It’s never easy to look back on disappointment. The Tampa Bay Lightning and their fans had high hopes for this season, which makes this year tougher than most to swallow, and the fact that the Bolts got off to such a great start before imploding makes it almost impossible. But look back we must, if we want to learn.
We knew there would be growing pains. The rebuild is, after all, only a couple of steps past its infancy, and rebuilding primarily through the draft is always a long, hard road. But with all the success in Norfolk/Syracuse, and with a much stronger NHL group than the previous season, no one guessed the team would actually take a step backward (at least in terms of results). And while it’s important to be patient in times like these, it’s also important to recognize the difference between growing pains and underachievement. This past season, the Lightning underachieved.
In this multi-part series of articles, we’ll first focus on the clearest remaining weakness of the Tampa Bay Lighting: the defense. Starting the year, the Bolts appeared to have bolstered their blue line with the additions of Sami Salo and Matt Carle, and with the continuing maturation of Victor Hedman and Keith Aulie. In the offensive zone, the Bolts blueliners were indeed improved, and defenders accounted for 20 Lightning goals this season. That can be pro-rated to 34 goals over a full 82 game schedule, which is 10 more than the 24 they combined for in 2011/2012.
But of course, a defender’s main task is to defend. And here’s where the Bolts struggled. For long stretches of the season, even including the early season when they were winning regularly, the Bolts often found themselves pinned in their own zone for long, tiring stretches. This specific issue (time in attack zone) improved significantly when Jon Cooper took over as the Lightning head coach, but the team still struggled to keep pucks out of its net – or at least, by the end of the season they were struggling not to give up more goals than they were managing to score. Scoring, by season’s end, was also posing problems.
Statistics are tricky things. At face value, they rarely give you a revealing look at what was, or was not, a problem. You need to look deeper for that. Such is true for the 2013Tampa Bay Lightning. For instance, it’s easy to sum up the season by pointing to the Lightning’s 28th overall finish, 8 spots lower than they finished last year, and assume the team took a step back. However, a closer look at the numbers reveals some surprising facts. First and foremost, the team’s defense did improve. While it’s still clearly not good enough, it did move up from worst in the league (3.39 GA) to 26th (3.06).
You’ll find similar improvements in almost every measurable statistic. The Bolts scored 3.06 goals per game this season, compared to 2.83 goals per game last season. They had the 13th best power play in the league, operating at 19%, compared to last season’s 25th best, 15.2% success rate. Penalty killing? Same story. This season’s Lightning managed to kill 80.6% of their penalties, good for 19th best in the league, improving on last season’s 26th best 79.2%.
Unfortunately, the Bolts weren’t able to translate all of these improvements into an improved win/loss record. But it’s important to note that, in a lot of ways, the team did take steps forward. Of course, in hockey, winning is everything . And that can never be overlooked.
But I digress. Let us return our focus now to the team’s defensemen. The Bolts might well have put a revolving door on their locker this year with all the players coming in and out of the lineup, going between Tampa and Syracuse. When all was said and done, a total of 13 defensemen, from everyday players to emergency call-ups to single-game signings, had donned the Lightning uniform and registered an NHL game played. By season’s end, Syracuse standout Radko Gudas had permanent job security in Tampa Bay while Marc-Andre Bergeron found himself in Carolina. Such is life in the NHL.
So. Who was good? Who was bad? Who was terrible? Whom can we pin the Lightning’s defensive end blues to? Well, like anything else in hockey, the answers to those questions are pretty muddy. But I’ll do what I can.
For the sake of this article I’ll mention only players who appeared in 20 or more games.
(Listed in numerical order…)
#2 Eric Brewer
(GP)48 (G)4 (A)8 (PTS)12 (+/-)3 (PIM)30 (ATOI)20:30
Eric Brewer started the season hot, but by mid-season he was spending long stretches of time largely invisible. When Brewer was on his game, he looked often looked like the best of the Bolts’ defenders, standing out for his physical play, his skating, and his heady decisions with the puck. Unfortunately, those nights were less the rule than the exception, and Brewer’s overall 2013 performance wasn’t noteworthy despite seeing significant improvements in most offensive categories.
Looking Forward: If the Tampa Bay Lightning are going to build a strong defense, Brewer’s role will be that of a 4th, 5th, or even 6th defenseman. As a lower guy on the depth chart, he provides a solid physical game and good decision-making, and he can even bank you a timely goal now and again. But the less important his role, the better, which calls his nearly $4 million cap hit into question. The Lightning might end up shopping Brewer this off-season, but it’s hard to imagine many takers at that price.
#3 Keith Aulie
(GP)45 (G)2 (A)5 (PTS)7 (+/-)1 (PIM)60 (ATOI)12:49
Believe it or not, Keith Aulie took some solid steps forward this season. Last season, he was a fringe NHLer; this season, he made a home for himself on the Bolts’ bottom pairing. It’s important to remember that large defensemen take more time to develop, so at 6’6, and just 23 years old, Aulie is still a few years away from reaching his full potential. He showed a little bit of offensive know-how this season, scoring a pair of goals and a career high seven points – but offense, with Aulie, is never going to be more than a bonus. The key number is Aulie’s icetime, which improved more than 1.5 minutes/game over last season, and by the end of the year Aulie was upping that number by playing more than a minute per game above his season-long average. When Aulie’s on his game, he’s a big, mean defenseman, and the bigger and meaner he plays, the better. His play this season was somewhat typical of a developing player – one game he would stand out, the next he would disappear. Consistency is usually the last piece of the puzzle, and that’s particularly true for big defensemen.
