Nearly every season there is a team in the NHL that starts the campaign head and shoulders above the rest of the league, before either fading in the second half or remaining at the forefront of the Stanley Cup conversation.
Last season that team was the New York Rangers, who were 21-10-1 on Dec. 15, but played only so-so hockey the rest of the way, going 27-18-5.
Two seasons ago, Washington started 21-6-2, then stayed hot, going 35-16-6 in the final three-plus months.
This season, the Tampa Bay Lightning are the darlings of the hockey world, kicking off 2017-18 by winning 23 of their first 31 games, with 22 victories coming in regulation.
Will they regress like last season’s Rangers or stay at the top like the 2015-16 Capitals? And will the Lightning reach the Cup, unlike either of the previous two hot starters? Let’s have a look.
Elite scoring talent
When the Lightning elected to re-sign superstar winger Steven Stamkos to an eight-year, $68 million contract in 2016, there was some concern over his scoring totals. He’d slipped from three straight 90-point seasons to 64 points in his 2015-16 contract year. At the time, it was also worth wondering if Stamkos could succeed as a full-time center.
It turns out Stamkos has more than justified GM Steve Yzerman‘s belief in him. With 43 points in 31 games this season, Tampa Bay’s franchise player is second in the NHL in scoring. While he still has an incredibly good shot, Stamkos has used his gifts to set up teammate Nikita Kucherov — the only player with more points (44) than Stamkos — when the two have been playing together at even strength. Stamkos has just four goals at 5-on-5, but 19 assists. Kucherov, who may have the quickest release of any sharpshooter in the NHL, has 18 even-strength goals.
As a line, Stamkos, Kucherov and winger Vladislav Namestnikov have produced 20 even-strength goals, second most of any line in the NHL.
If we were analyzing average top-six forwards, some numbers would indicate that decline was right around the corner. For example, Kucherov has a 26.5 percent even-strength shooting percentage. That’s more than double his 5-on-5 shooting percentage from last season (12.9 percent). But his scoring pace may not regress like you would expect. For players with otherworldly talent, we expect to see more high-quality shots and more average shots end up in the back of the net.
Because of a season-ending injury to Stamkos after 20 games in 2016-17, he and Kucherov played only 136 minutes together at even strength. In that short time, they produced 12 goals, with a 16.4 percent on-ice shooting percentage. So it doesn’t appear to be a fluke that Stamkos and Kucherov have scary-good chemistry.
A league-wide scoring increase may also be assisting Tampa Bay’s top line. Goals per game are at their highest rate since 2005-06, in part because of a jump in penalties and a focus on slashing. Opponents weren’t able to handle Stamkos-Kucherov when they were allowed to hack away at their hands. We could be seeing the result of giving elite players more space.
And when they do draw penalties, the Lightning are scoring like crazy. Tampa Bay ranks No. 1 in the league, scoring on 27.8 percent of power plays. Naturally, Kucherov and Stamkos are leading the way. When on ice together, they have 23 goals in just over 100 power-play minutes, the best in the NHL.
Amazingly, they don’t have an inflated shooting percentage on the power play — the pair just creates shots and scoring chances like crazy when given the opportunity. Stamkos has been on the ice for 129 shots in just 110 power-play minutes.
So when it comes to Tampa Bay’s go-to players, there doesn’t appear to be a way to slow them down. Even if other parts of the Lightning’s game slumped, the Stamkos-Kucherov line would give them a great chance to win — whether it be during the rest of the regular season or in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Role players and secondary scoring
While Stamkos and Kucherov are driving Tampa Bay’s success, the Lightning are not a one-line team. Second-year center Brayden Point has produced 30 points in 31 games, 22 of which have come at even strength. For an undersized center, Point has not had any problem controlling possession as he’s managed a 52.5 percent Corsi for percentage. The Lightning are outscoring opponents 28-15 with their young center on the ice.
Players like Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson who were once relied upon as key top-six players are now mostly playing a third-line role or flexing into the top six when called upon. They have combined for 40 points this season.
Veterans Ryan Callahan and Chris Kunitz are now fourth-line type players. They may not be able to score 30 goals anymore, but are certainly better than the league’s grinders at the bottom of the lineup. Kunitz has added 10 points and Callahan had six prior to his injury Thursday night, with a 52.1 percent Corsi for percentage.
