Flortheast Division Previews: The Tampa Bay Lightning

Cam Charron
September 30 2013 06:02AM

Over the next few days, we'll take a brief look at the teams in Toronto's newest division. The division is called the "Atlantic" but only three of the teams in the division are even close to the Atlantic Ocean. Given there are six teams in the Northeast and two in the state of Florida, the hockey community as a whole has decided to rebrand this division "The Flortheast". We will get team bloggers from each group to profile their teams as we get ready to start the season…

Today's first preview comes courtesy of Kyle Alexander of Bolts Statistics and Raw Charge, who does a fantastic job breaking down the Tampa Bay Lightning...

INTRO:

A lot of people look at the Tampa Bay Lightning this year, and they see only more of the same. This team didn't making any significant offseason personnel moves aside from buying out their captain Vincent Lecavalier and ostensibly replacing him with former Detroit Red Wing forward Valtteri Filppula, and we're talking about a team that has finished near the bottom of the league the past two seasons in the standings, in most major possession metrics, and in most defensive measures as well. With Tampa Bay moving to the "Flortheast" division, they now face more playoff-bound juggernauts in their own division and have considerably more travel to meet their nearest division opponent outside the Florida Panthers -- now the Detroit Red Wings, a scant 995 miles away.

So, at first glance, the outlook is quite grim.

What's being overlooked, however, are the changes this franchise did make. While they aren't the traditional "blow it up" moves you might expect from a team that has performed so poorly recently, there have been significant behind-the-scenes changes that suggest the Lightning might be better in 2013-2014 than they've been in the recent past. The most important of these changes is the complete overhaul of the coaching staff. Jon Cooper, the new head coach, got a mini-audition at the end of last season but he's now had a full offseason to implement his systems and evaluate and pick his players. Rick Bowness was brought in from the Vancouver Canucks to fix the defense, and George Gwozdecky was hired after being let go by the University of Denver to handle the forwards and the power play (one area that doesn't need too much tweaking). Cooper wants to play a mix of "70s Flyers and 80s Oilers" hockey, so expect the Bolts to play more physically than they did under Boucher but also a bit more of a simplified puck possession game. Boucher required that players submit to a tedious process with specific instructions for specific situations, and he implemented complicated breakout patterns that, if not executed properly, resulted in crippling turnovers. Cooper and Bowness have instituted a renewed focus on defense, own-zone play, and zone exits. If their tactical changes work, the Lightning should improve in the areas they've struggled most -- puck possession, and, as a result, goals against.

The Lightning, even in the past few seasons, have had no issues with turning puck possession into scoring chances and goals. They have truly elite scorers and playmakers, so the goal is to prevent more goals against and find a way to retrieve (and hold on to) more pucks and avoid costly mistakes near their own blueline. There are still a lot of questions -- how will the young goaltending tandem shake out? Which rookies will make the opening night lineup, and how will that play out? Can Radko Gudas be a top-4 defenseman? Will Eric Brewer and Matt Carle have bounce-back years? But ultimately, whether or not the system changes have a major effect will decide where this team finishes.

THREE QUESTIONS:

With guys like Matt Carle, Victor Hedman and Eric Brewer, it seems like the Lightning should be a much better defensive group than before. What was the key issue with the system that made so many good defencemen fail to prevent against scoring chances and goals in the past, and what's Rick Bowness' No. 1 priority to fix that?

Prior to the coaching overhaul this offseason, the defensive system under Guy Boucher was a highly structured, difficult to execute process. It goes a lot deeper than just the 1-3-1 forecheck; after teams had entered the zone, Boucher had specific requirements and instructions for how each defenceman and forward should react to where the puck and opposing players are, and where they're going. I'll stop short of saying he shackled the defensemen with structure, but that seems to be what happened. Oftentimes, you'd see Victor Hedman or Eric Brewer simply frozen in the defensive zone, staring at the puck, unsure of what to do. Where am I supposed to go? What's my outlet if I get the puck here? When the game is as fast as it is in the NHL, this was crippling. A specific example is Boucher's insistence that two defenceman chase pucks to the corner, leaving collapsing forwards to cover the slot, which when not executed properly gave away terrific scoring chances against. Boucher was also notoriously a coach that preferred his players to defend with positioning and stick play, not with their bodies, which didn't sit well with many fans.

Rick Bowness, who ran the defence for the Vancouver Canucks most recently, wants to take some of the pressure and stress off the defenceman, and let them play own-zone defence in a more traditional and instinctual way. He and Jon Cooper have focused in on defending as a 5-man unit this offseason, so part of the plan for fixing the horrific goals against is to get the forwards back into the defensive zone quicker and to have them committed to playing defence. Valterri Filppula gave this quote: "Play defence quicker, and play offence more." The idea is, defence isn't fun to play. But play it right, play it hard, and you won't have to play it much. Cooper and Bowness will also let their guys throw their bodies around, so expect to see some more physicality from Brewer, Keith Aulie, and Radko Gudas in particular.

It seems like there are a lot of sleeper picks here for poolies. Alex Killorn and Richard Panik could be big-time scorers without much experience at this level. Beyond Stamkos and St. Louis, who should the best fantasy players be?

