In this third installment of my mid-term report card for the Tampa Bay Lightning, I will be moving away from specific players and discussing off-ice aspects of the team, the team’s intangibles, and the team’s strategies. What this mostly boils down to is coaching and attitude.
First and foremost, you might be wondering, since the Bolts’ performance thus far into the season has clearly warranted a failing grade, why is it that so few Lightning players received poor grades in my mid-term report card? Only Anders Lindback received an F, but Lindback has actually managed to maintain a winning record, so obviously the problem can’t entirely be goaltending. And you would be right to wonder that, because as the season wears on, I am losing more and more confidence in the aspects of the team we’re about to discuss.
By and large, the individual players on this team have exceeded their expectations. Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis are each ranked inside the top 5 in league scoring, Victor Hedman has become a legit top-pairing NHL blueliner, and Cory Conacher has shocked the hockey world and become yet another high-octane player on a high-octane team. There is no way to look at this team and not conclude that it is head and shoulders above last year’s team.
And yet old problems persist. The team can’t maintain a lead, the team digs itself deep holes, the team goes through ten minute spans where it gives up three and four goals which spoil the other fifty minutes of solid hockey. The team gets pinned in its own end for multiple shifts in succession, the team’s goaltender can make big saves but can’t seem to make the big save at the big moment of the game, the team falls out of its systematic break-outs and break-ins and plays run-and-gun hockey for minutes on end. None of these problems are physical, or athletic, or based in any way on talent.
In other words, the problems are mental. The Tampa Bay Lightning have deep, dark mental demons. They’re momentum addicts. When things are going good, things are going great – but the moment momentum turns against them, things fall apart.
And that, I’m afraid to say, is a problem that must be placed squarely at the door of the coaching staff.
It pains me to dish out such a poor grade. I regularly watch and listen to Coach Guy Boucher break down Lightning games, the Lightning season, and certain individual performances. And I agree with most of what he says. From a hockey philosophy standpoint, he is enlightening. He says the right things, he correctly diagnoses problems, and his insight into the game lacks for nothing.
And yet there comes a point when the results can’t be ignored. It can’t be ignored, for instance, that a powerplay that boasts Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, among others, is operating at just an 11.9% clip on the road, and has largely faltered regardless of the setting since the Lightning’s opening 7 games of the season. It can’t be ignored that the team has such monstrous troubles dealing with momentum shifts that opposing play-by-play men (and I’ve heard this multiple times this season with my own ears) believe that once you start a comeback against them, the Lightning will fall apart. And finally, it simply can’t be ignored that the team is losing.
Guy Boucher is unquestionably a master at turning young players into stars. What I can’t help but question at this point is if he can turn those star players into winners. The Tampa Bay Lightning have a number of great pieces that any coach would be salivating to work with, chief among them the league’s most dangerous goal-scorer. We can argue for days on end over whose fault it is when players can’t seem to buy into a system for 60 minutes per night (the Lightning buy in, often times, for 45-55 minutes per night, with good results during those minutes), but I would argue that the truly great coaches, when times are tough, get out their whip and force their team to change.
Which is where my deepest concern with Coach Boucher lies. I have had the privilege in my years to witness some of the great coaches in hockey history at work. One could argue that we’re seeing a great coaching performance in Toronto right now, by Randy Carlyle. And in the case of coach after coach, there is an air of authority to them, there is a separateness about them. They are not part of the team – they are, in many respects, above the team. That is not the sense I get when I see Guy Boucher. In general, he appears to be just another one of the boys, more of a twenty-first man on the bench than the man that runs the bench.
Boucher comes across as the nicest guy in any room he might happen to be in. And he’s probably the smartest hockey man in any room you could put him in as well. But when I think about great coaches, there’s almost an intimidation factor about them. It’s well known, now, that many of Scotty Bowman’s players hated playing for him, right up until the moment they realized they were about to win the Stanley Cup (sometimes for a second or third time). We don’t call Mike Keenan “Iron” Mike for nothing.
Does Boucher have what it takes to whip this team of individual success stories into a collective success story? Can he, in other words, force them to play as a team, for the team, and always, unwaveringly, for the win?
I want to hope so. Despite my questions and concerns, I’m rooting for Boucher to succeed as much as any of you. I want to believe a nice guy can coach a team to greatness. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have red alarms firing in all parts of my brain. And so would you.
This grade is weighted a little more heavily toward the last 15 or 18 games, rather than the first 7, in which the Lightning would have easily received an A+.
The expectations for a Bolts’ powerplay are understandably high. When you can throw Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Teddy Purcell at a Penalty Kill (not to mention Cory Conacher and, when healthy, Ryan Malone), you should score a lot of goals. And for a while, the Lightning were scoring a lot of goals. Better yet, they had a number of defensemen chipping in as well. Matt Carle was racking up points at nearly a 1-per-game clip to open the season, and have we forgotten the hot start Eric Brewer got off to?
