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New Year's Resolutions for the Lightning

December 29, 2018, 3:56 PM ET [13 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
I stopped making New Year’s Resolutions about 15 years ago. My thought process was: If I am resolving to make a change, why not start making that adjustment today rather than on some arbitrary date in the calendar? But just because I don’t make resolutions, doesn’t mean I can’t suggest ones for others. The Lightning are sitting pretty. They have the best record in the NHL and seem to be heading for a Presidents’ Trophy. But resolutions force reflection, which is a valued trait for a juggernaut team. The franchise with the best record often does not win the Cup, so it is better to make tweaks on January 1st than be vulnerable on June 1st.

Jon Cooper: I will find a better way to use J.T. Miller
If someone were to give Cooper truth serum, I wonder if he would admit that Miller has been a bit of a disappointment despite the fact that he is on pace to finish in the high 50’s for points. (That total would bump up against his career best as a pro.) The issue is goals. For the last three seasons straight, Miller notched over 20 goals, mostly for the Rangers. In his brief time with the Lightning toward the end of the 2017-18 regular season, he scored 10 goals in 19 games. Clearly, that regular season finish, coupled with Miller’s age (25) and tantalizing skillset, made the Lightning eager to extend him. Now we are 38 games into the next season and he has only registered 7 goals, and is on pace for 15 (assuming the injury he just suffered is not serious).

It does seem like there is ambiguity as to how to best use Miller. Is he best as a net-front presence and gritty forechecker? An off-the-puck cutter? A puck-handler who creates offense with his passing for his teammates? And if he does all of those things well, but not great, is he just a fancy toy for a team rich with talent? It certainly seems like that is borne out at even strength. At 5v5, Miller ranks 7th in Scoring Chances and High-Danger Scoring Chances. In Individual Point Percentage, Miller ranks 9th. In Primary Points, Miller is tied with Ryan Callahan with 6 and ranks tied for 11th.

But Miller does help the Lightning control the puck at 5v5, even if it isn’t going into the net that frequently. Miller ranks 3rd among the Lightning forwards with a +90 Corsi Plus-Minus. And he is versatile. As Cooper has demonstrated, he is happy to move him up and down the lineup. As the salary cap goes up, that AAV will look more and more acceptable if Miller plateaus around high 50’s in points. But Cooper is a thinker, and if I were the Tampa Bay coach I would be constantly searching for where I could put Miller that would best maximize his output. We may have seen it, but it is an unresolved question.

Anton Stralman: I will box out, keep a tight gap, and block shots
With only 25 shots on goal on the season – albeit in a truncated span of 21 games – it is well established that Stralman is receiving almost 22 minutes a game for qualities that do not involve offense. Tampa Bay asks him to shut down opponents’ top players, take tough zone starts, and help goose the offense with seamless defensive zone retrievals and spur the Bolts’ transition game. He is supposed to be confrontational on opponents’ entries and a master of efficiency in terms of halting enemies’ offensive zone forays. A defenseman who boxes out and takes away the shooting and passing lanes forces a lot of one-and-done’s.

But this hasn’t happened in Stralman’s five games back. Gaps have been looser because the Lightning’s transition defense has flagged, but he also has been slow on his reads in defensive coverage and has seemed a step slow against elite talent. Stralman has one goal, and if he finished the season with one goal it would not be surprising. His utility is in stifling opponents’ attacks and putting the puck back on his forwards stick. If he cannot do that, his value is diminished.

Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov: We will pass to our defensemen less and take more shots from the off-slot
For how much joy I get from watching this line, they drive me insane. Point and Kucherov habitually shed defenders, create a shooting lane for themselves, and decide to either make a pass into the middle for a teammate in traffic or do a U-turn and set up the trailing defenseman. The opportunities squandered are like Bach being forced to play baseball instead of compose music. So much unrealized promise is infuriating.

Cooper should sit the two of them down and explain that a shot from either of them at full speed from the fringes of the off-slot has a much better chance of succeeding than a pass into a congested area, or, the lowest percentage option, a pass back to Erik Cernak or Braydon Coburn, who bury the puck in the opposing goaltender’s chest. I understand the idea of handling creative types with white gloves, but maybe give them a half-measure like: Every time you manufacture a chance for yourself that is at or below the circles, you must shoot it at least 50 percent of the time. This seems tongue-and-cheek, but they cannot operate this way in the playoffs. It is something they need to address before the regular season ends, and hopefully sooner rather than later.

Johnson hasn’t been mentioned yet, but he is worth including in here too, because he also spends way too much time looking for the east-west seam pass or trying to involve the defenseman who isn’t Victor Hedman. But Kucherov and Point have the most agency – when they transport the puck off the boards into the middle and attack, they are so fast and skilled they can often gain separation and create a shooting lane. But that needs to happen more. Sometimes this line cycles and uses its defensemen like they are the Paquette line, rather than a triumvirate that can carry the puck to anywhere they want on the ice. This should be another resolution: Only if the opposing defense is overloading on the puck-carrier, use your defensemen. If the Lightning’s first line forwards are facing single coverage, which they often are, attack the net!

Shot attempts often beget closer-distance shot attempts. All three of these forwards have the speed to retrieve. It was a delayed penalty and a six-on-five against the Flyers, but Kucherov’s quick release shot into traffic that deflected off Johnson should be instructive. The shot and pass don’t have to be perfect. Idealism is only useful if potential is being met.
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