Sunday, 24 March 2013

Blaming The Wrong Guy

It seems to have taken a lot longer than I thought it would for the axe to fall in Tampa Bay, but I was surprised that the man deemed expendable was head coach Guy Boucher. Either late last night or early this morning, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman felt the need for change had to happen now, and decided to relieve Guy Boucher of his duties with the club.

I will admit that I've always admired Boucher's work ethic and abilities considering the lack of talent he worked with in Tampa Bay, and, in saying this, I feel that Boucher's dismissal may have wrongly made him the scapegoat for what I feel are the Lightning organization's deficiencies in building a Stanley Cup team. This may be more because of the team architect's deficiencies, so Steve Yzerman should take a long, hard look at this roster he built and figure out how to overspend to fix it.

First off, the goaltending is AHL-caliber at its best. Yzerman went out and acquired Nashville backup netminder Anders Lindback with the hope that he could be the bonafide long-term starter in Tampa Bay for the foreseeable future. Lindback, at the time of his trade was 24, had played in a whopping 38 games in his career. The Lightning arguably gave up little in backup netminder Sebastien Caron, but the draft picks they gave up could be the lynchpin in this trade after all was said and done.

The Lightning gave up the 37th-overall and 50th-overall picks in the 2012 Entry Draft, and Nashville turned those picks into wingers Pontus Aberg of Djurgardens IF Stockholm and Colton Sissons of the Kelowna Rockets. In 47 games in the Swedish Elite League this season, Aberg had eight goals and seven assists for a team that finished 10th of twelve teams this season. Sissons, on the other hand, had 28 goals and 39 assists in 63 WHL games this year as the Rockets dominated the BC Division. Sissons looks like he's on the path to being an NHL player with his current development.

Normally, if a GM is acquiring an unproven goaltender, the thought is that he needs a solid veteran goaltender to go along with the green netminder. Garon arrived in Tampa Bay as a free agent in 2011-12 after spending two seasons backing up Steve Mason in Columbus, and it was thought that he could spell off Dwayne Roloson as the backup. Instead, Roloson faltered and Garon was given the starting duties in nearly half the games. The result? Tampa Bay missed the playoffs.

This season, it was expected that Garon could help Lindback develop as well as giving the youngster a night off here and there. Instead, it has been Garon who has faltered with a 3-8-0 record, forcing Lindback to play more rather than developing. Of course, the youngster is making mistakes thanks to his rather glaring inexperience in NHL games, and his record of 10-7-1 speaks to that.

Factoring in the trade of Dustin Tokarski, who appeared to be Tampa Bay's goalie of the future after leading the Norfolk Admirals to a Calder Cup championship in the AHL last season, for the once-acquired Cedrick Desjardins, and you have to wonder if Steve Yzerman's scouts are even watching games at the lower levels. Tokarski was a monster last season in the Norfolk Admirals' nets, and was an amazing 18-8-4 as the starting goaltender with Syracuse this season before the trade. Why would Yzerman even consider dealing him away for anything but NHL-caliber talent?

If goaltending wasn't the Achilles' heel of the Lightning, injuries certainly have affected this team. As of today, the above-mentioned Andres Lindback, Vincent Lecavalier, Ryan Malone, and Mattias Ohlund are all out, and all have been given significant roles on this team. There aren't too many teams - outside of the Ottawa Senators, it seems - that could have their starting goalie, their top centerman, a second-line power forward, and a top defenceman miss significant time without affecting their standing. Tampa Bay is no different than any other team, and Guy Boucher doesn't have the depth to insert another player who can fill those roles and/or minutes with the same skill level. Depth, is of course, the mark of a great general manager, and Tampa Bay has none. They are getting contributions from their AHL players, but not at the same consistency as the fallen NHL stars, and this will certainly cause them to fall down the standings.

Cory Conacher has been a great addition, and guys like Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, and Dana Tyrell have been putting points on the board. However, Killorn, Johnson, and Tyrell only have 19 points in the games they have played, meaning they are ten points short of the contributions made by Malone and Lecavalier. I'm certainly not comparing skill levels between these players, but we're talking about three players needed to contribute the same as two players. In fact, it it weren't for Johnson bringing that average points-per-game total up almost 10%, Tyrell and Killorn - two centerman - would deliver half of Lecavalier's offence alone. That's simply not good enough if a star goes down and is needed to be replaced by one other player, let alone two players.

