Jon Cooper’s squad has developed the unflattering label of great pretender. Since he took over head coaching duties in March 2013, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been somewhere between good and otherworldly in the regular season and even made a few deep playoff runs, but they’re inching closer and closer to San Jose Sharks territory: a perennial favorite that can’t quite fulfill its lofty expectations.
Entering 2018-19, this core was begging for a chance to disprove the naysayers and finally reach the NHL’s summit.
The Lightning wasted little time in establishing their dominance, generating a ridiculous amount of offense due to their ridiculous amount of talent. Nikita Kucherov (128 points in 82 games) led the league in scoring with the highest point total since Mario Lemieux in the mid-‘90s. Steven Stamkos’ personal best (98 points in 82 games) fell two points shy of the century mark. 23-year-old center Brayden Point (92 points in 79 games) continued his remarkable progression and didn’t lag far behind his captain. Yanni Gourde (48 points in 80 games), Tyler Johnson (47 points in 80 games), J.T. Miller (47 points in 75 games), Ondrej Palat (34 points in 64 games), Alex Killorn (40 points in 82 games) and rookie Anthony Cirelli (39 points in 82 games) delivered phenomenal offensive support too.
On the back end, Victor Hedman’s (54 points in 70 games) playmaking remained stellar, Ryan McDonagh (46 points in 82 games) enjoyed renewed confidence as well as a career year and 21-year-old Mikhail Sergachev (32 points in 75 games) provided wonderful upside on the third pairing.
All in all, Tampa Bay averaged a league-best 3.89 goals per game. Many clubs can only dream of a hot streak with that type of output — the Lightning scored that much over 82 games. Yeah, they know how to find the back of the net.
That potency often involved Kucherov. Though the 26-year-old is blessed with great hands and a killer release, he wrecked defenses last season largely on the strength of his intelligence and vision. The 26-year-old processes the game incredibly well, manipulating defenders like they’re mere chess pieces that he could toy with. He’s equally scary with and without the puck too: He can drift into a quiet area and unleash a pinpoint laser or draw defenders toward him and grant his teammates a numbers advantage. Throughout the entire year, he had opponents eating out of the palm of his hand, resulting in a third consecutive season with a quantum leap in production.
Point also took a huge developmental step, besting his previous high by 26 points. The undersized center (5’10”, 166 lbs) is full of energy and creativity, as he’s constantly working to extend plays and has the smarts and skill to exploit any mistakes. He was especially valuable on the power play, where his closer one-timer threat offered a nice change of pace from the long seam passes that Kucherov and Stamkos would frequently rely on. Moreover, Point asserted himself as a two-way presence. He welcomed the challenge of absorbing tough matchups, and while he’s hardly a Selke-caliber forward yet, the Lightning owned 52.1% of the shot attempts, 52.3% of the scoring chances, 52.0% of the high-danger bids and 61.5% of the goals during his 5-on-5 shifts.
Meanwhile, Hedman produced at a similar rate to his Norris Trophy-winning campaign. He did deal with a couple of nagging injuries, but the 6’6”, 223-pounder remained a dynamic puck-mover who could overwhelm opponents with his pace, reach and attacking instincts. McDonagh, who struggled with his health and a new environment in his first year with the Lightning, reminded the hockey world of how quietly effective he can be out there. The veteran uses his mobility and stick very well to keep tight gaps and can take on difficult assignments, which afforded Cooper great flexibility in terms of deployment. When a team owns 60% of the goals scored during a player’s shifts, it’s hard to ask for more.
Between the pipes, Andrei Vasilevskiy (2.40 GAA, 92.5 SV%) delivered his strongest season in a career of strong seasons thus far. Combining the perfect modern build (6’4”, 215 lbs) with razor-sharp reflexes and a never-quit attitude, the 25-year-old was spectacular on his way to earning his first Vezina Trophy. Backup Louis Domingue (2.88 GAA, 90.8 SV%) was considerably shakier, but the team still went 21-5 during his starts.
