A sleeping giant is awakening in Tampa Bay

The 2015-16 season has not been what Tampa Bay Lightning faithful would’ve hoped for. After advancing all the way to Game Six of the Stanley Cup Final last year, the Lightning were expected to be just as good, if not better this year.

That hasn’t remotely been the case.

After scoring a league-leading 262 goals last season, the Lightning are 11th overall in goals scored thus far. The main culprits in this drop have been the team’s best players. Last year, Valtteri Flippula, Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Ryan Callahan combined for 319 points. This year, that same group is on pace for 160 – a 159-point drop. Flippula and Callahan are both on the wrong side of 30, but the rest of the slumps – especially Stamkos’ – are baffling.

Then you have the Jonathan Drouin situation, Stamkos’ still-lingering free agency and the ugly Carle/Coburn cap hits.

All of this is to say the Lightning have had a rough start. That definitely showed in the standings. Despite playing in the weaker division of the weaker conference, the highly-talented Lightning were unable to even firmly establish themselves as a playoff team for several months. At the end of November, the team sat at 11-11-3.

Since then, Tampa is 18-7-1 and has won 10 of its last 11 to move to second place in the Atlantic Division. With Montreal and Detroit flailing and Florida still unproven, Boston might be Tampa’s greatest obstacle in returning to the Eastern Conference Finals. And while the Bruins are still very good, a fully-loaded Tampa team is better. In fact, Tampa might be the team best-equipped to take down Washington (besides the Rangers, for obvious reasons). There are four main reasons for this.

  1. Fancy stats – When a team that was expected to succeed has a slow start, it’s usually a good idea to take a look at the possession numbers. If they’re as good as expected, there’s a good chance the team will bounce back. If not, there might be a problem. After boasting some of the best possession numbers in the league last season, the Lightning were rocking a mediocre 51.4 percent corsi for percentage through 20 games. However, the team has bounced back and has posted an excellent 54 percent over the past 19 games. That seems more indicative of the its talent level.
  2. Goaltending – Ben Bishop might be Tampa’s MVP. His steady play throughout the first two months might have saved the season. Bishop has a .927 save percentage thus far and seems perfectly capable of leading the Lightning though the playoffs again.
  3. The Top pairing – Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman are really good. That’s all.
  4. Potential – As was mentioned above, there’s a chance Callahan and Flippula just aren’t the same players anymore. That happens to guys in their 30’s. But Nikita Kucherov, who leads the team in points, is 22. Stamkos will be 25 Saturday. Johnson is 25, Palat is 24. The 23-year-old Vladislav Namestnikov just had the best scoring month of his life. These guys are young. There’s no reason they couldn’t suddenly turn it on and become an unstoppable scoring machine again. In fact, it would be weirder if they didn’t at some point. Stamkos is one of the great scorers in league history…how long can this slump possibly last? This team will start scoring more at some point.

That, combined with the team’s possession-driving nature, it’s above-average goaltending and it’s incredible top pair makes Tampa the team no one should want to face come spring.

About Taylor Nigrelli

Former below-average winger. Current hockey blogger and Sabres fan. Fan of advanced stats, sabermetrics, analytics or whatever you'd like to call them. Brett Hull's foot was in the crease.