Looking Forward: While Aulie took a step forward this season, no one can be too sure how many more steps he has left in him. At best, he can be a dominating shut-down defenseman. As is, he’s a dependable lower-depth chart guy who can provide solid physical play. With several defense prospects coming down the pipe in Tampa, Aulie will need to continue developing for the sake of basic job security.
#6 Sami Salo
(GP)46 (G)2 (A)15 (PTS)17 (+/-)5 (PIM)16 (ATOI)20:59
For much of the season, Sami Salo was undeniably Tampa Bay’s best defenseman. He was the single defenseman that could be counted on to make correct decisions in all situations, time and time again. And he was consistent. Salo was brought in to jump-start the Lightning powerplay, but powerplay production wound up being the least of his contributions. That, however, was part of Tampa Bay’s problem – in a perfect world, Sami Salo is a good defenseman, but he’s not your best defenseman. Luckily, by season’s end, things began to change, and both Victor Hedman and Matt Carle were more dependable.
Looking Forward: If Sami Salo is anything more than a second pairing defenseman and a powerplay specialist, the Tampa Bay Lightning are in trouble. Unfortunately, that was the case for large chunks of this season. At 38, Salo likely doesn’t have much to do with the Bolts’ long-term plans, but he provides wonderful stability in the short-term, and there’s a lot that younger players can learn from him. He rarely makes a bad decision with the puck.
#15 Brian Lee
(GP) 20 (G)0 (A) 0 (PTS) 0 (+/-) -13 (PIM)16 (ATOI)13:55
It was a nightmarish season for Lee, and the nightmare was made all the more horrific by the fact that, coming into the season, there was plenty of reason for optimism. After being acquired by the Lightning at the trade deadline in 2012, Lee appeared invigorated, re-energized, and he looked like he would compete for a valuable role with the 2013 team. But when the season began, Lee couldn’t seem to find any traction. He didn’t appear to be playing poorly so much as he appeared to be the frequent victim of unfortunate events. By the end, Lee was playing poorly, and on top of it, he was still getting unlucky. All of that culminated in a disastrous season that saw him go pointless through 20 games, saw him post a team-worst -13 rating, and saw him a regular healthy scratch until he was finally assigned to Syracuse in late March. It was hard to watch.
Grade: (An unfortunate) F (that he might not deserve)
Looking Forward: Your guess is as good as mine.
#25 Matthew Carle
(GP)48 (G)5 (A)17 (PTS)22 (+/-)1 (PIM)4 (ATOI)23:44
Perhaps no Tampa Bay Lightning player was more streaky in 2013 than Matt Carle. He opened the season strong, scoring 9 points in Tampa Bay’s first 15 games. But then he went into a funk that bordered on the on-ice version of clinical depression through the middle of the season – for a while it seemed he only made the rare appearance on our screens to make a costly mistake. Everything changed the moment Jon Cooper took over behind the Bolts’ bench. For whatever reason, Carle, more than any other player, responded to the new coach. He scored 11 points in the team’s final 15 games , was solid (though not spectacular) in his own end, and was arguably Tampa Bay’s overall best defender – and that’s what he’s getting paid to be.
Grade: B- (because he came to life when the games were no longer important)
Looking Forward: As Lightning fans, we need to hope that Carle’s late-season surge was a direct result of Jon Cooper’s coaching style and not a simple anomaly. April’s Matt Carle was a top-pair defenseman; March’s Matt Carle was a second-pair defenseman. And, bluntly, that’s not good enough. If April’s Matt Carle shows up for the entirety of the 2013/2014 season, it will solve a lot of Tampa Bay’s blue line problems.
#75 Radko Gudas
(GP)22 (G)2 (A)3 (PTS)5 (+/-) +3 (PIM)38 (ATOI)16:59
There’s a learning curve in the NHL, and it’s a steep one. We can all think of a handful of AHL superstars who failed to ever reproduce their minor league success in the NHL. But every once in a while a player comes along whose style of play translates so beautifully to the particulars of the NHL game, the speed and physicality of it, that he winds up being every bit as effective, if not more, than he was in the minor leagues. Radko Gudas in one of those players. It’s only in hindsight that we realize a player like Gudas was hard, if not impossible, to assess and project as an AHLer. He looked great in the AHL, don’t get me wrong, throwing bone-crunching hits and racking up his weight in penalty minutes, but he was playing an NHL-style which made it hard to compare him to his peers. I have been watching hockey my entire life, and never have I seen a physical defenseman step so seamlessly into the NHL. There were no jitters; there was no nervous energy that so often manifests itself in mistakes. From his first game, Gudas played like a veteran, as if he’d seen every situation a million times. What mistakes he made were fewer and farther between than the mistakes of his teammates. By season’s end, he was arguably Tampa’s most valuable D-zone defender, and having him around helped soften the blow of Cory Conacher’s departure.
