The first step to fixing a problem, is admitting there is one. For most people this is an extremely hard thing to do. It requires not only self actualization, but the courage to swallow your ego and pride and admit your flaws to the world. The easy way out is to try and deflect and distract others from noticing the problem. Mentioning past successes and comparable situations to blind others from the harsh reality. This is where we find the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Steve Yzerman has molded a roster through the past five plus years that has been one of the best in the business on and off the ice. Playing more hockey than any other team in the NHL the past two years, the Lightning have had all the success you could ask for outside of reaching the pinnacle of a Stanley Cup win. This team is experienced. This team is skilled. This team is young. But, this team is flawed. Flaws that were being masked in various ways early in the season, but are now becoming front and center as the mask is cracking.
The power play that was in the middle of a renaissance, has regressed to pedestrian. The dominant play of Steven Stamkos is now in the press box due to a season ending injury. The defense that was among the best in the league last season is falling apart at the seams. However things are rectifiable. Things can be fixed. Things can change. First though, Tampa Bay has to admit there is a problem.
There has been a lot of talk throughout Lightning Land about how the Bolts are fine. The use of ‘Look at last years standings they were in the same exact spot’ seems to be a common theme. ‘It’s still early, there’s lots of hockey left’ is another cliche answer about Tampa Bay’s struggles that even head coach Jon Cooper has been a victim of using. The problem is, the results may be the same as the previous year, but the process is most assuredly not.
The process of past years has shown Tampa Bay to be a well oiled possession machine. A team that more often than not would dominate shot totals and scoring chances. A team that would forecheck with pressure to create turnovers and transition so quickly the other way, the other team doesn’t even realize what is happening until Fluxland is playing. Tampa Bay was dominant, there was no question about it. Their early season results last season were unlucky compared to the process that was being used. Every measurable statistic showed Tampa Bay primed to go on a tear. That tear came in a mid season winning streak that propelled them into the playoffs. That type of streak isn’t something that can be guaranteed this year.
Tampa Bay’s process this year has been mediocre at best. They are constantly being out-shot, out-chanced, and obviously, outscored. This isn’t a slump or a rough patch in the road. This is 29 games of the same movie script. Anyone who tells you otherwise either hasn’t been paying attention or refuses to acknowledge the truth. Tampa Bay is in trouble. They are being dominated by their own identity.
The good news is that the Lightning don’t have to remain in trouble. There are things that can be done to turn this season around before it is completely lost. This is, after all, effectively the same roster that has been dominant the past few seasons. The same roster that made it to a Stanley Cup Final and went one goal away from returning there the following year. There can be a light at the end of the tunnel that seems so dark right now. But to get there, some egos have to be checked. Some pride has to be swallowed. Some philosophical and literal moves have to made.
The first step is Jon Cooper needs to stop trying to outsmart himself. He is an analytical guy by nature. Sometimes that can be your best friend and your worst enemy at the same time. Giving your third best performing defenseman, Slater Koekkoek, the lowest ice time because he is the youngest player, is outsmarting yourself. Trying to limit his mistakes by not allowing him to make them, limits the skill and talent he can provide as well. Not playing him to the point that Steve Yzerman has to send him down to Syracuse just to allow him to know what the ice feels like again, can only be deemed as seriously counterproductive. Its the old catch twenty-two on job applications. You must have experience at this level to be able to get the job, but no one will hire you to get that experience because you don’t have that experience in the first place. At some point, you have to let the peacock fly.
Cooper has been playing his two worst performing defensemen, Andrej Sustr and Jason Garrison, as though they were second pairing material. Giving them more minutes than Braydon Coburn and Nikita Nesterov who have both been much better. Especially Coburn who has had a very good start to the season and oddly enough, was paired with Slater Koekkoek for a lot of it. The two have combined to be a possession monster when on the ice together, yet they remain with low ice time and one of them being sent down multiple times this season. These are obvious things that are easily correctable. Things that will instantly begin to right the ship here in Tampa Bay.
Jon Cooper knows how to coach. There is no questioning that. It’s been intriguing, to say the least, to see how he has changed in his approach to coaching young talent since he was in the AHL. In the AHL he relied on young dynamic players to help win him a championship. That seems to have changed at the NHL level. The “dont play the young dynamic player because of experience” routine is nothing new to him since his tenure began in Tampa Bay. Crombeen over Kucherov. Morrow over Drouin. Carle over Koekkoek. You could argue about how the prior players have turned out amazing. The question is, is that because of the treatment they have gotten from Cooper, or are they just so dynamic and talented, it’s in spite of it.
Steve Yzerman is no innocent bystander in this debacle either. The roster he has built is filled with talent top to bottom with very few weaknesses on paper. Having, in essence, the same lineup year in and year out can be good in some ways such as chemistry. It can also be bad in ways such as complacency and lack of competition. We are seeing the effects of that this season. Also for the second straight year, the glaring hole is on the right side of the defense. At some point, for this team to be true contenders, Yzerman will have to go ‘all in’ on filling that void with a good player. The lack of depth on that side was completely exposed when Anton Stralman went down for an extended period of time. This has been a huge need for Tampa Bay for awhile now, and it’s about time Yzerman did something about it. Having draft picks and great prospects is nice and all, but at some point you only need so many of them. Even a small move in that direction, say for a Cody Franson or Michael Stone type player, would begin a market correction on the blue line. However at some point this year, I believe Steve Yzerman will have to make that blockbuster move to really upgrade the team and that right side defenseman position, if Tampa Bay it to have it’s sights set on Lord Stanley.
The Lightning have a lot of things that most teams in the league put on their Christmas lists to Santa. They have speed. They have skill. They have youth. They have elite players at every position. Something is off though. Something has caused this team to take a huge step backwards. Pinpointing that issue is extremely difficult. However, compounding that issue by doing, and not doing, the obvious things is what makes a lot of fans so maddeningly frustrated at this point. While the standings may look similar to last year, the process on the ice is most certainly not. At least not yet. But with the right people doing the right things, the season is in fact still young, and things can turn around quickly. But first those people must see the problem. After all, the first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one.