While going through that annual tradition of projecting players and teams this season, I couldn’t help but keep circling back to the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was hard to not be enthralled by their potential to bounce back to Stanley Cup contender status, with a clean slate after a miserable season where just about everything went wrong.
A lot of that optimism hinged on the health of Steven Stamkos. His return gave the Lightning a second dynamic offensive weapon and complicated matters for the opposition in trying to game plan a way to shut them down.
I generally considered myself a believer in both Stamkos and the Lightning and betted on the talent winning out. But, if the early returns are any indication, even I was apparently selling them short.
The brilliance of the Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov one-two punch has been a revelation in the opening month of the campaign, as the two of them have paced the competition in essentially every imaginable offensive category. Stamkos leads the league with 24 points and no one has more goals than Kucherov’s 13. That production hasn’t gone unnoticed – the two of them earned first and second star honours for October.
One of the main driving forces to this success has been the work they’ve put in on the power play.
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These results speak for themselves. While a prolific power play isn’t necessarily anything new for a Lightning team that’s been dynamite with the man advantage ever since Todd Richards was hired to orchestrate the unit, the manner in which they’ve been successful this year is slightly different. As is the sustainability of their process, even if the efficiency at which they’re turning shots into goals figures to regress a smidge.
Last season, partly out of necessity due to the void on the left side created by Stamkos’ absence, Tampa was forced to feature Victor Hedman and his booming shot from the point with far more prominence. This year, with Stamkos’ one-timer from the left circle back in the mix, they’ve been a far more balanced attack, and as such, significantly trickier for the opposing penalty kill to wrangle.
Much of our analysis in hockey is typically devoted to the even strength component of the game, but it’s actually the special teams that satiate the creative parts of the brain.
At five-on-five, there’s only so much you can do to experiment, try new things, and think outside the box. The product tends to bog down, which makes it much more difficult to create separation. On the power play, there’s more space to use, so there’s an opportunity to be innovative.
If you have the right personnel and tactics, the power play is an area where you can really exploit your opponent’s pressure points and create a competitive advantage. Its importance has been amplified by the league’s crackdown on slashing, with teams averaging more power play opportunities per game than they have since 2008-09.
What’s made the top unit for the Lightning so special this season is their mastery of the geometry of the offensive zone. By spreading out their formation and flinging the puck across the Royal Road in East-West fashion at a dizzying pace, they’ve put the penalty killers in a bind.
Based on the great work people such as Steve Valiquette and Ryan Stimson have done in the past, we know how lethal scoring chances off these types of passing plays can be. Intuitively, it makes sense. If a goalie is able to square up on a shot, chances are he’s going to make the save. But if you get them moving cross-ice, it makes their job much more difficult.
That’s easier said than done and requires an immense level of skill and vision to accomplish when the defenders clog the middle of the ice. But that is what makes this play below all the more awe-inspiring: watch as Stamkos and Kucherov routinely twist the Ducks penalty-killers into a pretzel as they get closer to the net:
Part of the reason why this works for the Lightning is because the other team simply doesn’t know where to focus its attention or who to prioritize slowing down. With Stamkos on the left, Kucherov on the right, and Hedman perched up top, there are too many viable threats for penalty killers focus on just one guy.
Amongst all of those big names, Kucherov stands as the linchpin to the entire operation here. In the past year he’s become one of the best dual threats in the NHL. As strange as it is to say about someone who scored 40 goals last season and now leads the league in that stat, there’s a legitimate argument to be made that Kucherov is just as dangerous when he’s setting the table for others.
The unique nature of his skillset leaves the opposition without the ability to focus, which forces them to play the odds.
The Detroit Red Wings have learned all about that the hard way this season. When they sagged off Kucherov, he showed why he’s a lethal one-shot scorer by effortlessly flicking the puck into the net.
The next time around, whether it was by design or just subconsciously trying to not be burned again, the Wings were transfixed with Kucherov when he loaded up his wrister.
This time, with all eyes on him and a crowd forming, Kucherov instead flicked the puck over to Stamkos for what can only be described as the hockey equivalent of an alley-oop dunk:
The gravitational pull Kucherov can have on a defence is something we know superstars possess, but unfortunately we don’t have the ability to quantify it just yet. That’ll change once player video tracking is installed across the league, and I have no doubt that when that information is available we’ll see just how important it is to an attack.
The actual skill these star players have is one thing, but the trickledown effect to their teammates who get additional wiggle room to operate can be explored further.
Vlad Namestnikov is certainly a heck of a player in his own right – he’s done good work carrying the puck into the zone so the Lightning can set up and has become a threat around the net – but he must be loving life right now. Sometimes, all he really needs to do is make sure he’s in the right place at the right time and be ready to finish the play:
If you haven’t had a chance to check out the Lightning power play in action yet, I can’t recommend it enough. They’re pushing the envelope by trying things like using four forwards on four-on-three power plays in overtime, and they’re giving their star players creative license to flex their offensive muscles.
After enough sleepless nights spent in the video room dissecting their film and strategizing, coaches around the league will eventually formulate a creative adjustment of their own to throw a roadblock up on Tampa. That’s the nature of the NHL.
They better come up with a solution soon. Right now other teams are being forced to play checkers while Kucherov, Stamkos, and the Lightning play chess.