I hope you didn’t blink – half of the 2013 NHL regular season as come and gone. It feels like only yesterday that Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr were sucking up all the hockey headlines on the continent. Now? We’re looking into visors, we’re fighting about staged fights, and we’re talking about how the Chicago Blackhawks are walking the walk and have a serious shot at making some serious history.
Sadly, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2013 effort has given us nothing nearly so positive to talk about. In fact, their performance to date is a topic almost frustrating enough to make one long for another round of Bettman/Fehr Theatre.
And it’s frustrating for a number of reasons, not the least of which is simply: they are a better team than this. Night after night, the Dr. Jekyll Tampa Bay Lightning go out and compete with teams, and take big leads, and storm back from seemingly insurmountable leads, only to have Mr. Hyde show up for ten or fifteen minutes and figure out a way to lose. In other words, this is a team with some severe mental problems.
And said mental problems were on display yet again last night, when the Bolts blew a two goal lead in what can only be described as Wile E. Coyote fashion. (And, thinking on it now, I’m beginning to see how Wile E. Coyote is a far more apt metaphor for this team than Mr. Hyde – Mr. Hyde, remember, was at least feared.)
So what has been the problem? Offense, defense, coaching, bad luck? Let’s explore these options and more as we take an in-depth look at the Lightning roster, and, just for kicks, grade their performances through the first 25 games of the 2013 season. (Grades will be based on expectations coming into this season, and how well or poorly those expectations have been met. Note: If I was your professor, teacher, driving instructor, etc, you’d have nightmares about me.)
#2 Eric Brewer, D
Little of the blame for the Lightning’s current predicament can be placed at the door of Eric Brewer. He’s been a solid presence on the blueline, and has provided considerably more offense than one would expect (he already has quadrupled last year’s goal total).
What he brings to the team: Brewer is a quick, physical defenseman that can make the occasional highlight reel hit. He makes good decisions with and without the puck, and quietly goes about the business of being a solid, steady NHL defenseman.
What he can improve: His physical play has taken a dip of late. There were points in the early part of the season where Brewer played an intimidating, monstrous game. With little to no expectations on him to provide offense, his key focus should be making sure his most dangerous opponents live in fear of him. I want Sidney Crosby looking over his shoulder the next morning at breakfast.
#3 Keith Aulie, D
Keith Aulie was getting a lot of praise toward the end of the Lightning’s 6-1 opening stretch of the season. He was playing big, playing mean, and even looking like he might have a bit of offensive upside. Aulie threw 18 hits in the team’s first 7 games (2.57 hits per game), but just 27 hits in the 15 games he’s played since (1.8 hits per game).
What he brings to the team: When he’s on top of his game, Aulie is an intimidating force. He’s a big, bruising body that plays smart and wins battles. He can be part of the team’s top shut-down pairing when he’s playing his best hockey.
What he can improve: Bluntly, he needs to get his mean streak back and keep it. The Bolts can live with a bad penalty here and there. What they can’t live with is Aulie playing like a gentle giant.
#4 Vincent Lecavalier, F
The most frustrating player on what might be the league’s most frustrating team has thus far unquestionably been Vincent Lecavalier. His season has been a microcosm of the Lightning’s season as a whole. When the team was winning, it was largely because of Lecavalier’s inspirational play. Now that the team is losing, Lecavalier appears to have disappeared. Gone is the ferocious backcheck, the intimidating play in the corners, and the nose for the net. Perhaps he’s hobbled by a foot injury. Whatever the case, the Lecavalier of recent games has been lethargic, uninspired, and largely invisible. He was playing A+ hockey to open the season, is playing solid F hockey right now, so I’ll call it a C-.
What he brings to the team: Good question. 18-20 games ago I’d have had a list of things to rave about, and I’d be talking about his two-way play, and how he was doing so many little things well that it didn’t even matter if he scored. Well, he’s not doing those little things anymore. And he’s not scoring either (1 goal, 9 points in his last 18 games). I’m losing hope that we’re going to see the return of that ideal second line center that Lecavalier gave us a glimpse of to open the season.
What he can improve: He can get back to playing with the same fire he had to open the season. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the team began losing the moment Lecavalier lost his spark. The kind of leadership he was providing is the kind that makes the difference in close games.
