Steven Stamkos is having a relatively rough season to this point. Coming off a run to the Stanley Cup final in a season where his Tampa Bay Lightning finally broke through from a young, developing side to a strong contender, many were predicting big things for the sniper. Unfortunately, the expected hasn’t materialized and Stamkos is in the midst of a perfect storm of ongoing contract negotiations, worse-than-expected team performance and individual struggles.
Much of the problem in Tampa Bay is injury related. Two-thirds of the dominating trio of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov have spent significant time on the shelf this season. That has placed added pressure on Stamkos and others to produce, but has allowed opponents to focus their attention on fewer weapons.
One of the hotter flash points in the discussion around Stamkos’ comfort level with the Lightning is how coach Jon Cooper has deployed him this season. Stamkos has spent his career in the middle, scoring at an amazingly prolific rate.
But despite his success in the NHL as a centre, Stamkos’ production for the first six years of his career was always closely tied to the puck distribution abilities of his wingers. Martin St. Louis helped generate much of Stamkos’ offence. The two-time Art Ross Trophy winner ranked in the top five in assists on four occasions during his tenure with the Lightning.
As a top point producer, Stamkos almost assuredly envisions himself as a complete player who can generate offence in ways beyond being a finisher; creating scoring chances for his linemates with his passing ability. He's played centre throughout his career and has always seen himself primarily playing that role in the NHL, no matter the puck distribution skills of his wingers.
Unfortunately, this season Stamkos has spent limited time playing with the best distributors on Tampa’s roster (i.e. Jonathan Drouin or Kucherov). One of Cooper’s default means of addressing the issue has been to play Stamkos on the wing with Valtteri Filppula. While this may have worked reasonably well in the second half of last year’s playoff run, it isn't a long-term solution.
The available data provides evidence to support both sides of this argument, but can also help explain why Tampa Bay has struggled so much offensively this season in comparison to last.
There is no doubting Stamkos is an elite goal-scorer. He produces at rates comparable to some of the most prolific scorers in NHL history. His skill is such that he can shoot for both high volume and high percentage, with a hard, accurate shot that beats goalies from greater distances than typical shooters. His closest active comparable is Alex Ovechkin.
But in order for Stamkos to excel, he requires service to shoot from dangerous locations. While he has a very broad skill set, he is at his most lethal as a finisher rather than a service provider. He may well be a better set-up man than many on the Lightning, but the gap between him and his teammates' passing ability is dwarfed by the gap between their shooting skills.
We can examine this with a fairly simple thought experiment that shows why it is in Stamkos' best interest to focus on his area of greatest comparative advantage: goal scoring.
For his career Stamkos is a 17.2 per cent shooter. For the sake of argument, let's pair him with Ryan Callahan who is a career 10.8 per cent shooter. Now let's assume that Stamkos thinks of himself as the superior set-up man in this situation, and 40 per cent of his passes are converted into shots on goal, while 30 per cent of Callahan's are.
This trend continues as the shots shift further towards Stamkos, growing to 7.53 expected goals when he is taking 125 of the 150 shots and 7.74 goals when he takes all 150.
While Stamkos may well be the better passer, there is reduced value in him setting up an inferior finisher. The team is better off with him trying to score goals rather than set them up.
Examining data from games tracked as part of the Passing Project being organized by Ryan Stimson, we can paint a picture of what has changed for Stamkos this season compared to last.
In 2014-15 during 14 tracked games, Stamkos had 28 shot attempts at 5v5 and had passes that led to 15 shot attempts for his teammates. That is a 65:35 split, and the team produced seven goals in the exchange—six for Stamkos.
This season, in a comparable sample of 12 tracked games, Stamkos has taken 22 shot attempts, but has set up his teammates for 40. The split is almost the exact opposite (35:65), but the team is now down to only three goals out of the exchange—all Stamkos shots. None of his passes that resulted in a shot attempt led to a goal in the observed sample of games.
Similarly, if we compare Stamkos' individual shot attempt and scoring-chance rates for his career, as a proportion of what is happening with him on the ice, we can see how the shift may be leading to problems for both him and his team:
This season has Stamkos contributing the lowest proportion of shot attempts, shots, scoring chances and high-danger chances of his career—largely because he's pushing to cast himself in a more "pivotal" role and create offence for others.
The most capable puck distributors that he has played with this season are Kucherov and Drouin. Notable declines in the performance of some of his teammates—particularly names like Callahan and Matt Carle—are contributing to the team's disappointing results, but the change in Stamkos' play is likely to be doing more harm than good.
He needs to get back to what made him elite if he wants to stay there.
In the end, it matters less which position Stamkos plays, and more who he plays with. It's imperative that Stamkos gets put on a line with a good puck distributor so that he's used in a way that plays to his strength. If he's most happy playing at centre, the Lightning should figure out a way to consistently line him up with Drouin or Kucherov.