If there’s one part of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s game that rarely gets criticized, it’s the scoring. And that’s not going to surprise anyone, considering the Bolts boasted this year’s first and second ranked scorers league-wide (I say this with apologies to Sidney Crosby fans). Tampa Bay scored 148 goals this season, far and away the most by any non-playoff team, and yet their goal differential was -2 (also the best of non-playoff teams, it should be pointed out).
In my last batch of report cards (grading the role players), I touched on the idea that Tampa Bay’s problems can’t be pinned completely on the defense/goaltending. It’s easy to think about hockey in compartments – scorers score, defenders defend, goaltenders tend goal. But it’s not that simple.
I would submit to you the argument that the #1 problem for Tampa Bay, the granddaddy of all problems, a veritable Bowser of problems that waits at the end of a long string of Goombas and Koopas if you will, is a lack of defensively responsible forwards.
Such thinking makes me wonder if the Bolts don’t have their eye on Sasha Barkov in the upcoming draft. While either Jonathan Drouin or Nate MacKinnon would make a sexier pick, Barkov, just 18, already has a reputation for being defensively aware.
But the problem isn’t so simple. The weird fact that haunts the Tampa Bay Lightning is they have a slew of forwards that want to be defensively responsible.
Let’s use Steven Stamkos as an example. Stamkos has stated that he has a goal to be one of the best two-way forwards in the league. And let me tell you, there’s no lack of will. There’s no laziness in Stamkos’s defensive game. Nor, obviously, is there any lack of talent. And yet time after time he finds himself in slightly the wrong place at slightly the wrong time, and a puck goes into the wrong net. Stamkos, despite scoring more goals than anyone in the league over the last few years, still struggles to break a 0 plus/minus rating. There’s a certain point where these things can’t be chalked up to coincidence. What Stamkos lacks is simple knowledge. He’s a smart guy – it’s going to come over time, but he’s going to need someone, or several someones, to show him the way.
I bring this up because it’s going to be a common thread through this examination of Tampa Bay’s scoring forwards. Martin St. Louis led the league in scoring, but he couldn’t break a 0 plus/minus rating. Vincent Lecavalier: -5. Meanwhile, the ratings of the bottom six forwards aren’t that bad when you consider how few goals those lines score (which is in line with their expectations).
Bearing all that in mind, let’s have a look at the Lightning scorers. If you’re wondering why I’ve deemed these specific six players scorers, please refer to my article on Role Players for an explanation.
#4 Vincent Lecavalier
(GP) 39 (G) 10 (A)22 (PTS) 32 (+/-)-5 (PIM) 10 (ATOI)17:52
If you’ve read my articles throughout the year, you’ve probably noticed Lecavalier is my favorite whipping boy. And you’ve probably noticed how stellar I thought he played at the first of the season (I maintain that he was Tampa Bay’s best player up until his initial foot injury). What Lecavalier did through those first ten games or so was show us the kind of player he can be. The Bolts need a premiere two-way player, and a big-time physical forward, and for a while Lecavalier was both. There are a lot of theories out there saying Lecavalier’s play dropped off because of a number of injuries he accumulated through the season, ultimately resulting in him missing a good chunk of time yet again. I sincerely hope those theories are true, and that come October, we get to see Vinny the two-way monster, not Vinny the one-dimensional secondary scorer. To his credit, when he returned from injury, he definitely seemed to have some jump in his step that wasn’t there through the middle of the season. But part of being paid like a premiere player is you’re expected to play like a premiere player, and Lecavalier’s didn’t do nearly that over the long haul.
Looking Foward: As of right now, Vincent Lecavalier’s contract is acting like a set of handcuffs for this franchise. He comes with a $7.7 million cap hit, and having that cap hit means you’re stuck with that cap hit, because no other team is going to want anything to do with Vinny at that price. It’s also such a hefty pricetag that it makes a buyout unrealistic, because as great as a word like “buyout” is, it comes with the often overlooked reality that someone has to write that check – and the bigger the check, the harder it is to write. Vinny’s simply not a $7.7 million player anymore. That said, he can be. The two-way, heavy hitting, occasionally fighting, scrappy Vincent Lecavalier that showed up in January of 2013 was a $7.7 million dollar player. That guy didn’t even need to score to be valuable. Lecavalier has all the physical tools to change his role with this team, which I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen him do it with my own eyes, however briefly.