Looking Forward: If Radkos Gudas can turn himself into a powerplay threat, he will be a 25-30 minute man in the NHL. It’s possible – he has a big league shot, and perhaps the part of his game that surprised management the most this season was his ability to make good decisions with the puck. As of right now, Gudas is a goldmine as a second-pair defenseman, but there are plenty of signs that even his offensive game might be uniquely suited to the NHL, meaning we might not yet know what he’s capable of. He could surprise us. I would be surprised if Gudas doesn’t average 18:00 per game in 2013/2014, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that number get up in the 21:00 range. Now, did you see all of that raving I did about Gudas? Here’s the kicker – I didn’t even mention (until now) the fact that he threw four hits per game!
#77 Victor Hedman
(GP) 44 (G)4 (A)16 (PTS)20 (+/-)1 (PIM) 31 (ATOI)22:40
If there’s one thing to take comfort in concerning Victor Hedman, it’s that the flashes of brilliance are coming more and more frequently. Hedman was consistently good this season while being inconsistently great. He definitely made a step forward, but it probably wasn’t quite the step Tampa fans were hoping for. While there’s no doubt about his athletic ability, there still remain some serious questions about his decision making. It’s hard to be patient with players that possess as much skill as Hedman, but it is important to remember that he’s a defenseman – and a big defenseman, and a young defenseman. As of now, it appears he has filled out his frame, and physically he appears to have no problem with the rigors and stresses of the NHL trenches. But mentally, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Looking Forward: Much of the Lightning’s plans to build a contender are hinged on the assumption that Victor Hedman will sooner or later be an elite NHL defenseman. The sooner he can establish himself as Tampa’s undisputed #1 blueliner, the cornerstone on which this team’s defense will be built, the better. But it might be time to worry. As of now, Hedman wouldn’t be better than a second-pairing guy on a good NHL defense. After a stellar showing in the KHL during the lockout, there was a lot of optimism around Hedman coming into this season. HHe needs a breakout season, and soon – otherwise it might be time to for the Bolts to reassess their expectations for him, and plan accordingly.
- – - -
In conclusion, it’s important to look at the Lightning’s defenseman in the context of team growth. While that’s never fun when you’re losing, it does provide some answers for the losses. Right now, Tampa Bay has a number of very good second pairing quality defensemen, but they are in desperate need of two players to take the blue line by the horns and establish themselves as top-pair guys. Next season, barring a major change, those players must be Victor Hedman and Matt Carle. Each of them assumed the role at varying points this season, but like everything else in Tampa this year, the problem was consistency.
Sami Salo and Radko Gudas were both stellar for the Bolts this year, but it’s important to keep in mind that they were stellar within the context of their expectations. Neither Salo nor Gudas should be expected to lead the Lightning defense. Gudas is surprising us every day, and maybe he’ll one day unlock the kind of offense that will win him first-pair minutes (a scary thought for each and every opponent). Salo, on the other hand, has aged out of those expectations. Eric Brewer is yet another second-pair quality defenseman. And that’s the problem with this team – no one has proven themselves as a clear #1 or #2 guy. Everyone, meanwhile, seems to be a quality #4. (I maintain that Radko Gudas will slotted #3 for life, and I’m happy about that.)
The Depth Chart
1. Matt Carle
2. Victor Hedman
3. Radko Gudas
4. Sami Salo
5. Eric Brewer
6. Keith Aulie
7. Mark Barberio
a. Brian Lee, Brendan Mikkelson, Andrej Sustr, Matt Taormina
How will that depth chart look next year? Tampa Bay is very likely to bring in one more defenseman from outside the organization. If I had to bet, I would say it will be a stay-at-home, physical defenseman – a better version of Keith Aulie. That will make both Aulie and Brewer’s spot in the depth chart vulnerable. I think the Bolts will move Brewer if they can and hope Aulie is ready to assume more responsibility next year.
Meanwhile, it’s getting harder and harder for the Lightning to justify keeping Mark Barberio in the AHL. He was not great in his two appearances with the Bolts this season, but growing pains for an offensively minded defenseman are to be expected. The AHL can only season a player like that so much. Barberio was named the AHL’s best defenseman in 2011/2012, and followed it up with a solid season this year. The problem for Barberio is much the same as was the problem for Marc-Andre Bergeron this season – he’s an offensive defenseman on a team that struggles defensively. That said, his puck-moving abilities can be very valuable if used to help get the Bolts out of their own end. My guess is the Lightning will carry him as a seventh defenseman next year, and it will be up to him to force his way into a bigger role.
Tampa’s high profile 2012 draft pick, Slater Koekkoek is likely to find himself in Syracuse next season. If all goes well, he’ll assume Mark Barberio’s role and the organization will develop him in a similarly patient manner. There is, however, a chance that they’ll be ultra-patient with him and return him to junior for one final season before turning him pro in 2014.
Thanks for reading.
Tags: Tampa Bay Lightning