Steven Stamkos shares motivation for Lighting three-peat
For the last few months, your dear writer has been preparing for this moment in ways both conventional and unorthodox.
He’s been squinting at lines on the sportsbooks, updating his priors, rewatching old games, playing devil’s advocate with himself, and recreating moments in time with toy figures, like Toni Collette in Hereditary. All of this in the hopes of better understanding a regular season that was fast approaching.
Well folks, it’s here. For players’ regular season point totals, three lines jumped out at me as perplexingly overzealous. And to be frank, it wouldn’t feel like the hockey season if we weren’t sweating an under, right?
Steven Stamkos under 67.5 points
On Oct. 4, TSN’s Travis Yost wrote an excellent piece on the difficulty presented to coaches when a player’s reputation badly outpaces his production. Yost focused on defencemen, but as far as forwards go, Steven Stamkos comes to mind as Exhibit A.
In 2018-19, the Tampa captain ranked only behind Nikita Kucherov in expected even-strength offensive goals above replacement. The next season, Stamkos fell to fourth among Tampa Bay Lightning forwards. In 2020-21, Stamkos ranked seventh among Tampa Bay forwards in the category.
The truth is that Stamkos has morphed into an oft-injured power-play specialist, tallying 10 of his 17 goals last season on the man advantage. In high-danger chances percentage at 5-on-5, Stamkos was underwater at 49.11.
Stamkos’ decline in play is frightening, but his durability issues also make him a risk to miss large chunks of the season. Bear in mind: On March 2 in 2020, Stamkos would undergo surgery on a core muscle. He played 2:47 of ice time in a playoff game against Dallas in that year’s Stanley Cup, his only cameo post-surgery.
Last season, Stamkos went on long-term injured reserve in mid-April, not returning to action until the first round of the playoffs. Even then, his injury lingered, to the point where, in the Stanley Cup final, he was virtually useless on his flank during the power play. At even strength he was reduced to passing up shot opportunities to dish to Ross Colton.
To reach the over of 68 points or more, Stamkos would need to score at a pace that would best what Mathew Barzal accomplished last season.
Three regular seasons ago, the Lightning overachieved during the regular season and then imploded in the playoffs. Over the past two regular seasons, the Lightning haven’t won their division, yet they proceeded to win the Stanley Cup.
Last regular season, Kucherov didn’t play a single regular-season game due to an injury. Yes, that decision had salary cap ramifications, but the Lightning understand the regular season as a dress rehearsal to the show.
To make another Cup run, it would make sense for Tampa Bay to coast through the regular season and make every effort to keep their top-six forwards healthy by conserving their star players and expanding the ice time of role players they will need in the playoffs. Especially with their third line lost – poof! – in the off-season to different locales.
This would mean treating the increasingly brittle Stamkos with white gloves. Give me the under, please!
Pick: Under 67.5 points for Steven Stamkos at -114
Dougie Hamilton Under 54.5 points
On paper, Dougie Hamilton’s resume is unassailable.
Since 2016-17, he has finished 14th or better in voting for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenceman. The 2020-21 season was Hamilton’s best finish yet, coming in fourth in the voting, earning one first-place vote, and trailing only Adam Fox, Cale Makar and Victor Hedman in the total voting.
Hamilton’s recognition as one of the NHL’s elite rearguards is spurred by his irrepressible offensive ability, a scoring knack that has helped him notch double-digit goals in his last seven seasons.
Yet Hamilton will start the 2021-22 season on his fourth team, the New Jersey Devils, and he is not even 29. To state the obvious, star hockey players who are in their prime are not usually itinerant.
To his credit, every stop Hamilton has been at, he sticks to his brand. He summons a blizzard of shots on goal and tacks toward super-charged aggression in his offensive mentality. Hamilton lives by the maxim that the best defence is a good offence.
Over the past three seasons among defencemen, only Roman Josi and Brent Burns had more shots on goal. No defenceman scored more goals than Hamilton in that three-year stretch. In 2020-21, at all strengths, only Jakob Chychrun finished with a higher individual expected goals created than Hamilton.
Hamilton’s prolific scoring has the sportsbooks setting his regular-season points total at a gargantuan over/under of 54.5. To hit the over, Hamilton would have to best his career high by five points.
More significantly, he is joining a New Jersey Devils team bereft of finishers. Things were so sad for the Devils last season that Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood led the team in goals with 17 each. For context, Auston Matthews exceeded that goal total by Feb. 20 of last season.
The sportsbooks invariably recognize that over the last two years Hamilton has soaked up assists at a rate that would have exceeded his career-high assist total when pro-rated over an 82-game season. But when Hamilton played for Carolina, it had a deep forward group and was an ideal milieu for the offensive-minded defenceman to thrive.
It is important to underscore how helpful the Hurricanes’ power play was to Hamilton’s production as well.
In 2020-21, Carolina ranked second in the NHL at the man advantage, and Hamilton collected 18 of his 42 points that way. New Jersey was just outside the bottom 10 worst in 2019-20 and had the fourth worst power play last season.
Hamilton will be as brazen as ever in his impulse to create offence, but he will be without Carolina’s hyper-responsible forward group and Jacob Slavin as a security blanket.
Pick: Under 54.5 points for Dougie Hamilton at -114
Taylor Hall Under 67.5 points
If the prevailing concern with Hamilton is that he will be hamstrung by a new environment, and the twin concerns with Stamkos are diminishing production and durability, Hall can check “all of the above.”
The soon-to-be 30-year-old left wing will be playing on a line centered by former No. 3 center Charlie Coyle, who is coming off knee surgery, and ancillary wing Craig Smith. With David Krejci gone, make no mistake, Hall will be assuming puck-carrying duties.
Hall’s value to the Boston Bruins is to help rectify the obvious flaw of having all their offensive talent concentrated on the Perfection Line. Whether this strategy works over an 82-game season is another matter.
Furthermore, instead of Hall getting the majority of his minutes with Charlie McAvoy or Matt Grzelcyk, Boston’s two best playmaking defencemen, the blueliner he played with most last season was Mike Rielly. Hall is in a weird gray zone, not quite business class, but not quite economy, either.
During Hall’s brief stint with the Bruins last regular season, he averaged 2.82 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. That points per 60 minutes clip sank to 1.01 during the postseason, but Hall still earned a four-year contract with Boston during the off-season.
Yet, the small sample size should be framed against a larger, more disconcerting trend of data.
On the four teams Hall played for during his last two seasons, his points per game in the past two seasons has been lower than what he would need to achieve 68 or more points. And Hall missed a significant amount of time in 2019 due to needing knee surgery.
Fluto Shinzawa of The Athletic wrote an article recently arguing that Hall could have a big offensive season partly by deputizing Nick Ritchie’s role as the net-front presence on the power play.
In the piece, Hall candidly remarked that he won’t be screening the goaltender (points for honesty), but instead acting as a playmaker off the goal line. But as the author acknowledges, Hall’s role will be as a companion option to David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron.
I think the man advantage could give Hall’s scoring total a boost, but there is injury risk as well. If Hall is consistently trying jam plays and retrieving pucks behind the net, both actions can leave a player vulnerable to punishing whacks from moody penalty-killing defencemen.
Even if he can stay healthy, Hall is an aging wing who has had motivational issues in the past and just got a big contract. Along with lackluster linemates, these factors make me very, very wary.
Pick: Under 67.5 points for Taylor Hall at -114
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