#16 Teddy Purcell
(GP) 48 (G) 11 (A) 25 (PTS)36 (+/-) -1 (PIM)12 (ATOI)16:44
It was a strange, streaky season for Teddy Purcell. He scored big goals, had lengthy slumps, looked sometimes like the Lightning’s best player, and looked sometimes like a key reason they were losing. When all was said and done, Purcell wound up with a very respectable 36 points in 48 games (you can pro-rate that to about 62 points in an 82 gamer). And somehow, despite the fact that his reluctance to shoot the puck could get so bad that it seemed almost like he had a phobia about it, he wound up with 11 goals (pro-rated: 19). Purcell often looked like he was looking for a reason not to shoot, and he gave up a lot of A-grade chances to pass to a teammate with a B- or C-grade chance. And that brought a lot of criticism from fans and media, all of which, I should say, was warranted. I don’t think there’s anyone left that questions Purcell’s skill. He’s arguably the Lightning’s best puck-handler, and he has great speed and decent vision. It’s his decision making that left something to be desired this season, but to Purcell’s credit he seemed to acknowledge the problem and was taking steps to solve it – Purcell took 40 shots in April, compared to just 14 in March. Aside from that, Purcell is, I should note, one of the players on this team who needs to become more defensively responsible. He has no physical game to speak of, but that’s not a necessity when it comes to defending.
Looking Forward: Purcell is one of a handful of Lightning players that I wouldn’t be shocked to see move in this off-season. I don’t think it will happen, but he might be the most expendable of the team’s one-dimensional forwards. That said, Purcell’s one-dimension is a pretty valuable one. He can create offense and he has a nose for being in the right place at the right time in the attack zone. A more well-rounded game would be nice, but it might just be wishful thinking.
#17 Alex Killorn
(GP)38 (G)7 (A)12 (PTS)19 (+/-)-6 (PIM) 14 (ATOI)16:49
Alex Killorn might be a glimpse of the future. He’s an above average scorer that’s responsible in his own end of the rink – and the Lightning have a number of players that fit that exact description coming down the pipe. Killorn is just the first. But if we can expect similar play from those others (Johnson, Panik, Palat – the list goes on and on, it would seem), then we should be very optimistic about the future of the organization. Killorn is a well-rounded player. He might not have a single dimension to his game that’s great, but he has a lot of good and very good dimensions. He got steadily better as the season wore on and by April was averaging 18 minutes per game of ice time (more than Vincent Lecavalier). By the time Cory Conacher was traded, Alex Killorn was already the team’s most valuable rookie. Killorn (let me remind you: rookie) was already killing penalties and already on the ice in late-game high pressure situations, playing both with the lead and while trailing. To have a player called up from Syracuse with the season already under way, and then have that player wind up being one of the most dependable forwards on the team? I’m not sure we could have realistically expected a better performance.
Looking Foward: Killorn’s scoring is going to rise. He wasn’t scoring points in a way that would lead anyone to believe he was a flash in the pan. His points usually came as a result of good decisions and hard work. I think he has 60 point seasons in his future, but I’m not sure how quickly they’ll come or how often they’ll happen. Let’s not forget, before coming to Tampa, he had 38 points in 44 games for Syracuse. He’s probably going to play big minutes in the top six and on both specialty teams, and become more and more valuable as time goes on. He’s a guy with all the physical and mental tools required to be a very good NHLer. Tampa Bay is lucky to have him, and to have a number of guys like him chomping at the bit in Syracuse.
#26 Martin St. Louis
(GP)48 (G) 17 (A) 43 (PTS)60 (+/-)0 (PIM) 14 (ATOI)21:59
For Martin St. Louis, this season was so bittersweet that I would imagine he’s confused about it. On one hand, he made history, becoming the oldest player ever to win the scoring race. On the other hand, the point of scoring is to win games, and Tampa Bay didn’t win nearly enough games. While it’s easy to say, “Well, Marty did his part,” I doubt St. Louis is thinking that. My guess is, because St.
Louis is such a competitor, he’s trying to figure out what more he could have done to help the team win. The true beauty of Marty St. Louis’ game, beyond the speed and the flashy puck-handling and the great passes, is his competitive fire. It’s the same competitive fire that got him into the NHL when the entire world thought he was too small, and the same competitive fire that made him arguably the league’s best player for a while even after one team had already given up on him. And it’s the competitive fire that’s probably making him wonder how he could win the scoring championship and not wind up on the plus side of the plus/minus column. How can you score 40 even strength points and be on the ice for at least 40 even strength goals against? Like I said before, it gets to a point where you can’t chalk it up to coincidence. And you can’t chalk it up completely to poor goaltending either. This entire team needs to rethink its attitude toward team defense, and because Marty’s the most respected guy in the locker room, the change will come easiest if it starts with him. All that said, it was still an exceptional season for St. Louis.
Looking Forward: 38? I don’t care if he’s 68 – Marty St. Louis isn’t slowing down. He’s got that rare combination of hard work and good luck that have allowed him to extend his prime a few years (so far) past where any reasonable person would have expected it to end. Come October, I expect to see pretty much the same St. Louis that we saw this year, except I wouldn’t doubt seeing him play more with Vincent Lecavalier than Steven Stamkos.
