|Still a thing of beauty - Photo by Getty Images|
The good news is that with 24 points they are only 2 points out of the playoff race and 6 points behind the surprising Florida Panthers for the division lead (and the home ice advantage come playoff time). One solid hot streak and they’re right back in the hunt.
The not quite so good news is that this team, as presently constructed, is average at best. A quick spin on the nhl.com stats site shows them 16th in the league in goals per game, 22nd in the league in goals against, 19th in power play, 16th in penalty killing and so on and so on.
A lot of fingers have been pointed at the goaltending situation. Through 23 games Dwayne Roloson (.887 saver percentage) and Mathieu Garon (.916) have put up Smith-Ellisian numbers (not very good). Anytime you have to go to page two to see where they rank in terms of goals against and save percentage it’s not a good sign.
That lack of production would seem to lead to an easy fix. Bring in a new goaltender. A lot of names have been thrown around on the message boards. Most of the names mentioned happen to be in other organizations. Organizations that are wanting to extract a heavy price for their talent. The Washington Capitals set the bar in the off-season when they dealt Semyon Varlamov to the Avalanche for a first round pick in 2012 and a second round pick in 2012 or 2013.
So for all of you crying for Tuukka Rask or Corey Schneider that’s what the price is going to be. It’s pretty steep for an organization that is looking to build up it’s in-house depth, something that GM Steve Yzerman has mentioned is pretty important. Even if the Lightning can work a deal that has less of an impact it might not change the results.
For all of the talk of the 1-3-1 trap and how it shuts down offenses, the Lightning have been giving up a lot of goals. As in over three a game. Coach Boucher’s game plan relies on a “pack mentality” that involves the entire team playing as one. Forwards helping defensemen, defensemen helping goalies, mascots helping water boys, etc. When they don’t play that way, things get ugly in a hurry.
Roloson was not brought in because he is a technical goaltender who absorbs shots like a sponge. He was brought in because he was athletic enough to stop the first shot, even on two-on-ones, and then let his defensemen clear out the rebounds. The blue-liners control the front of the net, the forwards hang back far enough to get the puck on a short pass from the defense and counter with speed. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
After losses you can usually hear Mr. Boucher talk about “gap control”. The “gap” he is talking about is between the forwards and the defensemen. When the Lightning are struggling (which seems to be far too often this year) the forwards are breaking out of the zone too early and forcing the defensemen to hit them with long passes. While once in a blue moon it leads to the odd man rush, more often than not it leads to a turnover at the blue line or in the neutral zone.
Turnovers lead to more shots, which lead to more goals. So, just switching goalies isn’t going to help. They need to play better on defense. Which is something I think they will do once Mattias Ohlund returns from injury and the new players they brought in fully adapt to the system. Of the 7 defenseman on the roster only Pavel Kubina, Brett Clark and Vic Hedman have played more than one full season with the team. There is a learning curve to Mr. Boucher’s system that takes time.
One thing that can help right away is to improve their special teams. With the firepower they can roll out with the extra man, there is no excuse for them to be converting only 15.7% of their opportunities. With the Lightning that means grinding more goals out from in front of the net. They do get in ruts when they become infatuated with scoring the prettiest goal in NHL history. That leads to a lot of passing when it might be a better idea to throw the puck on net and let the bangers like Ryan Malone and Brett Connolly put in a rebound or two.
There was a lot of worry in the pre-season about the lack of secondary scoring with the loss of Sean Bergenheim and Simon Gagne. To the most part I think that concern has been alleviated with the play of Connolly and Vincent Lecavalier rediscovering his scoring touch. Marty St. Louis is down a bit in regards to his goals, but he is a streaky scorer who can pot 4 goals in three games and be back among the team leaders in no time.
The biggest concern in the lack of scoring department has to be Dominic Moore, Steve Downie and Ryan Shannon. Moore had 18 goals a season ago, and while that might be a bit much to ask for on a yearly basis, he should have more than one goal at this point. Shannon needs to start contributing a bit more on the offensive side as well. He’s been benched a few times already and he might start losing more playing time now that Dana Tyrell has been called up.
|Too many shots into the goalie's pads - Getty Images|
As for Steve Downie, this is a big year for him. After suffering through injuries most of last season he found his scoring touch in the playoffs last spring and was a regular on the top two lines. This season he’s regressed a bit and found himself on the third line and with only 5 points to his name. Even worse he’s a team worst -12, not something you want to see out of one of your checking line players. He has been a bit snake-bit, against Winnipeg last week he hit a post and missed a wide open net, so there is a chance that the breaks will start falling his way, but he needs to make sure he’s outworking the opponents and staying out of the box.
Actually, that would be good advice for everyone on the team. Through 23 games they’ve drawn 110 minor penalties. Through 82 games last season they only drew 335 minor penalties. As you can see they are on pace to draw way more penalties this season. Most of the penalties have been of the “lazy” variety. Those would be hooking, holding, or tripping. You get those penalties when you’re not moving your feet and you let the other players beat you to the puck.
Last season the Lightning made it to the Eastern Conference Finals by outworking their competition. That’s their biggest problem this year. They’re simply not working hard enough to overcome their deficiencies. Not even the second coming of Patrick Roy would help them now. I trust in Mr. Boucher to make his team realize this before it’s too late.