I’m back for a look at the second half of the Lightning roster, and to grade them accordingly. Let’s get down to business.
#26 Martin St. Louis, F
A lot has been made of St. Louis going through long stretches this season without a goal, but in my opinion, if you’re averaging more than one assist per game, you’re doing your share to create offense. Offense has never been a problem for St. Louis. Now that the team’s powerplay is at least functional (though streaky), he’s rejoined the elite producers in the league. There’s not a lot more you can ask of a 37 year old winger.
What he brings to the team: St. Louis is a shifty, dynamic skater with good hands, good vision, and good instincts. He is the complete offensive lightning bug. He has a way of getting his opponents to move the wrong way, which creates space for his teammates. And since about the 12 game mark, he’s been throwing the puck at the net a lot more, which has created more chances than earlier in the year when he was preoccupied with finding Steven Stamkos. St. Louis is one of very few Bolts whose game has improved as the team has faltered.
What he can improve: He’s been caught up ice more than a few times this season. Coach Boucher is fond of talking about how the Lightning get caught “gambling” for offense (a term I like, and completely agree with), and St. Louis is a guilty party in this. When you see long stretches of end-to-end hockey in a Lightning game, there’s a good chance it’s during a St. Louis shift.
#32 Mathieu Garon, G
Before your eyes pop out at the B+ you’re looking at, ask yourself this: What were the expectations for Garon heading into this season? The expectations were for him to be a solid backup, and provide some relief goaltending when need be. And he’s met, and exceeded, those expectations. His record (2-7) is a little hard to explain, since he’s clearly outplayed his netminding counterpart, Anders Lindback (8-6). Often times, Garon is the only thing keeping the Bolts in a game, and even more times, he’s the only reason they aren’t getting blown out. His .912% save percentage is the only statistic in his line that tells an accurate story of how he’s played this season. He’s been very good, not great – but very good is more than we can reasonably expect from a 35 year old career backup that’s being asked to start games on a regular basis.
What he brings to the team: When called upon, Garon is giving the Bolts a chance to win. Unfortunately, perhaps because he’s never quite been suited to the rigors of a starting role, he’s recently gone down with injury (I seem to remember a similar scenario last season). He’s ideally a backup goalie, and perhaps the ideal backup goalie, because he’ll provide support to the starter without pressuring him for the job.
What he can improve: You can ask your starter to steal games for you now and again, but it’s not quite reasonable to ask that of your backup. And Garon has been close to stealing a number of games for the Bolts, often finding himself one of the three stars in a losing effort. It’s hard to ask a guy to improve when he’s already doing more than you can reasonably expect from him.
#39 Anders Lindback, G
The numbers tell the tale with Lindback: 3.11 GAA, .894% Save Percentage. We can make arguments about how he can’t be held responsible for a number of the goals he’s given up, and we can talk all day about how the Lightning are panicking in the defensive end in front of him. And you know what? All of that is true. And Lindback still hasn’t been good enough. All of you hockey PHDs need to put your calculators away for a second because the problem with Lindback is not complex. Are you ready for it? Here it is – he gives up too many goals. He doesn’t give up too many weak goals, and he doesn’t give up any particular goal over and over. He gives up goals on good opportunities that are never 100% his fault, and yet still, he should save a higher percentage of those opportunities than he does. What’s worse is the Lightning do not play with confidence in front of him, which leads to a perfect storm of mental malfunctions.
What he brings to the team: When momentum is on Lindback’s side, he can make truly spectacular saves that, given his length, few if any goalies in the league are capable of. Since Mathieu Garon has gone down to injury, Lindback has definitely been better. But the fact that no one, not the Bolts nor their fans, have confidence that Lindback can hold the team in a game is a problem.
What he can improve: Lindback needs to be mentally tougher. Once he gives up a goal, the onslaught begins, and it generally will take him 5-10 minutes of regulation time to settle back down. He appears to be a goalie that cracks under pressure, and that’s never a good thing.
#44 Nate Thompson, F
Nate Thompson has very likely been the Lightning’s best defensive forward so far this season. And on a team where defensive awareness, particularly among its forwards, has been a definite problem, he’s been like a light in the tunnel. He’s also provided some bonus offense this season, and will probably outdo last year’s numbers by season’s end. Coach Boucher has been using him in a number of different roles, most recently on a juiced up third line with Cory Conacher on his wing (the results have been good).
What he brings to the team: Versatility is the name of Thompson’s game. He backchecks with energy, makes a solid linemate for superstars and grinders alike, and can even pot the occasional goal. The Nate Thompson of this season is much improved over last year’s version.
What he can improve: Despite Thompson being (arguably) the team’s best defensive forward this season, the fact remains that defense (particularly among forwards) has been the team’s glaring weakness. I have no way of knowing what kind of leader Thompson is in the room, but I certainly wish more of his teammates would follow his hard-nosed, no-nonsense example.
