In an article by ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun, Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman provided some insight on the disappointing start to the 2016-17 season for his squad. A team thought to be major Stanley Cup contenders this year, the Bolts are just 15-13-2 and currently sit outside the playoff picture. Yzerman was frank in his comments, stating that “we’ve lost seven out of eight. But it really doesn’t change what we’re trying to do or what we’d like to do.” The Lightning are far from a team in need of a rebuild, but they certainly could use a shakeup to motivate the players.
A lot of the struggles are obviously due to the loss of superstar Steven Stamkos, currently on injured reserve with a torn meniscus. However, as LeBrun puts it, that is a “convenient” excuse for the team under-performing. Yzerman is not one for excuses. He acknowledges that Stamkos is a major loss, but also understands that the team’s difficulties are due to more than just the loss of one player. “We’ve been able to do it in the past,” Yzerman said, “(e)ven with Stammer or other players being injured, we’ve been able to generate offense… and keep the puck out of our net to win games.” Yet, that hasn’t been the case in 2016.
The Lightning are still scoring goals, with the dynamic Nikita Kucherov leading the NHL’s tenth-best offense, and the power play is prolific as usual. However, 2.83 goals per game only gets you so far when you give up 2.77 goals against per game, good enough for only 17th in the league. Tampa is also spending a lot of time in the box, with the fourth highest amount of penalty minutes, while also struggling to kill those penalties with the 23rd ranked shorthanded unit. The Lightning are also allowing over 30 shots per game. While Stamkos is a great all-around player, the team is clearly having issues with defensive play, rather than floundering on offense without the captain.
This starts with Ben Bishop. The incumbent starter came into the season with major questions about his future, as he prepares for free agency and the team prepares to move on without him and build around young backup Andrei Vasilevskiy. Whether or not the lack of commitment by the team or the uncertainty ahead of him have affected Bishop, his play has suffered this season. Bishop currently has a 2.87 GAA and a .905 save percentage, his worst numbers since taking over as Tampa’s starters. Now, Bishop is losing starts to Vasilevskiy and losing confidence in his ability. For the Bolts to get back on track, they need their all-world starter to return to his usual self.
The defense in front of Bishop is not without blame either though, and it’s no secret that the team would like to add a top four defenseman to the roster. “We’re constantly looking at ways to improve our team,” Yzerman said, “If there’s something that makes sense, we’re prepared to do that.” However, Yzerman is honest and realistic about the player market in 2016-17. “Everybody has concerns about the salary cap” he said, “everyone has concerns about the expansion draft. It is difficult to make a trade.”
Counting the Tampa Bay Lightning out this early in the season would be unwise. The team bounced back from similar struggles in 2015-16 and has plenty of talent to do it again this year. However, Yzerman is beginning to feel the pressure of a team many have expected a Stanley Cup from over the past five years or more. In need of a legitimate defenseman, would Yzerman be willing to move Bishop, his most valuable trade chip? Will the team’s cap crunch and a quiet market keep them from making any moves? Most importantly, can this team figure things out and get back to their winning ways? As we approach the midway point of the 2016-17 campaign, the Lightning are one of the more intriguing teams to watch in the second half.