#6 Sami Salo, D
It is telling that Sami Salo is a +12 on a team that is sputtering (keep in mind Brian Lee’s eye-rotting -13). Salo has been everything he’s been expected to be since being acquired last summer – everything and more. He’s emerged as the team’s most dependable defenseman in all situations, logging more than 21 minutes per night, and is second only to Victor Hedman in defenseman points.
What he brings to the team: A calm, steady presence on the point (and a booming shot). As erratic as the Lightning have been this season, it’s at least comforting to know that Salo isn’t going to lose his cool and, oh I don’t know, maybe in the middle of a panic throw a puck desperately and blindly up through the hash marks because he doesn’t think there’s an opponent waiting for it (as we’ve seen Marc-Andre Bergeron do, among others).
What he can improve: I don’t know that we can ask anything more from Salo than what he’s providing. He’s a key piece, waiting for the rest of the puzzle to get its act together.
#11 Tom Pyatt, F
When the team’s penalty kill is operating at 81%, which is not great, but not exactly bad when you consider the team is averaging over 3 goals against per game, the chief penalty killers are largely off the hook. Pyatt’s offense has also continued to develop, and he can now be slipped onto a scoring line when need be.
What he brings to the team: Pyatt is a tenacious forward that provides a lot of energy and jump when he’s on the ice. He’s an effective penalty killer that comes with some offensive bonuses.
What he can improve: The things he does well, he can do better. There’s no specific thing missing from his game that we can expect from him (physicality, for instance, will never be Pyatt’s strong suit). He hasn’t spent much time in the faceoff circle this season, but when he has, the results haven’t quite been up to par for a defensive forward.
#12 Ryan Malone, F
Ryan Malone has spent more than half of the season injured, so it’s not easy to assess his performance thus far. He’s also been bounced around in the team’s lines a lot, never quite getting the opportunity to settle in with consistent partners. Some of that, however, is on his own shoulders for failing to click with any regular linemates. In his best games this season, Malone has been mostly a presence in front of the net on the powerplay. In his worse games, he’s been mostly invisible.
What he brings to the team: At his best, Malone is a nasty, gritty powerfoward that crashes and bangs and creates space for his more skilled teammates. He also has a fair bit of skill himself, but it’s the kind of skill that generally manifests through hard work. Malone has always been a streaky scorer, so perhaps this is all a prelude to a hot streak.
What he can improve: The Bolts need that nasty power forward that Malone is at the best of times. Perhaps he feels that since BJ Crombeen has taken over the role of the team’s chief fighter, he doesn’t need to play with the same edge he has in the past. In my opinion, one of the things missing from this team in its current spiral is fight and fire. Those, as it happens, are Malone’s main attributes.
#15 Brian Lee, D
It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Lee, who remains the only Lightning regular to not register a point this season. Worse, he has a team worst -13 plus/minus rating. It’s been a year of whatever can go wrong will go wrong, catastrophically, and if Vincent Lecavalier represents the team’s waning passion, Lee might just represent its bad luck. He hasn’t played like a -13 player. And with all the goals the Lightning have scored, you would think he’d have at least had a puck graze him somewhere before it found the back of the net (even Anders Lindback has an assist). Despite all the bad stats, I can’t bring myself to pull the trigger on an F grade, because, simply, it hasn’t all been Lee’s fault.
What he brings to the team: At his best, Lee is a solid, physical defenseman with slight offensive upside. We’ve seen none of that offense this season, but he remains a capable shutdown man in the defensive end.
What he can improve: Nasty times call for nasty measures. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of a team that plays mean, and at their best, the Lightning have a brigade of mean defensemen. Lee is one of them, or at least he can be.
#16 Teddy Purcell, F
Offensively, Purcell has provided as advertised. He currently sits third in Lightning scoring, which is about where you would expect him to be after last year’s break out performance. And yet it’s been a quiet year for Purcell all the same. After scoring 24 goals last season, Purcell has just 4 in the first 25 games of the season. He’s been dead cold in his last 4 games, failing to pick up a point and registering just 3 shots. His physical game is non-existent, which isn’t a problem since it’s not expected of him, but the Bolts would benefit from a little more defensive hustle.