#67 Benoit Pouliot, F
Unquestionably the hardest performance of the year for me to put a grade on is that of Benoit Pouliot. I considered literally every grade between an A and a C, finally landing on a B. The problem is this: From where I’m sitting, no Tampa Bay Lightning forward has more defensive zone lapses than Pouliot, and yet I can’t argue the fact that he’s a +7 on a team where Steven Stamkos is a -2. So if I can’t hold his defensive issues against him (too much…), his offensive performance has to win the day, and at the time of his injury Pouliot was on pace to challenge his career bests in a shortened season (I still couldn’t force myself to give him an A). All in all, Pouliot has been better than advertised for the Bolts this season. By the time he sprained his shoulder he had won a spot on the top-six, which wasn’t necessarily expected of him at the time he was acquired.
What he brings to the team: Pouliot is a non-complex north-south skater that can make things happen simply by going from point-A to point-B with speed. He skates well, he skates hard, and he doesn’t shy away when it comes time to get his nose dirty. He’s a skill player that needs a grinder’s mentality to succeed, because his game is always going to be based on blazing straight ahead rather than dipping in and out of traffic.
What he can improve: The simpler Pouliot’s game, the better. It sounds odd to say creativity is a bad thing, but in Pouliot’s case, it is (and occasionally leads to errant passes).
#77 Victor Hedman, F
While Victor Hedman hasn’t quite carved out a place for himself among elite NHL defensemen yet, he has taken several steps forward and might, at least, be the team’s best blueliner (the only other arguable option being Sami Salo). Hedman is now a reliable offensive threat and an imposing shutdown defenseman, using his speed and size to win battles in the corners. He’s +8 on the season, second only to Salo, and he’s already just one goal shy of his career high.
What he brings to the team: Hedman is probably the best skating six-foot-sixer in the league. There are certain games where he dominates the defensive zone, and he’s honing his offensive game into a dangerous one.
What he can improve: Hedman needs to be more consistent. He has it in him to dominate game-in, game-out, but to this point there’s no way to tell if we’re going to get his A game or his B game. Don’t get me wrong – his B game is very good. But his A game is that of a top tier NHL defenseman, and we could certainly use that in these dire times.
#89 Cory Conacher, F
Lightning fans were cautiously optimistic at the first of the season when Conacher looked like a sure thing to make the team. Given Conacher’s size, the goal seemed to be for him to stick with the team for the entire year. What few if any of us were expecting was that Conacher would take a key role in the team’s offense, and be arguably the team’s third most potent threat by the midway point, its second highest goal scorer, and be leading all NHL rookies in scoring. The A+ might seem a bit high, but that’s only because the expectations we have of Conacher now are immensely higher than the expectations we had of him at the first of the season. And he’s earned those expectations.
What he brings to the team: Speed, tenacity, and skill. Conacher flies around the ice, and plays with a certain recklessness that, while it occasionally gets him into penalty trouble, makes him one of a kind. He wins races, wins battles, and steamrolls toward the net, usually opting for the blue collar play rather than the finesse option. Lately, Conacher has been used on the third line with Nate Thompson, and it gives the Bolts some extra scoring punch deeper in the lineup. But he has shown good chemistry with a number of linemates, and has quickly become one of the main go-to guys when the team needs a goal.
What he can improve: Coach Boucher raves about the difference between Conacher’s defensive awareness this year compared to last (when Conacher went through a Bolts training camp and failed to make the team). While Conacher never lacks hustle on the backcheck, he does, occasionally, fight to keep offensive plays alive when the puck is clearly about to move the other way, and it would probably be best for him to make a few more conservative decisions in the offensive end of the rink.
#91 Steven Stamkos, F
Stamkos has returned to the form that saw him storm down the stretch of the 2011/2012 season. He currently sits atop the NHL’s goal-scoring list with 19 in 25 games (that can be pro-rated to 62 over an 82 game schedule). He started the season without looking nearly as ferocious a force as he looks like now, but he still managed to be the beneficiary of the team’s smoking hot powerplay and racked up some points. Now, the team is sputtering, the powerplay is teetering on the brink of “embarrassing,” and Stamkos is still racking up points. He’s been by far the team’s MVP this season, and in all the areas where it appears Vincent Lecavalier’s game has dropped off, Stamkos’ has improved. His biggest drawback all season had been in the faceoff circle, but I’m happy to report Stamkos has drawn above 50% in each of his last four games.
What he brings to the team: Stamkos is the most dangerous scorer in the league. He might not be quite the overall offensive threat that Sidney Crosby is, but he’s the single player that team’s most fear losing track of – if you lose Stamkos in the shuffle for a split second, the puck is in the back of your net. The Lightning have been working with that idea, often concocting set plays with the man-advantage that are designed to lose Stamkos in the mix. His offensive prowess would be enough, of course, but the thing Bolts fans should be excited about is that Stamkos is not satisfied being simply a scoring threat – he’s working hard to become a complete player. And it’s his will to become a complete player that we should be excited about, because that’s the kind of will that makes a leader, and leadership is a thing that I do not believe this team has in any excess amounts right now.
What he can improve: He can become a better defender, and he can get better in the faceoff circle. The good/great news is he’s making strides to do those things. The flaws of his game have not escaped his attention. Early in the season, it was Vincent Lecavalier that was most noticeable hurrying back to help out the backcheck – now, it’s Stamkos. But despite all the improvements he’s made, there’s still room for more. It’s troubling that a player with 13 even strength goals is sitting at -2.
Thanks for reading. Next time we’ll look at coaching, the special teams, and intangibles like leadership.