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Opinion: Lightning at the Halfway Mark

Forty games into a historic 2017-2018 season, let's take a moment to pause, step out of the moment, and take stock of where the club is. Sitting halfway through the campaign expectations for the team, which missed the postseason just a year ago, are sky high for good reason. Not only is the Lightning atop the NHL standings a full 13 points ahead of the pace they need to be in order to make the postseason, but the team leads a bevy of organizational and individual statistical categories.

Let's pump the breaks on prematurely planning a Stanley Cup championship parade, though. There's still half of the regular season and the postseason left to play, and as good as the team is, it's not without blemishes. How General Manager Steve Yzerman addresses those blemishes (or doesn't) and how any potential changes alters team chemistry (or doesn't) will have a lot to say about whether the team lives up to its perceived potential. So, with all of that in mind, let's look at how the team got here, what its weaknesses are, and what might happen next.

How We Got Here
How does a team go from missing the playoffs in 2016-2017 to seemingly being the class of the league just a year later without having made seismic changes to its roster? First, clearly, the team was underachieving the first 45-50 games of last season. Even before injury robbed the team of its captain, Steven Stamkos, that edition of the Lightning often seemed complacent and prone to the kind of bad habits that Jon Cooper's coaching style attempts to drum out of his players. One might argue this was inevitable for a team that was probably suffering a degree of mental fatigue after two consecutive deep runs in the playoffs that had culminated in the Stanley Cup Final and Eastern Conference Final, respectively, in the preceding campaigns. The return of veterans Stamkos and Ryan Callahan to the lineup has invariably helped the team's leadership and a shake up to the club's leadership council also included the acquisitions of free agents Dan Girardi and Chris Kunitz. By refreshing and refocusing the team's leadership council through those tweaks, this Lightning team seems more dedicated to the task of winning hockey games than any club since the 2003-2004 Cup winning team.

As a compliment to this, the final 30-35 games of the regular season last year also saw the emergence of new team leaders in Callahan and Stamkos' absence. Specifically, I believe the vacuum that was created by their absences was eventually filled by star players Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman. That's not to say Kucherov and Hedman weren't leaders before those injuries, but with those locker stalls unoccupied it's clear Kucherov and Hedman had to assume larger leadership roles both on and off the ice, and their outstanding play down the stretch of last year shows just how comfortable they became in those expanded roles.

The second reason the Lightning failed to make the playoffs last year was, obviously, major injuries to the likes of Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan, and Brayden Point over the course of the campaign hamstrung the Lightning's depth and quality by making them, in essence, a one line and one pairing team. Stamkos' return and the continued emergence of Point has allowed the Lightning to re-establish itself as a team with multiple scoring line threats. Unsurprisingly, Stamkos reformed a line with Vladislav Namestnikov and Kucherov that was extremely effective at the beginning of last year. A little more surprisingly, the outstanding play of Brayden Point has allowed the team to absorb the subtraction of talented young forward Jonathan Drouin without missing a beat. Point played outstanding down the stretch of last year as a rookie after returning to the lineup from a broken hand, but it was still a bit of an educated gamble for Yzerman to move Drouin and place nearly all his chips on Point becoming a consistent NHL scoring line producer. Point's play has been so sharp and so consistent he's continued to score despite tweaks to his line that including Yanni Gourde playing on his wing to start the year and the recent move of Tyler Johnson to his line of late. There, perhaps, lies the greatest testament to Point's season: after a couple of years of disappointing play, Johnson has seemingly had a rebirth alongside Point while scoring at a clip not seen since Johnson's young pup years with the so-called "Triplets" line.

This emergent scoring depth has also manifested itself in a Death Star-like Lightning power play that now boasts two highly capable units capable of punishing foes for committing infractions. Let's remember, the Lightning power play was actually quite good a season ago under the orchestration of Assistant Coach Todd Richards (who's probably setting himself up for another Head Coaching gig somewhere), but this team has gone a step or two above that both in the quality and consistency of the team's power play unit. After years of trying to regain the glory of prior seasons where the team's power play ran almost exclusively though Stamkos, the team's power play this year is capable of scoring in a multitude of ways through the creation of multiple pressure points such as Kucherov in the right wing circle, Stamkos in his customary left wing circle post, and Hedman at the center point on the first unit and the more meat and potatoes style of Point's second unit, which includes the fearsome point shot of rookie phenom Mikhail Sergachev.

Sergachev has been the wildly successful headline piece of a mild offseason re-shuffling on the Lightning defense. That reshuffling actually began down the stretch of last year when injuries led to the recall of burly right side defenseman Jake Dotchin, who hasn't shown signs of relinquishing his spot. Yzerman made sure to keep Dotchin and left side defensive prospect Slater Koekkoek in the fold by striking a deal with expansion Las Vegas that included moving out underachieving defenseman Jason Garrison in the process. Signing Girardi was the final piece of the re-shuffling of a defensive corps that is probably still a work in progress, but we'll address that later.