Depth isn’t always required for sustainable regular-season results — see the Bruce Boudreau years in Washington — but if the Lightning want to go deep in the playoffs, they will need continued strong play from their role players. Last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins picked up 14 total playoff goals from Kunitz, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson and Matt Cullen.
Speaking of depth, the Lightning took massive steps forward from last season on their blue line. Tampa Bay made one of the offseason’s best moves by acquiring 2016 No. 9 overall pick Mikhail Sergachev, who has 21 points in 31 games (11 at even strength).
Head coach Jon Cooper has done an excellent job of utilizing Sergachev’s offensive skills, while protecting him from tough minutes. The rookie has played only 15:01 per game, and has a 70.7 offensive zone start percentage. As Cooper gives his 19-year-old defenseman tougher assignments, his numbers may slip a bit. He has a 10.9 percent shooting percentage and a .958 save percentage when on ice, both of which are unusually high for a defenseman,
As much as Tampa Bay was criticized for signing Dan Girardi to a two-year deal, he has been solid in a lesser role than the one he held down for years in New York. For the first time since his rookie season, Girardi is playing fewer than 17 minutes per game. Take away blocked shot attempts by the opposition, and he’s been on the positive side of the shot attempt counter. That didn’t often happen in New York.
Splitting up the two top blueliners has given Tampa Bay a more balanced blue line. Hedman’s numbers aren’t as good as his 2016-17 season, but he’s been playing alongside Jake Dotchin, a 23-year-old former sixth-round pick. Nevertheless, the Lightning have controlled play, taking 51.9 percent of total shots and 54.3 percent of the high-danger shots with Hedman on ice, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Stralman has guided Sergachev on the second pair. The smooth-skating puck mover has been on the ice for 38 goals for and only 17 against this season.
Neither player is about to fade. Hedman was third in Norris Trophy voting last season (and probably deserved to be in the running more often in the past) and Stralman is one of the league’s most underappreciated players. The last time opponents took more shot attempts than his team while he was on the ice was back in 2011-12, skating for the New York Rangers.
After the Penguins won the Cup with a depleted blue line, it might have been fair to wonder if we have overvalued defensemen when looking at winning formulas, but teams in the past have rarely won without an elite No. 1 blueliner and quality role players. The Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks teams had future Hall of Famer Duncan Keith and solid players like Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, while the Los Angeles Kings got big minutes from Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin, not just the elite Drew Doughty.
So long as Sergachev avoids a “rookie wall,” the Lightning’s defense corps compares favorably to the best in the NHL.
The Lightning were confident enough in Andrei Vasilevskiy to trade away goalie Ben Bishop last season. That decision is paying early dividends as Tampa Bay has won 21 of his 26 starts, and the 23-year-old netminder has given his team a remarkable .934 overall save percentage and .936 even-strength save percentage.
It’s much harder to predict whether Vasilevskiy is set to slip or not because he has only small-sample-size statistics to work with. He was magnificent in the 2015-16 postseason, winning six of eight games with a .925 save percentage, but has never been this good during the regular season. Last season, he posted a solid .922 even-strength save percentage and had quality starts in 53.2 percent of his starts. This season, he’s given the Lightning a quality start (fewer than three goals or above league average save percentage) in 73.0 percent of starts.
There is one indicator that regression is on the way. He has stopped 123 of 133 shots while Tampa Bay is on the penalty kill, which works out to a .925 save percentage. It’s rare if a goalie has a save percentage over .900 on the PK, much less a mark that would be good at even strength. A slide in PK save percentage might cost the Lightning a few goals, but they do not take many penalties. Cooper’s club sits sixth in the NHL in penalty minutes.
So the young goaltender may have some regression — and goalies are hard to predict — but you would be more apt to still bet Vasilevskiy will be among the league’s better netminders at the end of the season.
When we examine Tampa Bay’s incredible start under a microscope, we find a few spots that might not hold up, but not all that many. The Lightning have two of the NHL’s absolute best players, scoring depth, excellence on the blue line and an exciting young goaltender.
Only the injury bug can knock them from the ranks of the league’s elite contenders. Given the injury history of some players — Stamkos most notably — that’s a concern, but no more so than with any other NHL team. This team is for real.