As far as fantasy sleepers go, most of the major publications have it right -- Drouin absolutely has the highest ceiling, because of his own abilities and because of the situation he could end up in.  That said, where most people have it wrong is that everyone thinks Drouin is a "sure thing" to stick in the NHL. This simply isn't the case. The organization is loaded (I mean seriously, LOADED) with terrific forward prospects who have played for Jon Cooper in the AHL, have won a championship with him, know his system and his methods and his expectations. They've paid their dues and they're creating some difficult decisions for Cooper and GM Steve Yzerman. An under-the-radar guy for fantasy would be AHL MVP Tyler Johnson. He has a really good wrist shot, great on-ice vision, and built-in chemistry with his expected two wingers (Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik, also expected to stay in the NHL). They were the top line for the Syracuse Crunch last season and they've played together for over a year. They could end up as the "third line" for the Lightning this year, but with Nate Thompson and Val Filppula getting the toughs, they could see some really easy minutes and they've got the ability to score in bunches. Johnson in particular offers some extra value in custom leagues because he's also very good at faceoffs (59.5% won with 121 draws taken in the NHL last year).

The Lightning have made two moves in two years to find their next starting goaltender. Will Ben Bishop pay off for Steve Yzerman, or is he going to have to look again this offseason?

Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback are still largely unknown as NHL starters. Their NHL games played (Bishop 55, Lindback 62) is simply not enough data to draw meaningful conclusions about either one of them. Lindback struggled with too much work early last season and ended up getting hurt, and Bishop saw a ton of rubber in his nine game stint with the Lightning at the end of last year, so expect Cooper to go 1A/1B with them this year unless one absolutely runs away with the job (which I don't see happening). As far as "will Ben Bishop pay off" ... well, he's only being paid $2.2-million this year, so league average save percentage would be more than enough to justify the contract. League average save percentage would also be the best save percentage by a Lightning goaltender since Dwayne Roloson's one-year wonder. Yzerman gets a lot of criticism for doing "goaltending on the cheap" without a steadying presence like Lidstrom on the backend, but did he really have another option? He wasn't going to take on Roberto Luongo's contract, and a Ryan Miller trade would have cost too many assets. Who was he going to go get? Instead, he's gone for cheap, "on the verge" netminders, spread his chips around, and hopes someone breaks out. Bishop and Lindback should theoretically push each other for playing time and make each other better. But even if both fail, I don't see another move coming, because the answer in net is 2012 1st round pick Andrei Vasilevski, who's already AHL-ready and could make just a minor pit stop there before jumping to the NHL to tandem with whichever one of Bishop or Lindback the team re-signs.

KEY STATS:

2013 Stats Tampa Bay (Lg. Rank)
Points/82 Games 68.3 (28th)
Goal Differential -2 (17th)
Corsi Tied 45.3% (25th)
5v5 Shot % 9.71 (2nd)
5v5 Save % .914 (21st)
PDO 101.1 (8th)

Based on Pythagorean Expectation, the Bolts should have won about 24 games, and not 18. They were 5-12-4 in one-goal games and 10-3 in games decided by three goals or more. Still, their goal differentials were helped by a high PDO, so their lousy record in one-goal games probably cancels out the good shooting percentages.

They'll need to improve on that 45.3% Corsi Tied rate.

Numbers via NHL.com and Hockey Analysis.

JEFFLER'S TAKE:

The Tampa Bay Lightning have the potential to be a very interesting team. Goaltending is the biggest question mark, but if Ben Bishop can look as good as he did in his half-season of play between two teams last season, and Anders Lindback can merely hold on tight every so often, there may finally be some security betwen the pipes that the team hasn't seen in a while.

Losing Vincent Lecavalier will be an identity shock after all of these years, but if Valtteri Filppula looks closer to his 11/12 self, fans will quickly be happy. Richard Panik will be looked to in hopes of a breakout year, and Victor Hedman seems to be getting better by the year. This, of course, is ignoring Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, who should continue being among the league's most electrifying duos.

The Bolts have long proven they can score. This year will be all about how they can keep from being scored on.

CHARRON'S TAKE:

Kyle has pretty well told us everything we need to know about the Lightning above. I can't think of a team in the league with more forward depth, and they also happen to have the leading point-getter from last year in Martin St. Louis and probably the second best offensive player in the game in Steven Stamkos. There's a lot to like about this roster, and if Bowness can get his talented group of defencemen playing a cohesive system, there's potential for greatness here. Tampa Bay are one of the great wild cards.

But goaltending is always an issue, and it has been since the start of the salary cap era. Not only have the Lightning not had a goalie that has played 50 games in Tampa for three consecutive seasons since Nikolai Khabibulin from 2001-2004, but John Grahame in 2006 is the last Bolts goaltender to play 50 games, period. I like Yzerman's method of stocking up on lottery tickets to give the team a shot in net (honestly, not unlike the Maple Leafs have done) but it has yet to pay off in two seasons since Roloson's run to the Eastern finals. This is the X-Factor for the Bolts, and they could be a dangerous group if Bishop gives them league average goaltending.

CONSENSUS RANKINGS:

Despite all the potential on the roster, nobody in the poll has this team ranked higher than sixth:

  BOS BUF DET FLA MTL OTT TB TOR AVG
Tampa Bay 7 8 6 6 7 6 6 7 6.6

This is a tough division to forecast. While I had the Lightning as low as seventh, it wouldn't surprise me if they jumped as high as fourth, and it wouldn't shock me if they went as high as third.

OTHER FLORTHEAST PREVIEWS:

7 - Florida Panthers
8 - Buffalo Sabres

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Cam Charron is a BC hockey fan that writes about hockey on many different websites including this one.
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