Judgment Day Coming for Lightning's Forward Role Players
When the Capitals stifled Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Steven Stamkos in last postseason’s conference finals, the remaining forwards on Tampa Bay’s second and third lines proved incapable of propelling the team to victory. To a certain extent, this was surprising.
During the regular season, the Lightning finished first in the NHL in goals per game by a wide margin. The difference between the Lightning at 3.54 and Winnipeg Jets at 3.33 was .21. A spread of .21 is so large that it also separates the Jets in second place and the Washington Capitals in 9th. For the first two rounds, the Lightning’s complementary players were fine. But against Washington, they fizzled in lockstep with the stars. It seemed to indicate that the role players are completely dependent on the Lightning’s big three forwards; when that trio underachieved, they were incapable of stepping into the power vacuum.
On a Cup contending team, role players are expected to steward a team when the stars go dim. It was only because of goaltender Andre Vasilevskiy and the Lightning’s fourth line that the squad nearly escaped with a victory in the series. It is dangerous to overreact to a small sample size, but the NHL playoffs dramatically reveal critical problems.
J.T. Miller finished the Capitals series with a measly assist. Alex Killorn had one goal and zero assists; so did Anthony Cirelli. Yanni Gourde had one assist and zero goals. Tyler Johnson had no goals and three assists. Only Ondrej Palat fared admirably, with two goals and two assists.
The Capitals and Penguins underscored the importance of proficient reinforcements during their last three playoff runs. Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov were both incredible in the last postseason, but the Capitals had 10 other forwards who could score. Devante Smith-Pelly finished the postseason with seven goals. Lars Eller notched seven. Brett Connolly had six. Jakub Vrana was a threat every time he attacked and finished the series against the Lightning tied for the most Scoring Chances at 5v5. Andre Burakovsky scored timely goals and was an asset when he was healthy.
The Capitals had a half dozen forwards who had the versatility to slide up and down the lineup. Tom Wilson is a notable example of that flexibility. He played first line during the 17-18 postseason, and even though he was just grossly overpaid, he has played on every line for the Capitals in recent regular seasons and playoffs. Additionally, the Capitals’ defensemen were playmakers.
The same goes for the Penguins during their back-to-back run. Reinforcement players came through. Bryan Rust beat the Lightning in 2016 with a marvelous Game 7 performance. Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, and Conor Sheary were important contributors. Role players were constantly commingling with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Coach Mike Sullivan knew that he could throw at least one depth forward on a line with one of his superstar centers and both the star and role player would acclimate.
This philosophy differs from the Lightning. On Tampa Bay, there was some mixing and matching, but basically, during the postseason, there was a defined hierarchy and the top talent was concentrated at the top.
In 2017-18, the Lightning were lucky in terms of shooting and health. The 290 total goals Tampa Bay potted during the regular season were accomplished with a 10.82 shooting percentage at all strengths and 9.36 shooting percentage at 5v5. The Lightning finished 1st in the league in both categories, and had six players who scored over 20 or more goals, one of whom was Gourde, who had an 18.4 shooting percentage.
The team enjoyed exquisite health from their most valuable forwards. Although one 20-goal scorer was traded for another (Vladislav Namestikov for Miller), the five who played the entire season with the Lightning—Kucherov, Point, Stamkos, Gourde, and Johnson—missed only seven games in total. Point and Gourde played all 82.
In the postseason, against better opponents, regression budded its head. Tampa Bay’s shooting percentage dropped to 6.94 at 5v5, ranking 12th out of 16. Even though it is dangerous to overvalue a small sample size, many of the Lightning’s veterans are a year older and closer to leaving their prime. The Lightning will need to decide, either this season or next, whether their forwards—outside of Kucherov, Point, and Stamkos—are capable of buoying the team if it struggles or experiences injuries.
Miller is signed long-term and Yanni Gourde is on an expiring contract. It seems management has made a decision on both. A determination will need to be made on Palat, Johnson, and Killorn. Perhaps in the regular season, against the top teams, coach Jon Cooper can try to entrust them with more responsibility and see how they measure up.
A lot of ink has been spilled by this scribe on the Lightning’s veterans versus youth, and their relative effect on the salary cap, but it is inescapable not to consider players’ ages when thinking about the Lightning in the present and future. And how the management tackles this issue will determine whether Tampa Bay wins a Cup, as well as the length of their championship window.
One avenue is selling high on the veterans. Palat, Johnson, and Killorn can help a contender or a young squad in need of experienced players to provide a bridge. They have value. And the Lightning have the perfect weapon to mitigate the absence of a veteran or two. Tampa Bay’s scouting department is awesome. They should be empowered to identify talent worth acquiring. After all, they find gems in the draft and in trades for young prospects. They would need a player who is ready to contribute right away, like they found in Mikhail Sergachev. The Western Conference is wide open, and lends itself to impulsivity. There are plenty of desperate GMs with cap space who need their teams to be competitive and would take on a Palat or Johnson for a talented prospect. Oiler GM Peter Chiarelli has not been fired yet. The Lightning should call him every day and try to exploit his desperation.
Personally, I really like Winnipeg Jets’ Jack Roslovic and think he is getting buried on a very deep forward group. But with the Jets’ limited cap space and a need to give big extensions to Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, and Blake Wheeler, it is hard to fathom why they would take on one of the Lightning’s aging veterans, even if salary were retained by Tampa Bay. Nevertheless, he represents the archetype of the kind of new blood the Lightning need.
Winning the Cup has an element of serendipity to it. It is about a propitious string of events converging at the right moment; timing is everything. Maybe the Capitals sputter during their repeat run; the Maple Leafs have too much pressure and crater; the Penguins are too old; and the Bruins are too one-dimensional. It is certainly possible that the Lightning’s supporting cast flubbed one series, and this piece is trying to diagnosis a problem that doesn’t exist.
However, if the Lightning’s success is reliant on a few players against the upper echelon of teams, and the role players prove to be untrustworthy, they should be traded, either during the season or next summer.