A difficult subject: There is also an outside chance the Lightning will trade him in the offseason, which probably became a more realistic possibility because of how valuable St. Louis has made himself at his age. (I can think of no 35+ year-old forward that would bring nearly the return that St. Louis would – a two-time Art Ross winner who, again, isn’t slowing down. And that huge return, which could help the team for the next 10-15 years, will be so tempting that Lightning management would be fools to not very carefully consider the option, at least.)
#67 Benoit Pouliot
(GP)34 (G) 8 (A) 12 (PTS) 20 (+/-)+8 (PIM)15 (ATOI)13:14
No one was quite sure what to expect when Benoit Pouliot was acquired from the Boston Bruins last off-season. And, as it happens, no one’s quite sure what we got. Pouliot began the season playing on the third line, forced his way into a scoring role on the second line, and then went back and forth for the rest of the season. At his best, Pouliot plays a blazing north-south game, no frills, no bells or whistles. He skates hard up the ice, and he skates hard back, and he makes smart decisions between points A and B. He runs into trouble when he gets away from that. So what exactly do the Lightning have in Pouliot? Well, he’s still a player that’s long on promise and short on results. But the results are getting better. His +8 was a team best, which is as odd as everything else about Pouliot’s results, because he’s not a great defender. He occasionally shows breath-taking skill, but he’s yet to put all the pieces together and find a real identity as an NHLer. …Except for maybe looking like Pavel Datsyuk’s lanky kid brother.
Looking Forward: It’s tough to say if Pouliot will return to Tampa next season. He’s a restricted free agent at the moment, and with Tampa needing to get the payroll under control, Pouliot (who made $1.8 million last season) might wind up a casualty of the economic realities of the new CBA. Assuming he does stick with Tampa, Pouliot will find himself in much the same position as this past season – he’ll be a talented player with a big opportunity to carve out a place for himself.
#91 Steven Stamkos
(GP)48 (G) 29 (A)28 (PTS) 57 (+/-)-4 (PIM)32 (ATOI)21:59
Sticking with the theme of this article (defense – which might be surprising for an article that focuses on scoring forwards), Stamkos as a player is the most clear metaphor for what needs to change about this team. Stammer is a high-octane scorer. His 29 goals this season equates to 50 in an 82 game season, but his defensive play needs to improve. Such is the case with the Tampa Bay Lightning as a whole – they can score, they can score a lot, but they need to take all that talent for putting the puck in the net and translate it into keeping pucks out of their own. And I say this again because I can’t stress it enough: this is not an issue we can hang on the defensemen alone. And again, I would argue that the bulk of the blame should lie with the Lightning’s scoring forwards. But take heart – Stamkos is out front on this issue, and he’s taking steps to be the two-way player this team so desperately needs. Early in the season, I bickered endlessly about Stammer’s inability to win faceoffs, a problem so evident that my pointing it out was kind of like pointing out Dwayne Roloson had lost his spark in 2012. But Stammer took the initiative, he worked hard, and lo and behold, the season is over and he wound up with a respectable final win-rate of 49.6% (all the more impressive because of how low it was in those early games).
Something to be concerned about: No Lightning player struggled more with the transition from Guy Boucher to Jon Cooper than Steven Stamkos. Perhaps this is because Cooper was trying to help Stamkos change his role – we don’t know. Personally, having watched several interviews about the Boucher-firing, I can’t help but think Stamkos felt a lot of responsibility for the situation. He is the face of the franchise after all, the franchise wasn’t winning, and it cost a man his job (Stamkos actually used the context of Boucher’s livelihood, which is why I can’t help but think he has some pretty big guilt issues about how the whole thing went down). Stamkos scored just 11 points in his final 14 games, and only 4 of those were goals. He went into the stretch drive with a healthy lead in the goal-scoring race and wound up relinquishing it to Alex Ovechkin and ultimately finished three goals behind. Over those final 14 games though, he was a +3, which is perhaps a sign his focus was elsewhere.
Looking Forward: Over the last several seasons, Steven Stamkos has been the NHL’s most consistent goal-scorer. I doubt that will change any time soon. I’ll be surprised if Stamkos doesn’t score 50 in 2013/2014, and I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t score 40. There were times this past season where Stamkos fell into his old bad habit of relying too much on his tried and true one-timer. Although I’m sure we’ll see plenty of those one-timer goals next year, I doubt we’ll see him fall back into that predictable pattern for any extended period of time. I would more expect him to rely on his speed and his nose for the net, as we saw a lot of in 2012, and as we saw for about half the time in 2013. But more than anything, I expect Stammer to continue rounding out his game. Coach Cooper seemed insistent on playing him on the penalty kill, a habit that I think will pay off in spades over time.