The Lightning's precipitous plummet to the bottom of the Eastern Conference falls on partly the shoulders of GM Steve Yzerman.
Karma’s a bugger sometimes, isn’t it? Take the Tampa Bay Lightning, for example. Ever since the Philadelphia Flyers exposed and mocked them for playing their insidious trap, the Lightning have posted a 10-18-2 record and tumbled to the basement of the Eastern Conference.
Since then, 1-3-1 hasn’t only been the Lightning’s defensive scheme, it’s more like the win-loss record they post every five games.
On the one hand, you want to say, “Serves them right for playing that kind of hockey with all that offensive talent.” And hey, any team that employs that style of hockey and fails doing it isn’t about to get a lot of sympathy from this corner. After all, which team would you rather watch purely from an entertainment standpoint – the Washington Capitals from a few years back or last year’s Lightning?
But then you look at the Lightning’s defense corps and goaltending and you wonder why they don’t employ a 5-0-0 defensive scheme sometimes. And while it’s easy to point fingers at coach Guy Boucher for the Lightning’s problems, many of the team’s woes have to be pinned on GM Steve Yzerman.
My guess is that Yzerman, who learned at the foot of Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland and assistant GM Jim Nill, took the goaltending blueprint from Detroit and applied it to Tampa Bay. Not since the days when they had the three-headed monster of Dominik Hasek, Curtis Joseph and Manny Legace in 2003-04 have the Red Wings devoted a lot of financial resources to goaltending. But that’s clearly all right when you have Nicklas Lidstrom on defense and a bunch of forwards who always have the puck. It doesn’t work so well when your guys give up 30 shots a game.
Take Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins for example. The Lightning went down 2-0 on home ice on two very stoppable goals that got past Mathieu Garon. That put the Lightning, who have been outscored 54-30 in the first period, into comeback mode once again. Those two goals ended up being the margin of victory for the Penguins in a 6-3 win, a game in which Evgeni Malkin capped a hat trick with an empty-net goal.
Things have been similarly ugly for the Lightning all season. They’ve given up the most goals in the NHL this season and only the Columbus Blue Jackets have a greater disparity between goals for and goals against than the minus-35 sported by the Lightning. Garon and Dwayne Roloson are both near the bottom of the league in save percentage and goals-against average and the Lightning are the only team in the NHL where both the No. 1 man and backup have save percentages under .900. Bad goaltending has also contributed to a penalty kill that ranks 26th in the NHL (Although it doesn’t explain why a team that can throw Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St-Louis over the boards for a power play is 26th in that department, too.)
The problem here is that Roloson is 42 years old. And while Yzerman and many others were seduced by the way Roloson played last year, there is one enduring truth when it comes to all hockey players. And that is, they lose it at some point in their careers and the older they are, the more precipitous and dramatic the decline. The key to managing players like that is being able to predict when that decline will happen.
That Yzerman read the tea leaves wrong isn’t really the problem. The way Roloson played last season, he deserved another year, though $3.5 million is a lot of guaranteed money for a guy who was born in the 1960s. But in acquiring Garon to back Roloson up, the Lightning GM simply did not get a good enough insurance package. And so far Yzerman has resisted the urge to recall prospect Dustin Tokarski from the farm team to see if he has what it takes to address the Lightning’s long-term goaltending issues.
The Lightning do give up a ton of shots, but you’d be surprised to learn teams such as the Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs surrender more on a per-game basis. The only difference is those teams have goaltending that ranges between spectacular and adequate.
And although Boucher didn’t become a bad coach in less than one season, he doesn’t escape blame here, either. Special teams are generally regarded as the two areas of the game where the coach can have the most influence and the Lightning are bad at both. And Boucher’s insistence on continuing to show faith in Roloson by playing him and hoping he would play out of his woeful ways was a huge tactical error. There is nothing anyone can do to combat age and continuing to throw Roloson to the wolves isn’t going to make things any better.
It’s not as though Lightning’s defensive scheme is giving them a whole lot of success lately, either. And I can’t think guys like Martin St-Louis, whose success as a player has always been based on hustling down loose pucks and creating opportunities for himself, enjoys standing outside the offensive zone blueline. Can’t help but think Stamkos and Lecavalier are not big fans of it, either.
So a season that looked so promising for the Lightning is going down the sinkhole at a breakneck pace. There is rarely any in-between with this team. It’s almost always very good or very, very bad and this season looks like the latter.
And it’s going to stay that way until Yzerman finds a goaltender who can at least give the Lightning a chance to stay in games.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.