Does Martin St. Louis have a last hurrah in him?
By Michael Miller, via Wikimedia Commons
When Steve Yzerman took over as the Lightning’s GM in 2010, most hockey minds thought that he would help make this team competitive again and during the first year of his tenure, he was able to do just that. Tampa Bay made the playoffs and were able to knock off both Pittsburgh and Washington in the first two rounds before being eliminated by Boston. Their success that year appeared to be legitimate as they had the third best Fenwick close percentage in the NHL and a decent young corps to build around in Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. Unfortunately for Yzerman, things fell apart last year.
Tampa Bay went from having 100 points in the standings to only 84. They were also eight wins worse than they were the year before and saw their Fenwick close percentage drop from 53.6% to 48.3%. So what the hell happened to the Lightning? That’s quite a large drop over such a short period of time, but there are quite a few reasonable explanations for Tampa Bay’s fall from grace last season.
First of all, their goaltending was atrocious. No team had a worse even strength save percentage than Tampa Bay last season (.899) and a large part of that was due to the .897 mark Dwayne Roloson put up, which was the worst even strength save percentage in the league among regular goaltenders (Roli was somehow allowed to play in 40 games). Mathieu Garon was a slight improvement but still way below average with a .909 even strength save percentage.
Goaltending has been an issue in Tampa Bay ever since Nikolai Khabibulin left, so this is nothing new but their possession numbers taking a dive was a bit of a surprise but when you look at least season’s roster compared to the year before, the loss of Sean Bergenheim really sticks out. He’s a third-liner but still a terrific player at driving the play forward while playing tough minutes. The Bolts let him walk and tried to replace him with Ryan Shannon, who played well but was a clear downgrade from Bergenheim. They also saw disappointing seasons from other depth players like Dominic Moore, Tom Pyatt and their top players weren’t doing much to control possession despite scoring at relatively high rates.
The Lightning also had some major defensive issues last season. They weren’t surrendering a ton of shots at even strength, but they were relying on Eric Brewer and Victor Hedman to carry most of the load when it came to taking defensive zone starts and playing tough minutes. One of the reasons they had to do this is because their second pairing of Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina was getting shelled at even strength and the rest of their defense corps consisted mostly borderline third-pairing players. Their powerplay and penalty kill were also among the worst in the NHL at creating and preventing shots on goal and the weakness of their defense corps played a role in both.
Filling the Holes
The good news for Tampa Bay fans is that Yzerman has taken the steps to improve his team for next year and hopefully years beyond that. He has been very active this off-season and his biggest move was signing Matt Carle to a six-year contract which carries a $5.5 mil. cap hit per season. Carle has been one of the Flyers best defensemen over the last few years. He played roughly 23 minutes a game last season and contributed to both special teams units. He is also a very effective puck-handler and can definitely help the Lightning improve their possession numbers. Yzerman also signed Sami Salo, who has struggled to push the play forward the last couple of years and always seems to be battling an injury or two. Regardless, Salo played tough minutes in Vancouver and both him and Carle should make a solid second defense pairing.
To address the goaltending issue, Yzerman traded for Anders Lindback of the Nashville Predators. Tampa Bay acquired a lot of draft picks this year from trades and Yzerman decided to put them to use by trading them for a goalie. Lindback has performed well in Nashville as Pekka Rinne’s back-up but he has played in only 38 total games, so he lacks experience. Still, this is a good low-risk move by Yzerman to address the Bolts goaltending problems.
The Lightning used a couple of their draft picks to acquire forward depth by trading for Benoit Pouliot of the Bruins and BJ Crombeen of the Blues. Pouliot had a very good season with the Bruins last year but he was given quite a bit of a push in terms of where he started his shifts (57.7% OZ Starts). Crombeen, on the other hand, has primarily been a fourth liner for the Blues over the years and didn’t seem to contribute much. He got the short end of the stick when it came to shooting luck (2% shooting percentage, 3.03 On-ice shooting percentage), so he will probably score more than a goal and three points next season. The Lightning were using AHL-ers to fill depth roles for most of the second half of the season, so both Pouliot and Crombeen will provide an upgrade.
The best thing about the Lightning’s off-season is that they did not lose much value. Roloson is finished, Carle and Salo are big improvements over Clark and Kubina, Ryan Shannon didn’t provide much offense, Bruno Gervais and Mike Commodore were third pairing defensemen and both Tim Wallace and Brandon Segal are more known for their work in the AHL. The Lightning had a net gain overall.
All of Tampa Bay’s forward acquisitions this year were focused on getting depth players because they already have a solid top-six as it is. Steven Stamkos, Vinny Lecavalier, Teddy Purcell and the ageless Martin St. Louis can all provide a good amount of offense and most of them are kept away from tough competition thanks to Tampa’s third/fourth line. Stamkos won his second Rocket Richard Trophy last season netting 60 goals, 80% of them coming at even strength. An interesting thing about him, and most of the Lightning’s top-six, is that he isn’t the best player when it comes to driving possession despite scoring at such a high rate. One would think that he would be better in that area with the territorial advantage the Lightning give him.
