The Tampa Bay Lightning entered 2011-12 coming off last season’s unexpectedly strong performance.
Under new GM Steve Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher, the rebuilding Lightning had their best season since their march to the Stanley Cup in 2003-04, finishing the regular season with 103 points, the second-most since their franchise-best 106 points in ’03-04.
In the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Lightning upset the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals before falling in the Eastern Conference final to the Boston Bruins in seven hard-fought games.
With center Steven Stamkos, right winger Martin St. Louis and resurgent center Vincent Lecavalier powering their offensive attack, the steady veteran goaltending of Dwayne Roloson, and coach Boucher’s 1-3-1 defensive system, another strong performance was expected by the Lighting in ’11-12.
Thirty games into this season, however, the Lightning were near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, seven points out of a playoff berth, winning only four games in a 15-game stretch between Nov. 12 and Dec. 12
The Lightning’s 77 goals scored entering their Dec. 15 game against Calgary are tied for second-least in the Eastern Conference, with only the New York Islanders scoring less.
They’re also having trouble keeping the puck out of their own net, as the 101 goals they’d given up as of Dec. 15 were the third-most by any NHL team this season.
One suggestion for the poor play at both ends is that rival coaches have figured out Boucher’s system.
While there’s undoubtedly some truth to that, there’s more to the poor numbers at both ends of the rink than merely cracking Boucher’s code.
Up front, the Lightning are lacking offensive depth beyond their “big three” of Stamkos, St-Louis and Lecavalier.
Last season, the Bolts were tied for seventh overall in goals per game with their power play ranking sixth overall. Thirty games into ’11-12, they’ve dropped to 17th overall in goals per game, while their power play was a woeful 24th overall.
Stamkos, St-Louis and Lecavalier are carrying the bulk of the offensive load, accounting for 38 of the Lightning’s 79 goals. When those three are contained, there’s insufficient depth to pick up the scoring slack.
Yzerman attempted to bolster depth by signing former Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars right winger Antti Miettinen, a two-time 40-plus point player, to a two-year, one-way, $3-million contract.
Since he began this season in the Kontinental League, however, Miettinen had to pass through waivers before joining the Lightning and was claimed by the Winnipeg Jets, leaving Yzerman to consider other options.
Defensively, the Lightning are around the middle of the pack, sitting 17th overall in shots-against per game and 18th on the penalty kill. Not great, but not terrible.
They miss the steadying influence of veteran Mattias Ohlund, who remains sidelined by knee surgeries, but young Victor Hedman continues to make steady improvement, while Marc-Andre Bergeron has provided invaluable offensive contributions from the blueline.
It’s the goaltending – responsible for the high goals-against this season – that’s become their Achilles heel.
The Lightning found themselves in a similar circumstance around this time last season, which spurred Yzerman to swing a trade with the Islanders in late December for Roloson, who stabilized their shaky goaltending for the remainder of the season.
Yzerman gambled last summer on the 42-year-old Roloson having enough left for another kick at the can and signed the netminder to a one-year, $3.5 million contract.
So far, that gamble has failed to pan out. Roloson’s record is 6-8-1, his 3.67 goals-against average is second-worst among NHL goalies with 10 or more games played, and his .882 save percentage is third-worst.
Backup Mathieu Garon’s win-loss record is similar to Roloson’s, though his stats (2.72 GAA, .907 SP) are a little better.
Roloson maintains he feels strong physically and mentally, but the results simply aren’t there and it appears time has finally caught up with him.
Just like around this time a year ago, there’s speculation Yzerman is in the market for an upgrade.
The Lightning have been linked to Vancouver’s Cory Schneider, Los Angeles’ Jonathan Bernier and the Islanders’ Evgeni Nabokov, but so far there’s no indication those goaltenders are available.
Yzerman isn’t one to panic and he’ll patiently consider his options, while allowing his team more time to overcome its current slump.
Still, the Lightning cannot afford to lose much more ground in the Eastern Conference. If things haven’t turned around by month’s end, Yzerman will be forced to shop in earnest to bolster his goaltending and scoring depth.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.