In the spirit of the holiday season, PHR will take a look at what teams are thankful for as the season approaches the midway mark. There also might be a few things your team would like down the road. We’ll examine what’s gone well in the early going and what could improve as the season rolls on for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
What are the Lightning thankful for?
The most stable management/coaching group in the NHL.
When Steve Yzerman stepped down as Lightning general manager in 2018, it could have been a death knell for the organization. Many other front offices would have crumbled, losing their respected leader just a month before the season began. After all, the team’s head coach was also in his last year under contract, and following Yzerman to Detroit could have been an appealing idea for many of the organization’s brightest minds. Instead, with his former boss’s support, Julien BriseBois stepped into the big chair, doubling down on the structure and stability that the Lightning had built as a franchise.
It’s not just the coaching staff–which is led by one of the best in the game in Jon Cooper–or the management team, who routinely sign players at a small discount because of the market and team success. It goes right down to the scouting staffs and development teams, who have again and again churned out NHL talent from players who were otherwise overlooked. Of the 12 forwards currently penciled into the Lightning lineup, nine of them were drafted by the team. Just one of those nine was in the first round (Steven Stamkos, first overall in 2008).
Even though the Lightning roster is strong from top to bottom, everything comes down to the goaltender. Vasilevskiy is in the middle of a Hall of Fame career and once again leads the NHL in wins with 20 this season. Should he finish at the top of that category, it would be for the fifth straight season. A Vezina finalist or winner in each of the last four seasons, Vasilevskiy now has a 210-89-22 record in the regular season. He has a .920 career save percentage, which he has eclipsed in three of the past four seasons.
When he missed some games earlier this year, it was obvious how much of a difference he makes. Brian Elliott, Maxime Lagace, and Hugo Alnefelt combined to stop just 234 of 267 shots–an .876 save percentage.
What would the Lightning be even more thankful for?
Continued health for Stamkos.
One of the best stories of the season has been the re-emergence of Stamkos as one of the league’s superstars. Finally healthy again, he has 17 goals and 44 points in 37 games, is playing center on a regular basis again, and looks like the player that was routinely on Hart Trophy ballots at the end of the year. It’s been a trying career for Stamkos, suffering brutal fluke injuries at the worst times. But after missing out on Olympic rosters, the 2020 Stanley Cup run (save for that one, incredible performance), and countless additional points over his 14-year career, the captain looks like he’s ready to get back on those ballots once again.
What should be on the Lightning’s wish list?
A backup goaltender.
There’s no money on the cap chart, and if we’re being honest the Lightning probably don’t have a great shot at a third Stanley Cup if Vasilevskiy gets injured, but acquiring a backup for the stretch run still seems necessary. Elliott just hasn’t been good enough to trust on a regular basis and the risk of overworking Vasilevskiy is still there, especially in what could be a condensed schedule down the stretch due to postponements. The Lightning have played the most games in the league, but that doesn’t mean they won’t suddenly have a handful of games pushed back at any moment.
Another defenseman would be nice, and BriseBois is always on the lookout for additional cheap forwards that can play a specific role, but the biggest weakness on this team right now is whenever Vasilevskiy isn’t in the net. A capable backup could go a long way to making sure he’s fresh and playing his best when the first round begins.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images