Replacing Steven Stamkos: How the Tampa Bay Lightning Weathered the Storm

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Photo by “Resolute”, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the more remarkable and underreported stories of this season has been Tampa Bay’s continued competitiveness despite the loss of the NHL’s most dangerous sniper. You could hear the wind whoosh out of Lightning fans’ sails when Stamkos went down in November, and for good reason. Martin St. Louis’s Art Ross Trophy aside, Stamkos was the driving force behind the Tampa Bay attack.

Yet, at the time of this post, the Lightning are 3rd in the Eastern Conference, and 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. What changed when Stamkos went down? How has Tampa Bay managed to continue competing at such a high level? The short answer: they transformed from a star-driven team to a top-to-bottom threat. It was extraordinary, it was a model of what good management can accomplish, and it can be a lesson to teams in the future.

After the jump, I’ll break down how it happened.

It’s hard to overstate just how important Steven Stamkos was to the Lightning attack. Dating back to 2010-11, he had taken over 30% of all the Lightning’s shots at even-strength, a figure that puts him among the highest in the league. Largely through Stamkos and St. Louis’s offense, the Lightning were able to defy their middling possession figures during this period in time to record a points percentage just a hair under 60% (don’t forget, they were also fighting some terrible goaltending).

It made me wonder, then, how they could recover when they lost such a prolific shooter, and just as importantly how they could offset scheduled regression from Ben Bishop’s hot start. The first question to answer is, where are the shots going to come from? Initially, then, I thought to look at the Tampa Bay forwards:

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The chart above expresses player’s even-strength shot totals as a percentage of the even-strength shots taken by the Lightning in games this year. I highlighted the players that experienced significant change. For point-of-reference, Stamkos was injured in the 17th game. The first line that jumped out at me was the decline in Martin St. Louis’s contribution. Keep this in mind for an ensuing graph.

It appears that Teddy Purcell’s number took a jump, but that actually happened before Stamkos’s injury. On the other hand, you do see an increase in Richard Panik’s activity, and Valtteri Filppula also seems to bump up a level. Not a drastic shift, but it certainly looks like there were moves to replace the shot loss. J.T. Brown is that grey spike in the middle, but he started to drop soon after. Nikita Kucherov also figured into the mix, but he didn’t appear to be a primary focus as a replacement. So that gives us part of the picture of where the offense comes from afterward, but there’s also another place:

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This is essentially the same exercise as the forwards’ graph, only now we’re looking at forwards versus defensemen’s contributions to even-strength shooting. And here, we can see that there’s also a slight uptick in the defender’s role in the offense, an interesting development since that really hasn’t been a trademark to the Lightning’s offense for a few years. It isn’t for lack of talent; Matt Carle and Victor Hedman are both capable offensive players, and in the past Tampa Bay had brought in a number of offensive-minded defensemen to ostensibly improve their blue line offense. So, this uptick has to come from somewhere, so I wanted to see who was increasing their shot-taking:

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Hello, Radko Gudas. There were whispers of Gudas’s potential role in the powerplay (in addition to the physical element he adds), and it definitely appears that he’s earned a larger role in the team’s offense. Carle has also seen a slight increase.

Having seen these shot figures, I also wanted to see how Tampa Bay replaced the ice time, particular at even-strength and on the powerplay. Stamkos took a large amount of the team’s ice time in both situations, so it’s worth seeing how they replaced it.

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As with the shot graphs, here I’ve expressed forward even-strength ice time as a percentage of team total even-strength time. Notice that St. Louis’s even-strength time hasn’t changed a bit, so you can’t really attribute his drop in shot contributions to a decrease in ice time. I think this might be a strong case for how Stamkos helped create offense both for himself and his linemates. Notice, also, the almost linear increase among Valtteri Filppula, Teddy Purcell, Ondrej Palat, and Tyler Johnson’s minutes. These are the guys stepping up. They are the ones who have helped make this happen:

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Image from ExtraSkater.com

That’s possession tipping from below 50% to above 50% after Stamkos is injured. Meaning, with this lineup, the Lightning are playing a better possession game, the kind that is likely to bring them a winning record – something they couldn’t necessarily say before the injury.

In some ways, this is incredible. Filppula is a well-known name, but the remainder are two unheralded sophomores (Johnson – undrafted, Palat – 7th round pick), and a guy who is not trusted with a lick of penalty-kill minutes (Purcell). Yet Yzerman and whomever they have working over there made the right assessments, put the right pieces together, and they’re making it work with remarkable results. I was just as interested to see what they did with the powerplay minutes:

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Same exercise as with the even-strength time, and we can see here that Filppula and Palat have both earned increased powerplay time with their play. And really, it’s hard to argue with that. Both Brown and Kucherov make an appearance, though they seem to be relegated to second-unit minutes, if any.

Underpinning all of this is a strong performance from Ben Bishop, a goaltender who figured his game out in 2010-11, bounced around a bit, but has never looked back. It’ll be unrealistic to project him to continue stopping pucks at a 93.5% pace, but he’s good enough to stop them at a slightly above-average pace from here on out.

All in all, what the Lightning did here was an incredible display of asset management, analysis, and execution (I should be wearing a suit when I’m saying this, I am aware). They transformed a team that was driven by Steven Stamkos’s offense into a team that has better command of the possession game. The results have been positive, though you can probably expect a slight regression from Bishop’s save percentage; whatever the case, they should still be able to stick in the playoff hunt. That said, Yzerman & Co. have found a way to weather a very difficult storm, and I think it will be very interesting to see what happens when Stamkos returns.

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