Tampa, Florida (CBS Tampa) –
Friday Night’s game against the Edmonton Oilers will mark the halfway point of the 2015-16 Tampa Bay Lightning season and so far the Bolts have yet to live up to this year’s lofty expectations after last season’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. Currently, Tampa Bay sits outside of playoff position in the Eastern Conference with 42 points and 101 goals scored. Last year at this time, the Lightning had 54 points with 132 goals scored going into the midpoint of the season. An underachieving offense, a mediocre power play and key injuries are just a few of the factors hampering a Lightning squad who have yet to win three games in a row. With 41 games left, and amid all of the frustration, there is still plenty of time to regain playoff form, here’s how I feel the Bolts grade out to this point.
Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are the only Lightning players to reach double digits in goals with 17 and 14 respectively. Each are tied for the team league in points with 30. For perspective, Chicago’s Patrick Kane leads the league with 60 points. This is remarkable considering the team’s roster is close to the exact line-up that led the entire league in scoring last season. The team ranks in the bottom third of the league in terms of goals scored. Injuries to Tyler Johnson, Ondre Palat and Cedric Paquette certainly have contributed to the lack of offensive production but no one has stepped up in their absence to pick up the scoring. Fans have been pleading for more shots on goal (especially on the power play) but many scoring chances seem to get wasted trying to make one pass too many. With Jonathan Marchessault showing he belongs in the NHL with his speed to the puck and surprisingly quick shot, players like Alex Killorn, Vlad Namestikov and Valtteri Filppula need to find the back of the net more often if this team is to challenge for a playoff spot. Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan and J.T. Brown are solid with their physical presence and blue-collar work ethic, but ultimately goals are what wins you games. Troublesome is the Jonathan Drouin saga. Young and talented, the former #3 overall pick isn’t earning ice time which resulted in a request to be traded. It appears the disgruntled forward could be moved from the club if General Manager Steve Yzerman receives an offer he can’t refuse..
Defensively, the Lightning rank in the top ten of the majority of defensive categories. While much of this can be attributed to the all-star level of play by Goaltender Ben Bishop, the Bolts blue-liners, led by Victor Hedman, Jason Garrison and Anton Stralman have been solid throughout the year. This mostly veteran group of defenders can be streaky at times when it comes to turnovers and coverage lapses but have still managed to hold the opposition to a 2.38 Goals Against Per Game average, tied for sixth best in the NHL. At 25 years old, Andrej Sustr is still developing and could use a little more bulk to his frame. A little nasty streak in his game wouldn’t hurt either but his length and reach make him serviceable in a 3rd or 4th defensive pairing. The real question here is Matt Carle… It’s hard to justify his $5,500,000 a year salary for 0 points and a minus 6 rating in 33 games. His minutes are down and his tendency of turning the puck over in his own end may have him falling out of favor with Coach Jon Cooper. The defensemen would certainly grade out higher if they could contribute more offensively. Collectively, Tampa Bay ranks at or near the bottom of the league in points scored by defensemen. Hedman and Stralman lead the Bolts in defensemen scoring with 18 points each, good for the 31st in the league.
Ben Bishop’s consistent workload along with a top 5 Goals Against Average have earned the Bolts backstop a well deserved trip to this year’s All-Star Game. Long recognized as one of the game’s best puck handlers, Bishop has found a way to keep his team in most games even as the offense in front of him fails to provide him with much room for error. His 2.06 Goals Against Average is a step up from his career average of 2.32 but it’s his propensity for making the big saves at crucial moments that don’t show up on the stat sheet. The only question mark with the goaltending in Tampa Bay (and keeping this grade from being an A) is the lack of a second net minder to step up and establish themselves as solid backup. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been shaky at best with a 4-4 record while Kristers Gudlevskis has only started one game all season. As long as Bishop stays healthy, the Lightning appear to be well fortified in front of the net as the 6′ 7″ puck stopper has been the team’s MVP to this point.
While the record might not indicate the start of a successful campaign, it’s been no easy task for Head Coach Jon Cooper to keep this team competitive and within striking distance of the playoffs. Coach Cooper has had to deal with an ever-increasing injury list resulting in the triplet line having rarely been intact all year due to various ailments. The line shuffling, game in and game out seems to be hit or miss. The Jonathan Drouin situation is now lingering in the Lightning locker room and the Steven Stamkos contract situation will not go away until a decision has been reached. Cooper remains optimistic about this team finding it’s groove and reclaiming it’s winning ways, especially when all the parts are put back in to place. The Prince George, British Columbia native was recently rewarded with a multi-year contract extension on December 4th so it appears the organization is all systems go with Cooper behind the bench.
Attendance is thriving, the seats are full and the Tampa Bay fan base is proving more and more everyday that this is becoming a hockey town. Banners can be seen flying all across West-Central Florida and Bolts jerseys, shirts, caps and flags are everywhere. Give yourselves a round of applause Bolt fans.
Vin Voyer | CW44-CBS Tampa Bay