The third reason the Lightning failed to make the playoffs last season, in my opinion, was the odd and unprecedented situation it had between the pipes. On paper, continuing to have two goaltenders the caliber of Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy on the roster should have been the team's strength, but Bishop's lame duck contract situation and obviously impending trade cast a pall on the team's goaltending situation that clearly manifested itself in subpar goaltending play early in the campaign. Since Bishop was moved out at last year's deadline and Vasilevskiy was installed as the clear cut number one goaltender the situation has vastly improved. Vasilevskiy appears to be the type of starter that thrives under a heavier workload and his play to date has made him the favorite to with the Vezina Trophy and, probably, the unofficial Lightning team MVP.

On any of the above points, reasonable arguments for optimism could be made that the Lightning had fixed their issues coming into the year. So, in that respect, I'm not really surprised the team has played well this season. Reshuffling the team's leadership council and the natural refocusing that occurs when a talented team fails to reach the postseason coupled with their outstanding play down the stretch of last year could make a Lightning fan confident the team wouldn't come into the year with the bland complacency it did a year ago. Likewise, knowing the track record of the Namestnikov/Stamkos/Kucherov line in its brief tenure last year and how well Brayden Point played a year ago, there were at least the ingredients on hand for the Lightning to conceivably have renewed scoring depth and quality. And, while never having done so for a full campaign, Andrei Vasilevskiy's pedigree and athleticism as a young netminder was clear. So, on all these individual points, there were reasons to believe things could work out for the Lightning. But, what's made this year special thus far is that, in actuality, Yzerman and the team have hit the jackpot on every single one of these fronts, and indeed have seemingly gotten an unforeseen bonus in the unanticipated offensive numbers from Sergachev.

Let's be clear on that last point: even the most optimistic appraisal of Sergachev by Lightning head amateur scout Al Murray pointed toward an Ivan Provorov-esque rookie season by Sergachev. Provorov had 30 points as a rookie. Sergachev could realistically hit that number by February, if not sooner. Nobody really forecasted Sergachev's production, and although I think it's a stretch to say he's been the driving force behind the Lightning's unprecedented play to this point, it is fair to say he's the walking, breathing exemplar of the fact the Lightning have pulled a bit of an inside straight so far this year.

Team Weaknesses
When a team is sitting on a winning percentage above .750, has a goal differential that's roughly double that of the next closest team, and has its players well-represented all among the league leaders lists, it might be easy to overlook or under-emphasize its weaknesses. But this Lightning team does have some warts that have been obscured by its offensive firepower and goaltending excellence. Those weaknesses can be exposed in the crucible of the postseason, and need to be addressed if the Lightning are going to take their absolute best shot possible at winning the Stanley Cup.

The Lightning stink at faceoffs. Let's not mince words about this. The Lightning are second from dead last in the league in the faceoff circles, which is an amazing fact given how successful the Lightning have been and their possession driven style. Remarkably, Tyler Johnson is the only centerman (albeit really an ex-centerman, at his juncture) on the roster with a faceoff percentage above 50% (barely). This team doesn't win key draws in either the defensive and offensive zones, which has contributed in part to one of its other major weaknesses on the penalty kill.

The value of faceoffs in the regular season isn't as apparent in the grind of an 82-game campaign, but they're unbelievably important in the postseason. That was none more evident than three years ago in the Stanley Cup Final against Chicago when injured forwards Stamkos and Johnson couldn't really take draws and veteran faceoff ace Antoine Vermette and his pals routinely stole poor Cedric Paquette's lunch money in the circles. As a consequence, the Blackhawks were able to nullify the Lightning's speed and athleticism advantage and generate cheap possession and scoring chances that helped turn the momentum of the series and give them a championship. The Lightning risk a repeat of that scene if they don't address their perennial ineptitude in this aspect of their game.

But, let's not solely think of this in negative terms. Consider this another way: as good a possession team as the Lightning are and as many goals as they score already, can you imagine how potent they would be if they were less fragrant at the dots? If they were as good at manufacturing goals in the circles as the team got to be late in Vincent Lecavalier's tenure with the club, for instance, they'd be an even greater handful for team's to defend.

The Lightning aren't terribly good at penalty killing, either. Tampa Bay's in the bottom third of the league in penalty killing at the moment. Are they as terrible on the PK as they are at faceoffs? No. But it's a weakness of the team that's been exposed in the first half of the year. Being better at faceoffs would help, because if they could win a few more and get some cheap clears it would invariably help their percentage. Just as critically, I think it's important the team works on the consistency of their PK both in terms of the athleticism of the players they deploy on the PK and their aggressiveness and coverage.

The team's actually been quite a threat to score shorthanded goals all season thanks to the speed and tenacity of PK'ers like Gourde, Point, and Hedman, but the team also has used significantly less athletic players on the PK as well like Girardi and forward Alex Killorn that are less adept at taking away the time and space of opposing power plays. Penalty killing is really the nexus between hard work, defensive hockey sense, and skating, and if you've only got two out of the three as a player, contrary to the old saying, it's still bad. I get it, Girardi blocks a ton of shots. I get it, Killorn's a smart player. That only goes so far in compensating for the fact these players aren't quick enough to chew up the ice they need to in order to fully close up gaps in passing and shooting lanes, and the numbers show it.

