There’s still a third of the season to go, and the conditions are right for the Lightning to shock the world and make a run to the playoffs.
It’s just a pair of wins, and they came at home, but the Tampa Bay Lightning have to feel a glimmer of optimism. The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings are never easy outs. Tuesday’s victory was a 5-0 thumping of L.A., a team known for suppressing opponents’ offense.
At the very least, the baby streak reopened the discussion of whether the Lightning can make the playoffs this spring. That shows just how dire things looked last week. Even now, after a four-point surge, they have the NHL’s 25th-best points percentage at .500. So much has gone wrong for the team we picked not just to make the playoffs, but win the Stanley Cup. It started with center Steven Stamkos’ torn meniscus, sustained in November after a sizzling start to his eight-year contract extension. It continued with starting goalie Ben Bishop’s ugly play, then with successor Andrei Vasilevskiy’s sudden slump. Right winger Ryan Callahan’s hip broke down on him, too. The Lightning’s top pair of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman remained rock steady when together, but there was a gap between them and the rest of the D-corps, so coach Jon Cooper has had to split them up to balance out the group.
What started as talk of a “hockey trade” for GM Steve Yzerman to upgrade his blueline devolved into straight-up seller talk. Could he trade Ben Bishop for Kevin Shattenkirk with Tampa bound for a playoff miss? Should an unrestricted free agent like center Brian Boyle become trade bait?
But the pair of wins at least buys Yzerman enough pause to check the standings again. The Lightning are, astoundingly, tied for last in the Eastern Conference in points. The only teams to play more games than their 54 are the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins with 55. Nevertheless, extreme parity puts Tampa just four points back of the Philadelphia Flyers for the second East wild-card berth. And it’s a true four points since they’ve played the same number of games.
The Bolts’ schedule also offers a tremendous chance to control their own destiny. They have a better record against their Atlantic Division neighbors than against any other division this season at 9-5-3, and they’re 6-10-2 against the West, even after beating the Ducks and Kings. Tampa Bay is two games into an eight-game stretch against West teams but finishes the year with 18 of 22 against Eastern foes. Of those 18 games, 13 pit the Bolts against Atlantic rivals. They begin a four-game road trip Friday in Minnesota before playing 15 of their final 24 games at home.
What can Tampa do with its opportunities, though? Believe it or not, coach Cooper’s club displays peripherals not light years away from 2014-15’s and 2015-16’s Lightning, which reached the Stanley Cup and conference finals, respectively. Tampa sits a respectable 11th in 5-on-5 Corsi for the year. It ranked fourth and sixth the two years prior, so the shot attempts trend in the wrong direction, but 11th still reflects a playoff team, not the 25th-best team. The Bolts are seventh in the East in Corsi. They still generate more shot attempts than they allow. The key difference this year: their team save percentage sits 22nd at .904, down from .910 (18th) and .916 (eighth) the previous two seasons. Bishop has struggled mightily in his unrestricted free agent walk year, and Vasilevskiy, gifted a real opportunity to seize the starter’s reins for the long term, has wilted after a stellar start.
Still, both goalies have shown signs of emerging from their funks. Bishop has a .915 SP over his past nine appearances. Hey, mediocre is an improvement over bad. Vasilevskiy has just one win in the calendar year of 2017 across 10 appearances but has a .926 SP in his past six. He also ranks among the league’s best in low- and medium-danger SP, so a bit more help in the back end limiting high-danger chances could turn around Vasilevskiy’s overall numbers dramatically.
The goaltending, combined with a so-so shooting percentage, gives Tampa Bay a PDO of 99.15. That stat combines team save and shooting percentage to create an approximation of luck, and the Bolts rank 23rd in that category. The analytics paint a picture of an above-average hockey club not getting the bounces as opposed to a basement dweller.
The Lightning’s puck luck may not magically change, though. They won’t get a major uptick in shooting skill until Stamkos returns, which won’t happen any earlier than March. If Yzerman wants more scoring, then, he may have to consider becoming a buyer, not a seller, and adding a scorer. The road through the Atlantic is hockey’s easiest relative to the other divisions, so there’s a case to be made Yzerman should just step on the gas. More important than acquiring forward help, though, is landing a top-four defenseman. Is it Shattenkirk? Johnny Oduya? Jacob Trouba? Shoring up the blueline would reduce the grade-A chances in front of Bishop and Vasilevskiy and help their SP numbers keep climbing.
Deciding to go for it with the Lightning not even in a playoff spot carries some risks. It would likely involve holding Bishop past the deadline in his UFA year, as Vasilevskiy has been too inconsistent to anoint as the playoff starter this far in advance. There would still be a strong chance the Lightning, sans-Stamkos, miss the playoffs and then lose Bishop for nothing. But 2016-17 might mark Yzerman’s last year with this particular core. Key forwards Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin are restricted free agents this summer. The Bolts will be pressed up against the salary cap, a la Stan Bowman’s Chicago Blackhawks every year and, like those Hawks teams, may have to shed a few key bodies to remain cap compliant. The expansion draft also threatens to steal a useful player from Yzerman’s NHL roster.
The Canadiens are faltering. The Ottawa Senators haven’t convinced anyone they’re contenders and just got blown out 6-0 at home. The Toronto Maple Leafs are young and defensively leaky. The Bruins just fired their coach. The Atlantic remains very much wide open. If the Bolts can sneak in, armed with a defense upgrade, and get Stamkos back, they could easily start the post-season as a No. 2 or 3 Atlantic seed and wind up favored to reach the Eastern Conference final.
So don’t let the standings deceive you. We have a third of the season to go, and the conditions are right for the Lightning to, ahem, shock the world in the months to come. If nothing else, Yzerman should stand pat a few more weeks. No team has to reveal itself as a seller until deadline day March 1.
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