What he brings to the team: Purcell is a heady, offensive-minded winger that has good chemistry with a number of his teammates. He’s particularly good on the powerplay, where 7 of his 17 assists have been picked up, especially when Guy Boucher isn’t under the illusion that Purcell can play the point.
What he can improve: The Lightning have often been guilty this season of making “the extra play,” “the extra pass,” and “getting too cute.” And the guiltiest among the guilty has been Purcell (especially after Marty St. Louis stripped his game down). Purcell is often the man you’ll note on the rush that holds the puck a second too long, or, after a teammate has offered up a scoring chance, Purcell will weirdly turn his body and blatantly look to play the puck back to the front of the net rather than just pounding it at the goal. In short, he, and the team, would benefit from a little more Ugly in his game.
#17 Alex Killorn, F
In the words of many-a musician over the years: the kids are alright. The Lightning youth have been one of the few unblemished bright spots on the team this season. Alex Killorn, while maybe not as flashy or headline-worthy as fellow rookie Cory Conacher, has quickly turned himself into an important asset on the team. And that’s all you can really ask from a rookie.
What he brings to the team: Killorn possesses a mix of size and speed that makes him ideal for corner battles, both on the forecheck and backcheck. He has already carved out a spot for himself on the penalty kill and powerplay – not too shabby.
What he can improve: The more Killorn asserts himself, the better. Killorn is at his best when he’s playing with an edge, driving to the net and into the corners.
#18 Adam Hall, F
Still scoreless through 25 games (of which he’s dressed for 19), Adam Hall has nonetheless picked up a healthy +3 rating on a team that’s spiraling into the abyss. He’s not depended on for offense, so the 0 goals in not troubling.
What he brings to the team: At this point, Hall is primarily a faceoff specialist that kills penalties and fills some space at even strength. He’s won a team-best 56% of his faceoffs to date, which is the key thing that’s asked of him.
What he can improve: It would be nice to see more energy from Hall on his even strength shifts. Third and fourth liners are generally energy guys, momentum guys, and sometimes a good gritty shift from one of them can provide a good example to the team’s superstars.
#19 BJ Crombeen, F
BJ Crombeen was brought to this team for one reason: to fight. And fight he has. Alas, Crombeen is not a true heavyweight, and going toe-to-toe with actual true heavyweights on a nightly basis has provided some ugly results. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Pierre-Cedric Labrie has been suiting up more often of late, and taking on more of the responsibility as the team’s go-to glove-dropper. Which is not entirely a bad thing for Crombeen, who, unlike Labrie, has some real and skills as a checking forward, and can be useful in non-physical aspects of the game.
What he brings to the team: Crombeen understands his role well. The moment he feels momentum shifting in favor of the opposing team, he finds someone to drop the gloves with. Unfortunately, the momentum only really swings back your way if you win the fight, or have an inspiring, early-season-Vinny-Lecavalier-type fight. All too often, Crombeen finds himself on the losing side of a mismatch (Crombeen is regularly outweighed in his bouts), or fighting to a lackluster draw. Fortunately, Crombeen is also a useful penalty killer and is a decent roleplaying forward that can actually be useful doing things that won’t win him 5 minutes of solitude.
What he can improve: It’s hard to ask a guy to take up martial arts training so he can fare better in fights against bigger, stronger opponents. Barring that, Crombeen can pick his spots better, leave the legit heavyweights to Labrie, and act as a policeman that enforces a code of conduct against opposing middleweights that get out of line. Meanwhile, he can continue working on his penalty killing, and become a useful, no frills, defensive forward.
#25 Matt Carle, D
Here’s something to think about: Matt Carle has 9 points on the season; he had 7 points in the first 8 games. So what’s happened in the 17 games since (Carle hasn’t registered a point in the last 10 games)? Well, part of his production slip, in my opinion, can be attributed to Coach Boucher’s insistence on using forwards at the point on the powerplay. But Carle can’t be let completely off the hook. He’s become less and less noticeable as the season wears on, and is, at this moment, a -5.
What he brings to the table: When Carle is utilizing his great outlet pass, the team is breaking out of its zone smoothly (none of this getting pinned inside their own blueline for minutes on end).
What he can improve: Carle needs to get back to the defensively responsible, offensively minded defenseman that can put up half a point per game.
See you next time when I’ll discuss the second half of the roster, the coaching staff, and some general intangibles.