In getting out to their thoroughly uninspiring start to the current NHL season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have seen their goaltending tandem of superstar Andrei Vasilevskiy and veteran backup Brian Elliott struggle with their consistency.
The duo led the Bolts to an Eastern Conference championship last year, but they have no small amount of wear-and-tear on them from playing so much hockey, and there are contributing factors out of their control (we’ll get to those factors below), so they can’t be completely faulted for Tampa’s 9-6-1 record. But they are playing a role in the Lightning’s mediocre mark.
In some respects, it’s not out of the ordinary to see a modern-day dynasty like the Lightning have trouble elevating their play, as individuals and as a group, back to the level that’s made them so fearsome in the post-season in the past few years. They have played the most games of any team in the past three seasons as a result of their three straight Cup final appearances, after all.
Whether it’s a subconscious thing or not, players can have their performance fluctuate before real crunch time arrives, and that was certainly true of Vasilevskiy in the 2022 post-season: he didn’t find his elite game until late in the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but once he did, there was no stopping him until he met up with a superior offense in Colorado in the Stanley Cup final.
So, you can forgive Vasilevskiy a little bit if he can’t get his game raised right away this season. The truth is there in the results – after a first month when he had solid-enough individual numbers (3-3-0 record, 2.87 goals-against average, and .910 save percentage), Vasilevskiy has fallen off, posting an .897 SP or worse in six of his past seven games, and putting up a 3.37 GAA and .883 SP this month.
Elliott, meanwhile, has a 3.37 GAA and .891 SP in five games. They’re not a threat to win the William Jennings Trophy as the league’s stingiest goaltending duo. That doesn’t mean they can’t get there, though.
Another part of the Lightning’s defensive struggles that have them as the NHL’s 14th-best defense can be chalked up to the significant change in their defense corps.
The salary-cap-strapped Bolts traded veteran blueliner Ryan McDonagh in the summer, and while the 33-year-old McDonagh’s peak years are behind him, he can still give a team 20 solid minutes a night. Tampa Bay still has perennial Norris Trophy frontrunner Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev as an excellent one-two punch, but after that, the drop-off in talent is notable.
Off-season addition Ian Cole and Erik Cernak aren't top-four D-men, and coach Jon Cooper can throw out Hedman and Sergachev only so often before burning them out before the playoffs begin.
At an average of 3.38 goals-for per game this year, the Lightning’s offense is about as effective as it was last season (3.48). Yes, losing key winger Ondrej Palat to unrestricted free agency this off-season hurt, but their top two lines are presently generating enough offense for them to win games.
The defense, however, has not been up to snuff, and, as per Cap Friendly, Tampa GM Julien BriseBois is projected to have only $2.8 million in cap space to address all his needs this season – needs that include depth up front and on ‘D’. It’s highly unlikely they have the assets to make a move for Arizona defenseman Jakub Chychrun. The answer for them is probably going to have to come from within.
That’s not the worst thing in the world when you have a proven winning lineup like the Lightning has. It’s not as easy as flipping a switch. It’s going to be a process, and all Cooper & Co. are worried about is (a) playing well enough to make the post-season and (b) thriving at the right time. They’ve done it before, and there’s no reason to suspect they can’t do so again.