice.  The first name that pops into your head is Matt Carle isn’t it?  I know the second one was from last season, but still….

The Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio Award:  Radko Gudas and the Radko Gudas hipcheck

Maybe it’s a good thing.  Maybe he’s a better positional player now that he isn’t RADKO-SMASH on the ice every shift, but damn I miss a good hipcheck.*Ed Note. After writing the first draft             I've now learned that Gudas is undergoing knee surgery. Ouch. 

The Aaron Rodgers Says “RELAX” Award: Steven Stamkos/ Jonathan Drouin

A tie! I could have also called this The Setup For a Big Second Half award.  I did read
 on a YouTube video comment section that Drouin is already a bust. (Advice - don’t ever read You Tube comments. It will make you hate humanity). Stamkos is still coming back from a pretty big injury and it seems he is pacing himself at times.  Drouin, well he spent most of the season with Brian Boyle and Brandon Morrow on his line and still has 15 points. Now that he is moving up and playing with better skilled players (I think a line with him, Valtteri Filppula and Brett Connolly would make me weep with happiness) he is going to start moving up the rookie point standings.

The Next Young Forward Traded to Toronto Award: JT Brown

Following in the footsteps of Carter Ashton and Richard Panik, I see Brown as the next player dealt off simply because there isn’t a place for him on the roster. I love the energy and pace he brings when he’s in the line-up, but I just think he isn’t as talented as other forwards on the roster.  Time for the Bolts to give him a shot somewhere else.

The Hope is a Beautiful Thing Award: Andrei Vasilevskiy

I love the way the organization is handling the big Russian goalie. Getting his feet wet slowly in the NHL while making sure he still gets playing time in the AHL. One of the things I can say about this season is that I was there at his NHL debut and it looked like he had been playing for years. There was a sequence at the end of the first period against Philly wear he made two or three point blank reaction saves and wasn’t rattled at all. In fact he was in position to stop two or three more shots. This kid is going to be really, really good. As in, Mr Yzerman might play the “I Wonder What Ben Bishop Would Bring in a Trade” game this off-season.

The Man That Really Sucks Award:  CapGeek ceasing operations

On January 3rd, the most useful NHL website in the history of the internet ceased it’s operation due to owner/operator Matthew Wuest’s health issues.  I’m going to miss having that site as a resource in the off-season and during the trade deadline. Just think how many writers (both professional and blogger) have used the phrase “according to CapGeek” in a story or a Tweet.  It boggles my mind how quick and reliable Wuest’s information was and how important it was to a sport where finances matter as much as on-ice performance. If there is ever a Sports Website Hall of Fame, CapGeek and Matthew Wuest are first ballot inductees.

Welp, that wraps it up for me.  Here’s to a second half that is as much fun as the first!

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