The Lightning's defensive corps is slow and shallow, quality-wise, on the right side. If you look at the righty D on the Lightning roster, only Anton Stralman is an average or slightly better than average skater. Dotchin, Girardi, and Sustr are all below par among NHL defensemen, and this is yet another weakness that may become more glaring as teams focus on it in the playoffs. It's already being exposed on the PK where the team is in the bottom third of the league. As currently constituted, the Lightning will have a subpar skating right side defenseman on the ice roughly two-thirds of any given game in the playoffs. They've tried to mask this, in part, by playing seven defensemen and chopping up those minutes as much as possible, and Andrei Vasilevskiy's heroics have bailed out his right side D on a sizable handful of occasions, but it'll be harder to hide in the postseason.

Consider another armageddon scenario, also: what happens if Stralman, Dotchin, or Girardi goes down to an injury in the playoffs? That's not at all far fetched given the age of Stralman and Girardi and the physical demands of the position. The Tampa Bay Lightning could be a heartbeat away from having to play Andrej Sustr significant playoff minutes. Don't get me wrong, Sustr's better than several other players like Nikita Nesterov that the Lightning have tried to use in that fourth righty defenseman spot on the roster. He's, by all indications, a great teammate and I think he has utility for a lot of other NHL teams. But, his athletic limitations, particularly his skating, are a liability for an elite club in search of championship hardware. With that in mind, it would pretty much be a case of General Managerial malpractice for Yzerman to fail to acquire at least a second pair caliber righty D with plus skating ability to help push the aging Girardi's minutes down to more manageable levels and perhaps push Sustr off the roster altogether.

What Happens Next?
Lapping the league in the standings gives Steve Yzerman the ability to be a little bit patient in addressing the above problems, but the urgency will start to grow little-by-little as we sail toward the deadline. In my mind, the Lightning needs to acquire two pieces before the postseason: a centerman with significant faceoff bona fides and a minimum second pair caliber righty defenseman, both of whom ideally would also bring penalty killing chops to the table.

Do the Lightning have these pieces in the organization already? I'm going to vote no on this one. Faceoffs are an art form and it isn't a coincidence that often the league's more, ahem, seasoned centermen are among its best in the circles (see: Andreychuk, Dave, circa 2003-2004). You have to know the tricks. You have to know the opposing centermen. Probably just as importantly, the linesmen need to know you and respect you enough to let you get away with a degree of, ahem, cheating in the circles. Centermen like Matthew Peca and Anthony Cirelli may well earn cups of coffee in the NHL and may even be decent at faceoffs. But, it's hard to conceive of a scenario where they'll be able to win you the bushel full of key playoff faceoffs an established veteran like Vermette or Mathieu Perrault will.

The team's right side defensive options in Syracuse are Erik Cernak and Ben Thomas. Cernak, a rookie pro, is having a very solid rookie season and plays a little more rugged stay-at-home style. His skating has improved greatly since his draft season, but it was a considerable knock when he was selected by the Kings three years ago and it's difficult to envision him being an 18+ minute a night NHL playoff defenseman straight out of the womb. Likewise, although Thomas' skating is pretty good, he's an undersized player who sometimes struggles with his positioning in the defensive zone. Neither is really a guy I think Yzerman should be comfortably staking the fate of his team's championship ambitions on at this juncture.

As an aside to this discussion, rumors in the media have pointed toward Yzerman also being interested in acquiring a third line scorer as a way of improving the team's overall scoring depth. I think that's a laudable goal, but it's more of a luxury than a necessity compared to the above needs. I suppose, in the best of all worlds, the Lightning would acquire a quality veteran centerman who can score, win faceoffs, and kill penalties for this coming playoff run. Push Gourde to wing, where I think he's more effective, and proceed from there. I'm just not sure whether or not that player will be easy to acquire, bearing in mind the Lightning will probably be looking to move picks and prospects rather than roster players in order to impact team chemistry and depth as little as possible.

Barring acquiring that magic veteran third line center, I do think the Lightning have a lot of options in Syracuse for improving the athleticism and production of their lower lines. Indeed, I expect a bit of a parade of prospects getting cups of coffee in the second half of the season as they debut for the gig. In addition to Peca and Cirelli, I'd also recommend some (or all) of Adam Erne, Alexander Volkov, Carter Verheaghe, and Mathieu Joseph, all of whom I think could contribute to a Lightning playoff run if they bring their A game to the table.

When considering all of the above potential moves, bear in mind the anecdote of Jay Feaster's delicate operation that helped seal the 2003-2004 Cup. Tasked with the need to improve his left side defense, Feaster did a lot of work to not only scout options on the ice, but to check their character references, as well. That eventually led to the Darryl Sydor for Alex Svitov trade, and the rest is history. Steve Yzerman is now tasked with the same challenge: how do you find the right couple of guys who not only address the team's weaknesses athletically, but also maintain (or even strengthen) the team's awesome locker room chemistry that's delivered them such wonderful results to date?

Yes, folks, that's why he gets the big bucks.