In any conversation about what went wrong for the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2011-2012 season, all the usual suspects will rear their ugly heads. It was the goaltending, we’ll say. Age caught up with Dwayne Roloson like the IRS collects back-taxes and snatched everything in one lump sum.
And, we’ll say, it wasn’t like Roly was getting any help from his defense either. The Lightning, at times last year, looked clueless in their own end, allowing their opponents to cycle the puck until there came an inevitable goal.
This is all true. Roloson, who had a Cinderella 10/11 season, saw his save percentage drop nearly thirty points in 11/12, all the way to .886. As a team, Tampa Bay gave up a league worst 281 goals, and the 17 goal gap between them and the next team up was the greatest distance between any two teams’ goals against.
With such telling numbers, it’s easy to point the finger at the defense and call it a day. Case closed, we say. We can also ramble off minor notes about key injuries, terrible penalty killing, and that abysmal 0-7 start to the new year that set the Lightning so far behind the pace of their competitors that it proved insurmountable. These things are all true too. Guilty as charged.
Meanwhile, one culprit is slinking in the shadows while our attention is elsewhere. If we had a spotlight to swing around, we could light him up like a cartoon villain pasted against a brick wall, caught red-handed in the process of sneaking away. That cartoon villain is the Tampa Bay Lightning power play.
But wait, we think. The one thing Tampa Bay did well last year was score. They netted 232 goals, good for 8th best in the league, and just nine fewer than they scored the previous year. How can the power play possibly be a problem?
Tampa Bay’s offense is good,but that only makes the power play an even more inconspicuous culprit in last year’s downfall. But let’s have a look at the numbers. In 10/11, the Lightning power play operated at 20.54%, good for sixth best in the league; last year, that number dropped to just 15.24%, clicking just 41 times all season.
I know what you’re thinking – goals are goals. Even strength goals count every bit as much as power play goals.
Well, yes and no.
Consider this: In the 37 games where Tampa Bay scored at least one power play goal, they finished with a record of 22-12-2.
Perhaps it would be best to not look at the power play as a matter of scoring or not scoring, but as a matter of success or failure. The power play is a two (or four, or five) minute block of time when you get to control the ice. It is a chance to capture momentum or to yield it. Last season, all too often, the Lightning were yielding it.
Allowing an opponent to successfully kill a penalty is bad enough, but the Lightning went one step further. They gave up 12 shorthanded goals last season, second worst in the league. And nothing swings momentum like a shorthanded goal – the Lightning went 3-8-1 in those games.
So, no, it turns out not all goals are created equal.
Of Steven Stamkos’ 60 goals last year, a whopping 48 came at even strength. While that number is so impressive it’s staggering, it does make you wonder why Stamkos only lit the lamp 12 times on the power play. After all, Stamkos’ skillset is so power play friendly that it would be hard to build a better one in a lab.
The problem, of course, is not Stamkos. The problem lies with the Tampa Bay’s ability to give players like Stamkos scoring chances on the power play, and its root lies with the defense. For all their offensive prowess last season, the Lightning had no true NHL-caliber power play quarterback. There was no Nick Lidstrom-like presence back there, no Ray Bourque, no Scott Niedermayer. A good power play quarterback is not simply a player on the power play – he is the player that runs the power play. He is in charge of slowing down the pace, or speeding it up if need be. A power play quarterback, simply, imposes his team’s will on their opponents.
Last season, Marc-Andre Bergeron was the Lightning’s top power play contributor from the blue line, picking up a respectable 9 points with the man advantage in 43 games. Meanwhile, the league’s best power play belonged to the Nashville Predators, where Shea Weber and Ryan Suter controlled the action. The Predators clicked at a 21.6% rate, and Weber and Suter combined for 13 goals and 47 points with the man advantage.
While it would be nice to have a Nick Lidstrom or a Ray Bourque, or even a Shea Weber, kicking around on the bench, of course not every team has that luxury. That said, it is vitally important to the success of the team that someone steps up and takes the role.
It appears the Lightning recognize the problem, and are taking steps in the right direction. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman picked up a number of candidates over the last several months. Sami Salo had 7 goals and 14 points on the power play in 69 games with Vancouver last season. And Matt Carle had 3 goals and 12 points on the power play with Philadelphia last year, but going back to the 06/07 season, Carle scored 8 goals and 26 points on San Jose’s power play. Whatever numbers they put up in Tampa Bay, we can rest reasonably assured that they will be an improvement on what we had last season.
And there’s more help developing in the minors. Mark Barberio scored 7 power play goals last season with the Norfolk Admirals, and is off to a hot start this season as well, with 2 in his first 6 games with the Syracuse Crunch. Prior to turning pro, Barberio was a consistent power play threat in the QMJHL. It will likely take some time for him to grow into a similar role at the NHL level, but Barberio could be the long-term answer to Tampa Bay’s power play woes.
And then, of course, there’s Victor Hedman. Hedman has all the skills necessary to lead Tampa Bay’s power play from the blue line. And after returning from injury late last season, he made noticeable strides in many facets of his game. But the power playremains a weak spot for him – he has yet to score a power play goal in the NHL.
The sooner Tampa Bay can fill the role, the better. It doesn’t matter if it’s Carle or Salo, or Hedman, or even Barberio. And it doesn’t have to be a Weber or Suter-caliber player either – Tampa Bay has enough talent up front to make up the difference. But it has to be someone. It’s the difference between winning and losing.