That’s where I’d say the problem lies, yet again. Long before the season started, I wrote about the Lightning needing a true powerplay quarterback on the blueline. I have no real complaints on that front now – I think Sami Salo, Victor Hedman, Matt Carle, and Eric Brewer (and occasionally Marc-Andre Bergeron) are more than capable playing the point. So, my question is, why aren’t they allowed to?
Take a recent example. The Lightning, in their 2-1 loss against the Winnipeg Jets, were granted a full 2:00 minute 5-3 powerplay. Was I the only one a little bit appalled to see five forwards take the ice? Now, I understand that Teddy Purcell has better offensive instincts than, say, Eric Brewer. That, however, does not necessarily mean Purcell is more capable of playing the point in an offensively-minded situation.
The team functions best with the man-advantage when it’s moving the puck, and thus, moving defenders. Martin St. Louis in particular has a knack for opening lanes by keeping his feet moving while playing catch with a teammate. Steven Stamkos, remember, was finding great success when he was dishing well-covered one-timer opportunities back to the middle of the ice for a more open teammate (this is, mind you, the one instance where I think the Lightning would benefit from “making the extra pass” once in a while, seeing as how every team in the league is playing Stamkos to shoot first and ask questions later).
Lately, the Bolts rarely seem to get themselves set up in the opponents’ zone before they’re chasing the puck back to their own end of the ice.
The Penalty Kill
Oddly enough, the Lightning PK has exceeded expectations. For a team so noted for horrible defensive play and goaltending, it’s rather impressive that the Lightning have killed off a respectable 82.1% of their penalties (at the time of this writing), and are currently sitting in the upper half of the NHL (13th overall).
Much of the credit for that can be dished out to Nate Thompson and Tom Pyatt up front, and Sami Salo and Victor Hedman in the back. Even Anders Lindback has been making incredible saves when the short-handed pressure is on him (I can’t explain it, honestly). Perhaps the Penalty Kill is a microcosm of the Lightning’s successes/failures as a whole – this is a team that knows how to execute, in short spurts.
I for one would love to see more of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis on the PK (and perhaps even, in time, Cory Conacher). In the brief glimpses we’ve had of the pairing, they’ve looked nothing if not defensively responsible (particularly Stamkos), and have played with energy and determination and above all else: urgency.
I understand the mindset behind sitting your stars during the PK. It allows them two minutes of rest, to recover from the rigors of the game and be ready when it’s time to score goals. I understand it, but I think the mindset is flawed. Let’s put aside the fact that, in all likelihood, a Steven Stamkos that regularly kills penalties is probably going to score 5-8 shorthanded goals per year (and shorthanded goals are momentum busters like nothing else in hockey). The issue is bigger than that. Using your best players on the Penalty Kill (if they can earn their keep on it, mind you) instills a mentality in those players that they are not simply scorers. They are responsible for their team’s performance at both ends of the ice, and ultimately, for winning and losing. It gives them a chance to lead by example.
Which brings me finally to:
I know what you’re thinking. How can I possibly know the kind of leadership this team has if I’m not in the dressing room, if I’m not on the bench, if I can’t hear the conversations between players etc etc etc. And you’re right. It’s impossible for those of us on the outside to truly know what’s going on on the inside, and leadership is a thing that definitely goes on on the inside.
That said, I also know there are a lot of outward symptoms of bad leadership, and right now the Tampa Bay Lightning are displaying pretty much all of them.
The biggest one? How many times have I mentioned “momentum” in this piece alone? Would anyone deny that the Bolts have a problem keeping momentum on their side, and have a problem regaining it once it’s lost? Have any of us not been frustrated by the fact that the moment the opposing team gets some jump in their step, the Bolts seem to wilt, and ultimately collapse under the pressure.
Leadership is about steering a team through difficult times. It’s about overcoming adversity, and staying mentally sharp. A team with good leadership can stay calm in the most desperate circumstances. Leadership is about providing fire when the team appears to be sputtering out.
The Bolts were getting that kind of leadership early in the season, most notably from Vincent Lecavalier. Lecavalier’s fight with Luke Schenn was perhaps the moment when I was most optimistic about what he had become as a player. Later, when he fought Maxim Talbot, he received a lot of criticism for throwing a punch when Talbot was down, clear vengeance for what had happened earlier in a fight between BJ Crombeen and Zac Rinaldo.
I was not among those critics. I believe Lecavalier did what he did to inspire his team, to show that the Bolts are a team that stand up for each other and won’t lie down when the going gets tough (and dirty). We can say all we want about discipline, but discipline gets to a point where it feels demoralizing, degrading you might say, where you become less a Tower of Virtue than a Welcome Mat. Hockey is competition, and competition, when you get to its root, is a fight. Taking abuse lying down is habit-forming. I wish Vinny had hit him twice.
I don’t know what’s happened to Vincent Lecavalier’s game. I don’t know where it went. And I don’t think it’s fair to put the entire leadership catastrophe on his lap either. The team has a number of veterans capable of providing leadership. What I do know, is when Lecavalier was playing like a monster, with heart and fire and a humble yet irresistible will to win, this team was winning. And now they’re not.
Thanks for reading.
Tags: Tampa Bay Lightning