Just one year ago, the upstart Tampa Bay Lightning were swept by Michel Therrien’s Montreal Canadiens in the first-round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Though the match-up appeared relatively even on paper, the series was gruesomely one-sided. A large part of Tampa Bay’s problems in that series were tied into the fact that starting goaltender Ben Bishop was unavailable due to injury, and Anders Lindback wasn’t nearly good enough to even keep things interesting.
Lindback was a major problem, but not the only problem for Jon Cooper’s club. The high-flying Bolts managed just ten goals in four games, and the venerable Steven Stamkos was on the ice for 70% of them. I think the general mentality in Montreal during this series was that Stamkos would ‘get his’ in some capacity, regardless of how the Canadiens matched-up. If the Canadiens slowed the rest of the Lightning, though, they’d take control of the series. They did, and they did.
Now, last year’s Tampa Bay team was good, particularly so at even-strength. Their 51.7% Score-Adjusted Fenwick% ranked 8th in the league and their 54.0% Goal% ranked an impressive sixth. And yet, I think many rightfully questioned whether the team was too top-heavy to seriously push through the East last year. Combined with an unlucky goaltender injury and you have the recipe for an early post-season exit.
Tampa Bay knew they would have their goaltender back this year, but they were also banking on the growth/development of some of their young stars – Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, and Tyler Johnson immediately come to mind.
It’s in these three players – a trio of impressive young talents who play extensive minutes with one another, creating a second-wave of a ferocious Tampa Bay attack – that have provided the Lightning with the requisite depth to become a serious post-season contender.
To illustrate the improvement in Tampa Bay’s depth, I pulled out the Corsi%, ScoringChance%, and Goal% numbers for the Lightning when Steven Stamkos is on the bench over the past two seasons.
Stamkos 2013-2014 is a bit limited due to injuries, but I think this graph is pretty compelling. Last year, Tampa Bay was great with their first-overall pick on the ice, and only okay with him off of the ice. This year, the Lightning’s ‘bottom nine’ looks fantastic – whether you’re looking at goals, scoring chances, or Corsi%, they’ve been above break-even all year. In fact, some of these spurts have been Los Angeles-esque, with rolling averages sitting above 60%.
As alluded to earlier, a lot of this is tied up into the development and performance of those three second-year forwards. There’s certainly a case to be made that they have played some of the best hockey we have seen this year.
Consider the below plot of all regular forwards by scoring chances for/against (per 60). Where does the Johnson line from Tampa Bay sit? For the below plot, remember you want to sit to the right of the dividing line – that signifies that the player is on ice for more scoring chances for than against, and thus likely to drive favourable goal-scoring rates in the future.
The Tampa Bay group plays a bit higher event than some – they do give up a decent number of scoring chances against. The trade-off? The trio probably generates more scoring chances for than any other group in the National Hockey League this season, rivaled only by the Tavares line in New York.
I’ve also identified Steven Stamkos in this graph. He’s also driving favorable scoring chance numbers, but not to the extent that the Johnson-Kucherov-Palat group has all season long.
A reasonable assumption would be that Steven Stamkos is drawing all of the toughest assignments, and by extension of that, Tampa Bay’s young group is feasting on weak competition. It makes intuitive sense, but that’s not exactly what we have seen this year. Consider the below quality of competition for Tampa Bay’s top-six forwards through this season (I’ve included both quality of competition by average ice-time of players against, and quality of competition by average Corsi% of players against):
QUALITY OF COMPETITION, LIGHTNING FORWARDS
|PLAYER||QUALITY OF COMPETITION (TOI)||QUALITY OF COMPETITION (SAT%)|
The quality of competition the Stamkos line or the Johnson line is basically indiscernible. I would bet a large part of this is based on two things: one, quality of competition differences tend to wash out over full seasons and just aren’t that impactful, and two, teams have altogether recognized that Tampa Bay’s ‘second line’ is just as much of a threat as Tampa Bay’s ‘first line’.
It’s a terrifying combination if you’re a rival coach/GM and see Tampa Bay as a potential first-round opponent. Not only has their goaltending predictably returned, but the development of their young superstars has blown beyond reasonable expectations – enough to start talking about this team as a real threat in the East.