On the whole, Tampa Bay posted a 51.6 CF% (9th), 52.0 SCF% (11th) and 52.5 HDCF% (11th) for a 52.8 xGF% (8th). Its deadly offense, which yielded the second-highest on-ice shooting percentage in the NHL, pushed its actual GF% up to 56.7 (1st). The Lightning put such a scare into opponents that they ranked seventh defensively as well, tilting the ice to minimize the time spent in their end. Special teams were another area of strength, as Cooper’s troops finished first on both the power play and the penalty kill. In short, they could do no wrong. They could pull off spectacular tic-tac-toe sequences in their sleep. They could get far too cute for their own good and still tickle the twine anyway. They could coast through games, whip themselves into shape for five minutes and blow teams out of the water.
And that came back to bite them.
After all, there’s something to be said for battling through adversity. Tampa Bay was on total autopilot — and any chip you carry on your shoulder will just float away when your head’s in the clouds. With a 62-16-4 record, the Lightning tied the single highest win total in NHL history and easily took home the Presidents’ Trophy. There were seemingly no negative consequences for their bouts of listlessness. There was never any need to summon their competitive fire because their pure talent would save them.
That nearly worked in Game 1 of the first round as well, as Tampa Bay produced a 3-0 flurry in the opening frame against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Cooper’s squad once again took its foot off the gas pedal…only this time, Columbus wouldn’t allow the Lightning to simply flip the switch. The playoffs served up a rude awakening.
Though Tampa Bay dictated much of the action (54.7 CF%, 54.2 SCF%, 55.4 HDCF%), its fundamentals had eroded over the course of a season that was all too comfortable. Every sloppy turnover or lost net-front battle resulted in the team fishing the puck out of its net. Special teams went from a lethal weapon to a complete dud, as Columbus scored five goals on the power play while conceding just once. Hedman’s upper-body injury kept him out for two games, but given how the rest of the club performed, it’s a stretch to suggest his presence alone would have turned the tide. Kucherov, Stamkos and Point combined for five points in four games. Vasilevskiy, who hasn’t managed to translate his regular season brilliance to the spring tournament yet, registered a 3.83 GAA and 85.6 SV%. The team scored eight goals while allowing 19 in a one-sided sweep.
So how do the Lightning move forward from here?
The first order of business is restricted free agent Point. Several young stars across the league remain unsigned and Tampa Bay’s center has a solid argument to earn a higher payday than any of them. The main concern is that former general manager Steve Yzerman, who convinced Stamkos, Kucherov and Hedman to take sweetheart deals for the team’s sake, is now Detroit’s GM. Julien BriseBois doesn’t carry the same aura and may find it difficult to persuade a 23-year-old budding phenom to take less than market value. After moving J.T. Miller to Vancouver, Ryan Callahan to Ottawa and Adam Erne to Detroit, the team has about $8.5 million of wiggle room — and that’s still less than Point should command.
Assuming a deal gets done, however, this is an impressive if slightly tweaked roster. In addition to the trades, steady blueliner Anton Stralman signed with the Florida Panthers and the Lightning picked up Kevin Shattenkirk, Patrick Maroon and Luke Schenn. The back end is more dangerous with the puck but less competent without it. There’s a reason New York bought out Shattenkirk’s contract: When he isn’t producing, he’s borderline useless. Meanwhile, Maroon will provide a big body (6’3”, 225 lbs) in the trenches and very recent championship experience with the St. Louis Blues.
Since the team is quite deep, its youngsters (Alexander Volkov, Taylor Raddysh, Carter Verhaege, Mitchell Stephens, Callan Foote) will likely have to wait for their turn.
Ultimately, the same core group is returning — hopefully with an even larger and more persistent chip on its shoulder. The conclusion of last season was an embarrassment of historic proportions and the only way the Lightning will wash that bitter taste out is with champagne flowing from the Stanley Cup.
No more playing around. It’s time to prove that they’re the real deal.