Lightning Midseason Awards, Part II
The Lightning win and win and win. They play sloppy and they still win. They trail by multiple goals and they find a win. Or they score three or four goals quickly and coast to victory. The first 41 games have the Lightning up 12 points over the Maple Leafs, who have accrued the second most points in the East. That lead is so large it represents the same spread as between the Metropolitan-leading Washington Capitals and the underachieving Florida Panthers.
Here is Part II of the Midseason Awards.
The Happy to Buy a New Calendar Award: Mikhail Sergachev
Last season, as a rookie, Sergachev potted nine goals on 141 shots on goal for a 6.4 shooting percentage. This year, he has notched 69 shots on goal and registered zero goals. He is snakebitten, but a close observer would point out that he is playing very well.
Sergachev trails only Ryan McDonagh and Victor Hedman in Scoring Chances For at 5v5. He is first among Tampa Bay defensemen at 5v5 in primary assists. The only reason he is not leading the Lightning defensemen in shot attempts is because, after he does his signature crossover move at the blue line, he consistently tries to find a passing lane to a forward instead of opting for the shot in stride.
That is not to say Sergachev’s season is unblemished. There are the Giveaways – 20 at 5v5, which ranks second among Tampa Bay defensemen—coupled with the intense sheltering that Coach Jon Cooper extends to Sergachev through advantageous zone starts. With the Lightning several miles ahead in the standings, maybe Cooper tries to slowly acclimate Sergachev to tougher usage while bumping up his minutes. Right now, Sergachev is playing a little under 18 minutes a game, but I would love to see Cooper try to raise that total toward 20. This would mean moving Sergachev away from Braydon Coburn, and shaking up the defensive corps like a snow globe. Ideally, Girardi should be playing closer to 15 minutes a game, and Stralman would be more effective playing two less minutes.
The Lightning have room to experiment; their lead in the Atlantic is safe and their postseason berth is all but secured. With new defensive pairings, Cooper could stumble on a duo that gels while also boosting Sergachev’s bonafides. Notwithstanding the goose egg he possesses in the goals column, Sergachev is the Lightning’s second most dynamic defenseman. He is an adroit puck-handler, has a piercing shot, and has exquisite acceleration. If Cooper can give him reps to sand the edges of his weaknesses, the Lightning’s defensive group would become slightly more formidable come playoff time.
The Career High That Will Go Unnoticed Award: Tyler Johnson’s Goal Count
The last time Tyler Johnson had a 30-goal season was in 2012-13. The only problem was that this was with the Syracuse Crunch! Since Johnson became an NHLer, the Spokane, Washington native has never collected more than 30 goals in a season. The closest he came was when he notched 72 points and 29 goals in his career-best year of 2014-15, the year the Lightning nearly won the Cup.
This year, Johnson is on pace for 36 goals, and has no doubt enjoyed his new linemates, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. Sure, Johnson has benefited from their playmaking, tallying eight goals and five assists in December, but his speed and puck support have been a perfect complement to two forwards who like to have the puck on their sticks. Johnson’s positioning is a boon in transition and on the forecheck. His speed to catch up to Point or Kucherov invariably makes the Lightning’s transition entries crisper and adds another scoring option. And his speed on the cycle helps the Lightning avoid one-and-done’s through retrieval, allowing Kucherov and Point to play around in the high slot.
Like a straight man in a comedy sketch, Johnson is happy to grease the wheels of his two uber-talented linemates. On Thursday against Los Angeles, with the Lightning up 3-0 over the Kings through one period, it was important for Tampa Bay to continue to extend their lead and not fall under a spell of complacency over the next forty minutes. Point won the faceoff, dumped the puck in, and Johnson was the F1 and chased. The puck was retrieved by Drew Doughty, who smacked the puck up the left boards, compelling McDonagh to step up and meet the Kings winger to keep the puck in the offensive zone. With puck support from the Kings’ Derek Forbort, who lost control of it after a slap from the pinching McDonagh, Kucherov, positioned as the F3, tossed the puck back to Johnson in the offensive zone before the puck crossed the blue line.
Johnson proceeded to carry the puck wide on Doughty, but once that lane behind the net was sealed by the Kings defenseman, he turned back toward the boards and left the puck for Kucherov. Kucherov passed it to Point, and Point hurled it toward the weak side. The indirect pass teed up McDonagh for the slap-shot goal.
Johnson’s work on the play is subtle yet vital. As the F1, he rushed Doughty on the retrieval, forcing the hasty first pass up the boards and ensuring a messy breakout. Once the puck gravitated toward McDonagh and the left side, Johnson glided toward the slot, knowing that if he stayed underneath Kucherov, the crafty sniper might snatch possession at the blue line and find him as a release valve. That is precisely what happened.
Johnson had his sights on circling the net, but once Doughty made that impossible, Johnson had the patience and guile to offer the puck to Kucherov, who would come in support. And as the three forwards clustered on the right side, this opened up the entire weak side of the ice for McDonagh.
Johnson does plenty of influential things with the puck, which is why he is on pace for over 30 goals. But it is his work in the game’s less glamorous aspects, like puck support, that makes him such a nice fit with Kucherov and Point.
The Best Is Yet to Come Award: Anthony Cirelli
In October and November, Anthony Cirelli played over 16 minutes only twice. In December and the one game in January, Cirelli played over 16 minutes seven times. Cooper realizes that Cirelli is more than just a speedy penalty killer, and he is rewarding the young forward.
If you look at micro stats, it is easy to see why Cooper is starting to rely on Cirelli more. He has the best Corsi Plus/Minus among Lightning forwards. He has gotten much better at faceoffs. Last year, he was a smidge under 45 percent. This year, he is at 51.3 percent. Cooper is using Cirelli in three-on-three overtime after the shifts of the stars. Cirelli scored the game-winner against Philadelphia on November 17th and provided the takeaway and cross-and-drop on Alex Killorn’s winning goal, also against the Flyers, on December 27th.
Additionally, the penalty killing aspect has had a big impact on the Lightning’s sustained dominance, especially when Andre Vasilevskiy was injured. Cirelli is on the first unit penalty kill, and Tampa Bay’s kill has risen from 28th to 9th in the NHL. Cirelli is also a threat to score shorthanded. He has already scored as many shorthanded goals (3) as Point did in all 82 games last year.
Cirelli is more of a playmaker than he is a scorer. If Alex Killorn were better at finishing, Cirelli could have a half dozen or more assists to his name. While I wouldn’t expect Cirelli to explode in the second half of the season offensively, his ability to keep the Lightning in possession of the puck should lead to higher assist production.