There's a lot to like about the Tampa Bay Lightning, but their time isn't now. Here are five reasons why the Bolts won't be playing for, much less parading with, the Stanley Cup come this June.
The great thing about working at The Hockey News is that dissenting opinions aren't only allowed, they’re encouraged. Just like there’s a wonderland of differing takes on the game among fans, there are a kaleidoscope of views within THN. And few things are better than a good old-fashioned back-and-forth debate about hockey.
This editor is currently engaged in a barnstormer with the majority of his colleagues over THN's Stanley Cup prediction. When they assembled to make the selection, he was in Thailand eating delicious food and enjoying the delightful weather, so imagine his surprise when he returned to find out his colleagues had chosen…
…the Tampa Bay Lightning?
On the surface, Tampa Bay is a sexy pick, especially in Corsi and Fenwick, but dig deeper and even the analytics, along with some other salient points, make their Stanley Cup chances look slim.
Here are five points that weigh heavily against the Lightning being able to win the East, much less defeat whoever comes out of the West.
5. Their goaltending has been amazingly average
Bishop had a breakout season in 2013-14. But to find how a player is performing in the present it’s best to look at this season’s statistics, not last’s, and it hasn't been pretty for Bishop and the Bolts. Basically, the Lightning have been getting Winnipeg Jets-like goaltending all season long. Bishop has a 2.36 goals-against average a .914 save percentage. To find a similar comparison, look no further than the NHL’s poster boy for average, Ondrej Pavelec, who has a 2.41 GAA and .916 SP. In fact, in 5-on-5 Close save percentage Bishop (.916, 37th), is far worse than Pavelec (.931, 11th) among goalies with at least 20 games played.
4. Their blazing offense can’t cover up their blah defense
Since 1993, when defense became the M.O. of the NHL, all but two Stanley Cup winners (Carolina in 2006 and Pittsburgh in 2009) have ranked top 10 in goals against in the regular season, and 17 of them have been top seven. Tampa Bay is currently 12th.
3. They can’t win without the comforts of home
The Lightning have the third-worst road record of any team in a playoff position and are 20th overall. Since 1993, only one Stanley Cup champ has ranked lower than 10th on the road in the regular season (the New Jersey Devils were 17th in 1994-95, and that was in a shortened season), while only two others have ranked lower than seventh (Pittsburgh in 2009 and Los Angeles in 2012).
2. Their Corsi Close looks good…from afar
The thing about analytics is that they should never be analyzed in vacuum, and those picking Tampa Bay are getting sucked into a huge Hoover by pointing solely to Corsi Close as support for their prediction. The Lightning do, indeed, lead the NHL in said analytic, and it is, indeed, true that the past three Cup winners, and four of the past five, have all been either No. 1 or 2 in it. But four were also ranked No. 1 or 2 in goals against, and Chicago was tied for fifth in 2010. As mentioned above, Tampa Bay is a middling 12th with average goaltending.
1. The Bolts are but babies in the playoff playground
Just so we’re clear: this roster hasn’t won a single playoff game, much less a series, and is now predicted to win 16 games, four series and the Stanley Cup?
On a team of greenhorns, no one on Tampa Bay has less NHL playoff experience than Bishop, because he has bupkis. That’s right, nothing. To counter this problem, those high on the Lightning point to Antti Niemi as an example of a goalie with no prior post-season experience that went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Let’s look at that more closely.
Since expansion in 1967 only four goalies have backstopped their team to a Stanley Cup with no prior playoff experience – Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Cam Ward and Niemi. Three of those four exceptions were exceptional, as Dryden (1971), Roy (1986) and Ward (2006) all won the Conn Smythe Trophy in their rookie runs. Is it possible that Bishop puts up a Conn Smythe performance in the playoffs? Yes. Is it at all likely? No. That leaves Niemi as the only comparable to Bishop in the past 46 seasons – not great leverage for basing a Stanley Cup prediction on, and even that is a leap of faith when comparing the two further.
In 2010, Niemi posted pretty bland numbers – a 2.63 GAA and .910 SP – on his way to winning the Stanley Cup. Is it possible that Bishop puts up a middling performance in the playoffs like he has so far this season? Yes. Is it at all likely? Yes.
For the Antti Niemi argument to hold up, then, the burden to prove the point shifts to the teams in front of those two goaltenders. Meaning, Tampa Bay has to play in front of Bishop in 2015 like Chicago did in 2010 in front of Niemi. This is where the comparison falls apart.
Niemi played behind a team that went to the conference final the year before, so it had three series and nine playoffs wins of experience heading into 2010, not to mention the same core went on to win another Stanley Cup three years later. Compare that to this Lightning team, which has won all of zilch in the post-season after being swept by the Montreal Canadiens last year.
These Lightning aren't as good or playoff ready as those Blackhawks were, which means Bishop has to play better than Niemi did for Tampa Bay to win it all – a lot better, like Conn Smythe Trophy better.
Their future is bright, but their present is bleak
The Lightning are a very good team having a very good regular season. Given their near perfect record (8-1-0) against Detroit and Montreal, the two teams they’re likely to face in the first two rounds, they should stick around long enough this year to get that much coveted playoff experience. But this team’s time is not now. It could come as early as next year after the Lightning get some post-season seasoning, but the evidence and precedents strongly suggest it won’t be this year.
Those that choose the Bolts are playing a hunch, at best. It’s true that anything can happen in the playoffs, but it’s better to go with the probable rather than the possible when making predictions.
If you’re basing a prediction on precedence, it’s best to choose the rule rather than the exception. And the rule says the Tampa Bay Lightning will not win the Stanley Cup in 2015.