One of the reasons why this isn’t such a big deal is because Tampa Bay scores on over 12% of their even strength shots when he is on the ice. Stamkos also shot at nearly 20% last season, which is pretty crazy even for a prolific goal-scorer like him. There is no doubt that Stamkos is a skilled goal-scorer but one of the reasons why he and the Lightning shoot at a high rate when he is on the ice is Martin St. Louis. He is an excellent playmaker and has been able to boost the shooting percentage of his linemates over the last few years. Stamkos, Lecavalier, Purcell and possibly Ryan Malone may have taken advantage of this. I know Stamkos is one of the best goal-scorers in the game today but I’m usually suspect about high shooting percentages, especially one that’s almost 20%.
I mentioned earlier that the Lightning’s third/fourth line handled virtually all the tough minutes last season and it looks like that is going to continue this year. Nate Thompson, Adam Hall, Tom Pyatt and JT Wyman started over 60% of their shifts in the defensive zone usually against opposing team’s top lines and they paid the price for it shot-wise. One of Pouliot or Crombeen may have to step into that role next season to replace Shannon and it will be interesting to see how they perform. Crombeen played tough minutes with the Blues a couple years ago so he might be called upon to do it again next year.
The Lightning didn’t receive much offense from their depth forwards last season, but their top-six was able to carry most of the water in that area so it didn’t appear to be that big of an issue. Still, a little more offense from the likes of Hall and Thompson wouldn’t hurt. It’s also worth mentioning that Tampa Bay has some players in the system who they can call-up for forward depth if needed. Cory Conacher, Tyler Johnson and JT Brown had very good seasons last year and could be ready to contribute in the NHL. They will also be hoping for a better season from Brett Connolly. The former first round pick started the year in the top-six but was eventually slid down to a third pairing role because he couldn’t produce much despite playing with good linemates. It’s possible that he wasn’t ready for the NHL yet but Tampa seems to think otherwise and will hope he can adjust more next season.
The signing of Matt Carle and Sami Salo is great for a couple of reasons. First of all, it at least gives them a quality second defense pairing and secondly, it will help take pressure off Victor Hedman and Eric Brewer. With Kubina and Clark having miserable seasons, Hedman and Brewer were forced to do all of the heavy-lifting for Tampa Bay’s defense corps last year. They played more minutes at even strength than any other blue-liner and started a large portion of their shifts in the defensive zone against tough competition. Carle can also play top-pairing minutes and can be more than competent in a secondary tough-minute role so he should fit in perfectly with the Lightning.
Something that doesn’t get talked about much is how good Hedman was last season. I mentioned earlier that he did a lot of heavy-lifting for Tampa Bay last season but the amazing thing is that he was able to post a respectable Corsi rating despite the huge workload. He had a positive Corsi Rel. and was in the black when adjusting his corsi rating for zone starts. The offensive side of his game hasn’t come around yet but at 21, he is already a fantastic shutdown defenseman. Hedman’s ability to play the toughs will allow Carle & Salo to play in a more secondary role, which they should be able to excel in.
Tampa Bay shouldn’t have much of a problem looking for a third-pairing defenseman because they have a lot on the roster already. Between Marc-Andre Bergeron, Brian Lee, Keith Aulie and Brendan Mikkelsson, one would have to believe that the Bolts should have a defense pairing that can play well in protected minutes, or at least drive the play forward.
The Lightning’s goaltending was so bad last season that if they get league-average goaltending then they should be a better team than they were a year ago. We saw how much of a boost Roloson gave them a couple years ago. Lindback should be able to give the Bolts league-average goaltending but this is his first year as a starter in the NHL, so it probably isn’t safe to jump to that conclusion but the point here is that he doesn’t have to stand on his head every night. He just needs to be good enough. Garon is also good enough to play around 30 games a year so he may not have to carry the entire load as a starter either.
I mentioned earlier that Tampa Bay’s defense played a role in their powerplay being so ineffective and that is evident when you look at how many 5v4 shots their defense was able to produce last year. When Eric Brewer is leading the defense corps in 5v4 shots per 60 minutes and you’re using Brendan Mikkelsson on the powerplay, then you know you have problems. Carle and Salo should be able to help out Tampa in this area as they both were among the team leaders in 5v4 SF/60 with their respective clubs last season. Salo may have had his shot total boosted from playing with the Sedins but he is still an upgrade for Tampa Bay.
Both Carle and Salo will also help out the penalty kill as their former clubs were surrendering fewer 4v5 shots when they were on ice last season. They will probably stay on the second unit since Brewer & Hedman play so many minutes, but Carle and Salo can probably pitch in on the first unit if needed. Either way, the Lightning have good defensive depth on the PK, something they lacked last season. Unfortunately, you can’t say the same for the forwards. Thompson, Malone, Stamkos and St. Louis are good penalty killing forwards but Hall, Pyatt and Wyman have to be a little better than they were last season. The former two usually play on the first unit, so that’s especially true for them.
The Lightning are in a weak but competitive division and they got better over the summer, so it’s plausible to think that they can make a run for the Southeast crown. Lindback’s performance is obviously going to play a role in it but the team around him is good enough that he doesn’t have to be Pekka Rinne Version 2.0 in order for them to contend. They have stronger depth both up front and on defense and have players in the organization who they can turn to if an injury occurs. They just need their top players to be stronger at driving the play forward at even strength before I can confidently say that they are a playoff team. That being said, Yzerman did a great job at addressing Tampa Bay’s needs this off-season and them contending in the East is not out of the question.
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