On this day last year, the Lightning were in the midst of one of the best seasons in NHL history. They had won 25 of their first 33 games, four more wins than any other team, and were already 18 goals ahead of the second-best offense on their way to 62 wins, tying the 1995-96 Red Wings for most in NHL history.
30 games into this year’s season, they fell back to earth and are currently out of the playoffs, one point behind the Montreal Canadiens for 3rd in the Atlantic. Their offense, led by Brayden Point, Captain Steven Stamkos, and the reigning Hart, Art Ross, and Lester B. Pearson awards winner Nikita Kucherov, is still one of the best in the NHL. Washington is the only squad to outscore them in 2019, but their defense has fallen off a cliff.
A top-10 team in goals against a year ago, they are now firmly in the league’s bottom 10, despite a defense led by former Norris winner Victor Hedman, as well as the reigning Vezina winner, Andrei Vasilevskiy. Their goals against per game fell from 2.70 to 3.17. A massive tumble, but warning signs were present all of last season.
Leading up to the Awards ceremony, the biggest argument against Vasilevskiy was the perception that he was just a passenger on an all-time great team, racking up wins on team merit rather than individual performance. After all, not many goalies could boast a defensive unit that includes long-time studs like Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, as well as talented depth in veterans Anton Stralman and Braydon Coburn.
Louis Domingue’s solid play when Vasilevskiy went down with injury only fueled the argument. However, look past the goals against and the Lightning actually had one of the poorest team defenses in the NHL.
Last year’s squad was a high-event team. They generated a ton but allowed almost as much to their opponents. Jon Cooper counted on his explosive offense to outscore anything the NHL threw at them and on his elite goalie to stop whatever leaked the other way. It turns out that only the Pittsburgh Penguins allowed more odd-man rushes in the NHL last season, making Vasilevskiy a very busy man.
In 2018-19, the Russian saved his team a whopping 38.7 goals above average, or about 0.73 a game, the best mark by a country mile since we started tracking this metric in 2016-17. No other goalie since has cleared the 30 goals saved mark. In fact, only one goalie cleared even the 25 goals saved mark: Sergei Bobrovsky during his Vezina-winning 2016-17 season.
Let’s get hypothetical for a second and replace Vasilevskiy’s minutes with a perfectly average goalie last season and add 38 goals to the Lightning total (we’ll remove the remaining 0.7 to be nice and even). Tampa Bay would fall from 7th to 22nd in the NHL with 3.16 goals allowed a game, tied with the L.A. Kings and much closer to their 3.22 expected goals against mark.
Well, this year, Vasilevskiy has cooled off in a major way and now sits at 0.09 goals saved per game, still a positive but nothing game-breaking. Now, look at where they stand in goals against: 23rd with a 3.17, just behind the L.A. Kings. Pretty ironic, but also very telling when you compare this year’s defense to the record-setting squad from a season ago.
Apart from the goals against, they look eerily similar. Giving up this many scoring chances on a nightly basis is basically playing with fire, and without an otherworldly performance from their goalie, they’re finally getting burned. Their offense is still talented enough to win high-scoring games, like their 7-6 win over the lowly Devils early in the year, but any good team will exploit this relentlessly in a 7-game playoff series.
With all the talent they have, the pieces of the puzzle are there to be successful. Now, it’s up to Jon Cooper to put them together over the rest of the season if the current Lightning core hope to capture the ever-elusive Stanley Cup. We know they have the talent, as shown by their three Eastern Conference Finals appearance over the last five years, with one Stanley Cup final appearance.