Of course, you can pin that on coaching as well. After all, if you lose a major offensive cog like Lecavalier from your lineup, you should be changing your strategy to play more defensively so that you can protect the net a little more. Lecavalier is good with the puck, so you need to look at puck possession as well, and that's directly a coaching concern as well. However, in the case of the Lightning, the problem goes directly back to men defending the net.

The Lightning are currently third in goals-for in the NHL per game at 3.26 goals-per-game - better than both Anaheim and Montreal, and only 0.01 goals-per-game worse than Chicago. It's not like the Lightning don't have the firepower to score goals in this league, and it would suggest that Tampa Bay should be one of the better teams in the NHL based on goals-scored when you find them nestled between Pittsburgh, Chicago, Anaheim, and Montreal - all atop their divisions. Instead, they are nestled into the non-playoff teams when it comes to giving up goals, and that's a reflection on the skill and talent of their defencemen and goalies.

Tampa is 24th-overall when it comes to goals-against-per-game at 3.03, and are one of six teams to surrender three-goals-per-game or more. The others? Philadelphia, Buffalo, Colorado, Calgary, NY Islanders, and Florida - all non-playoff teams as of today's standings. They are nearly a full goal-per-game worse than NHL-leading Ottawa, and that's one of the reasons why Ottawa is a playoff team.

Ottawa had two solid goalies to start the season in Anderson and Bishop, and then Anderson got hurt, forcing Bishop to play starter's minutes. They called up Robin Lehner, another 1A goalie, and he's been just as good as Bishop was in that role. They say defence wins championships, and, as true as that may be, defence also gets you into the playoffs when your scoring dries up through injuries or slumps. Tampa Bay has suffered through a number of injuries to their top players much like Ottawa has, but Ottawa's defensive game has tightened up and they are still getting quality goaltending from their backup and their AHL starter. Garon and Desjardins are not giving Tampa Bay that same quality goaltending, and the defence is still abysmal in front of them.

If you look at Ottawa's defence, Chris Phillips and Marc Methot are your bonafide shutdown guys. They score a few points when they can, but they do the heavy lifting in moving players from in front of the net, blocking shots, and riding scorers out of the play into the boards. Of the following players, name their Tampa Bay equivalents: Victor Hedman, Sami Salo, Matt Carle, Eric Brewer, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Keith Aulie, Radko Gudas, and Brian Lee. I'll wait for you to make a strong case.

Can't do it, can you? Consider this: Nate Thompson has played 31 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning this season, and he leads the team in hits with 61, good for a tie at 81st-overall in the NHL. Of the men listed above, Keith Aulie is right behind Thompson with 60 hits, making him tied for 85th-best in the NHL. Comparatively, Ottawa's Marc Methot is tied for 21st-overall with 85 hits and Chris Phillips is tied for 43rd-overall with 70 hits. In other words, they make the lives of scorers tough once they cross the blueline, and those two men play major minutes for Ottawa. Keith Aulie doesn't log anywhere near the minutes that Phillips and Methot do, so what does that say about Tampa Nay's defence when scorers enter the Lightning zone?

Tampa Bay does, to their credit, block a lot of shots, but you have to block shots when your goaltending has been so poor. Again, it's not so much that they do it AND get great goaltending, it's that it seems Tampa Bay does it to SAVE their goaltenders from taking the shot. What's worse is that all these blocked shots don't count as shots on net, so you wonder how Tampa Bay's goals-per-game average is so high when they surrender the league's second-lowest shots-per-game total at 26.6. That speaks deafening volumes to the abilities of your goaltenders in stopping pucks, and Tampa Bay's goalies simply aren't doing that.

I like Steve Yzerman, but I'm afraid the mess that is the Tampa Bay Lightning is directly his fault. Guy Boucher may be the scapegoat for this season, but he can't improve his goaltending if he goalies simply aren't making the stops and the statistics are screaming that fact out. His team blocks a ton of shots that are directed towards his goaltenders, yet they give up a ton of goals on very few shots. Essentially, Tampa Bay is playing with a 1A goaltender in Lindback, a career backup in Garon, and a legitimate AHL netminder in Desjardins. If teams are built from the back out, this season's version of the Tampa Bay Lightning are a prime example of how not to build your team.

Unfortunately, that falls directly upon Steve Yzerman. If the Lightning lose today's game against the Jets, I suspect the fire sale will commence in Tampa Bay as Stevie-Y looks to erase memories of this season in preparing for next season.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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