When Mathieu Joseph made the Lightning roster out of training camp, it appeared he would fit in as a speedy, energy player in the bottom six. Any offense he provided would be a bonus. When the Lightning’s puck movement got quixotic and non-linear, Joseph could offset it with speed bursts like that of a second hand on a schoolroom clock. His stride is punctuated and sharp, and when moving in a straight line, he was as fast as any player in the league.
Through thirteen games, Joseph went scoreless. When he finally potted his first NHL goal, it came from the low slot off an east-west pass from Anthony Cirelli. Cirelli had collected the turnover after Anton Stralman had disrupted the Senators’ breakout. Those were simpler times.
By the end of the season, it was evident that the upside for Joseph is much higher, possibly as a top-six forward. His facility is not just in winning races and jumpstarting the transition. He could be a catalyst for offense on the forecheck. And it starts with his active stick.
On March 20th, against the Washington Capitals, John Carlson picked up the puck off goaltender Braden Holtby’s tap pass and turned to his forehand. On the replay, it is clear he plans to fire an indirect pass up the boards to Tom Wilson. But Joseph immediately closes the gap on Carlson, using his stick to dispossess Carlson of the puck.
One reason this sequence is so miraculous is Joseph’s initial read was that the puck was going to be directed behind the net. But Carlson does not toss an indirect pass off the boards to Michal Kempny. Joseph manages to audible at full speed and slide left. His balance and footwork allow him to effect two possible outcomes: the puck going behind the net or the puck going up the boards. When Carlson chooses to keep the puck and turn to his forehand, Joseph launches into hostile takeover mode.
After he strips Carlson of the puck, Joseph is challenged by Nicklas Backstrom, a very skilled defensive center, who tries to stymie his efforts. But Backstrom, who is able to pitchfork the puck and almost poke it away, fails because Joseph collects the puck with his skate. All in one motion Joseph goes forehand-to-backhand and smacks it off the crossbar. But the puck never crossed the goal line. It would take an effort from Joseph’s linemate Cirelli, whose own skill at winning puck battles allowed him to pick up the rebound, thwart Kempny, and hurl the puck off Carlson’s skate into the net to finish off the sequence with a Lightning score.
Another demonstration of crafty stick positioning by Joseph came in November. In this sequence, Joseph creates a turnover off of Alex Petrovic, who believes he has an avenue to transport the puck to Nick Bjugstad for an indirect pass. The former Panthers defenseman was retrieving the puck in the neutral zone off a failed dump-in, and tries to carom the puck off the boards so the Panthers can quickly re-enter the offensive zone. But Joseph times his pokecheck perfectly, and without breaking stride is able to absorb the puck and charge toward the net, before sliding the puck five-hole.
Watch the separation Joseph is able to quickly create from Petrovic. But maybe even more impressive is how he keeps the puck in front of him, shielding it from Petrovic and Jonathan Huberdeau who is attempting from the weak side to dissolve Joseph’s opportunity. With two defenders bearing down on him, the play called for a snappy collection of the loose puck, and a fluid rush to the net and a quick forehand-to-backhand move. Defensemen will be alert next season that any gaffes with Joseph around in open ice will likely lead to a quick counterattack.
Versatility to make plays on the rush and on the forecheck can entrench a forward in the top six. Joseph has a nifty release, and getting the puck off his stick quickly will work to his benefit. He can turn on the jets and jump into transition, but he also has strength to battle below the goal line, and has demonstrated he will even try the Peter Forsberg reverse check on opponents trying to inflict punishment on him.
The best power forwards can marry grace with power. Joseph’s acceleration allows his teammates to exit the zone with an area pass in lieu of a direct pass. In this clip against the Kings from the start of January, Ryan Callahan chucks the puck off the glass in an attempt to end the Kings territorial advantage. But Joseph’s speed is significant enough that he is able to power past Drew Doughty and whip it past Jonathan Quick.
It is worth underlining what makes this occurrence so novel. Joseph starts to rev up his engine a few feet above the circle; Doughty is just below the blue line. Before the puck reaches the opposite left circle, Joseph has sped by Doughty and is able to swoop in on Quick. Joseph possesses the ability to turn the banal into something astonishing.
One area Joseph will need to work on is his play in his own zone. In the first playoff round, the Blue Jackets scored goals off Joseph losing his man in defensive coverage and coughing up the puck on a breakout. He had a dumb penalty that led to a six-on-five goal from Oliver Bjorkstrand. But with more ice time and NHL experience, Joseph will become disciplined and better focused.
NHL forwards can be split into two categories: machers and high-energy zeroes. Joseph’s rookie season established him as one of the former. This is borne out in the numbers. Joseph finished fifth on the Lightning in points per 60 minutes at 5v5, behind only Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, and Yanni Gourde. All 13 of his goals were scored at 5v5. In limited ice time at 5v5, Joseph created scoring chances at a clip that was below Stamkos, but above Cirelli.
Which is why it will be so interesting to see where Joseph plays next season. If the Lightning are smart, they will gut their team of its overpriced veterans and try to recalibrate around their youth. With the contract stipulations, that could be hard, but it doesn’t mean the veterans need to play as much as they did in 2018-19.
It would be fascinating to see Steven Stamkos flanked by Joseph and Cirelli. It will be a different look for Stamkos to be surrounded with those two sophomores, but the Lightning know that, after the Big Three, their veteran role players are not capable of successfully completing the top six. Next season the Lightning should try to accelerate the process of developing their young talents. Joseph is part of this discussion.