Since the NHL returned to play, it seemed the most consistent narrative during broadcasts was whether or not the Lightning would be able to recover from last season’s postseason failure against the Blue Jackets. Now that they’re the Stanley Cup champions, that debate is clearly answered. That still leaves the question of how they managed to have so much more success this postseason.
The common reasoning among the media has been that the Lightning completely remade their team, becoming more physical and tougher to play against. Despite that, the majority of the consistent contributors throughout the playoffs have been players that were already there last season. With that in mind, did the Lightning really change how they play or is there another driver for their increased success in these playoffs?
As a starting point, the Lightning brought in six players that have played at least some type of role in the playoffs:
Kevin Shattenkirk - Signed last offseason after being bought out by the Rangers. Not a physical presence, but a strong performer for Tampa with 13 points in 25 postseason games.
Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman - Acquired in February trades from San Jose and New Jersey. I’m combining because they’ve largely played together with Tampa and fill similar roles. These two are the best examples in favor of the narrative surrounding the Lightning, averaging a combined 31 hits/60 (third and fourth on the team). Their line was consistent at driving possession, and they were both great on the penalty kill as well.
Patrick Maroon - Signed last offseason after winning the Stanley Cup with St. Louis. Another physical presence, but had a much smaller role and averaged 12:36 per game in the playoffs.
Zach Bogosian - Signed after being released by Buffalo in February. Played in 20 games and averaged just over 17 minutes, with strong possession numbers throughout. Bogosian is capable of the type of physicality that Tampa did need; he doesn’t throw a ton of hits, but Tampa was terrible against Columbus last season at clearing out the front of the net.
Shot Chart from 2019 Playoffs (from Natural Stat Trick)
Luke Schenn - Signed prior to the season, and was not used consistently throughout the year. Played in just 11 playoff games. A physical player who was second on the team in hits/60, but played only just over 10 minutes per game when he dressed.
Tampa Players by 2019-20 Playoff Points (New Additions in Blue)
Who’s Gone from Last season’s Team?
Dan Girardi - Girardi in his prime was the type of player that many suggested Tampa was missing last season. However, he struggled significantly against Columbus, was forced into a larger role than he should have had, and probably didn’t fit into Tampa’s style of play even when in his prime. Retired in September.
Ryan Callahan - One of Tampa’s most physical players, but struggled with significant injuries throughout the second-half of last season and only played in two playoff games. Placed on long-term IR after last season with degenerative back disease.
Adam Erne - Another of Tampa’s more physical players in last season’s playoffs, averaging 20 hits/60 but playing only about 9 minutes per game. Traded to Detroit before the season.
Mathieu Joseph - Similar to Erne, played physically last year but in a small role. Still with Tampa, but was not used in this year’s playoffs.
J.T. Miller - While not physical, a very effective player for Tampa who had two points in the series against Columbus. Traded to Vancouver during the offseason, but likely for salary cap room and not because of performance or because they wanted to remake the team.
What Changed to Drive Playoff Success?
Tampa clearly made sound moves, especially the mid-season acquisitions, but those personnel changes made by Tampa weren’t enough to indicate a change in playoff success. With that in mind, the next place to look would be if there was a change in the style of play that made the difference. Most of the stats would say no.
During the regular season, the Lightning had 23.7 hits/60 this season compared to 25.48 last year
Hits did increase in this year’s playoffs compared to last, but I have shown that an increase in hits doesn’t necessarily correspond to increased success
There are signs of the Lightning actually playing more open games in this year’s playoffs, with both giveaways and takeaways increasing
One sign in favor of a changed team - despite having a worse record, the Lightning had a better share of 5v5 scoring this season (58.3% vs 56.7%)
The Lightning have gotten good contributions from a few pickups and did show small changes in their underlying stats, but it seems obvious that the biggest drivers of increased success are the players from last season performing better with the same style of play.
First of all, Victor Hedman just finished winning the Conn Smythe trophy; he was injured and only played two of the games in last year’s series. Even when he did play, his playing time and effectiveness were limited. Considering Columbus’ style of play, the importance of this one can’t be overstated. With a team that plays as tight defensively as they do, a puck moving defenseman that can advance the puck quickly is key; missing that aspect may be the most important driver of the Lightning’s failure in 2019.
Secondly, multiple veterans who struggled last year became key pieces this season. Nikita Kucherov was held to two points in three games, and his frustration turned into a suspension for Game 3 - this year he led the Lightning with 34 points and had consistently great possession numbers. Ondrej Palat was another key to this year’s success, and one who was largely unlucky last season. Palat had 18 points this postseason after just two last season, but had strong possession numbers last year with bad shooting percentage luck. Finally, Andrei Vasilevskiy went from a .856 save percentage in last year’s playoffs to .927 this year. For the most important position on the ice, that improvement back to form was vital.
The third change is one that was helped by some of the mid-season additions: the Lightning were awful on the penalty kill during last season’s series, giving up five goals in ten opportunities while drawing six fewer penalties than they took. Importantly, that success rate increased to a great 86.1% this postseason. Goodrow and Coleman were key to that and it was extremely important, especially since even with better discipline that last year the Lightning still took 17 more penalties than they drew in these playoffs.
Finally, the Lightning continued to see growth and improved play from multiple young pieces that played key roles in their success. Brayden Point is the best example, exploding to be a Conn Smythe candidate this year. Mikhail Sergachecv’s success was just as vital, becoming a second puck moving defenseman with a strong all-around game. Tampa’s ability to keep finding these players and letting them develop instead of moving them for a quick fix was essential to breaking through this year.
What Lessons Can Other Teams Take From This?
There are two primary lessons that I think teams can take from this. The first is around the style of play; as I’ve stated before, I don’t believe there’s only one way to win and that everyone needs to head that direction. What I do think is important is not getting sucked into playing your opponent’s style if it doesn’t suit you. To me, that is where Tampa fell flat last year and they failed to make Columbus adapt to their style of play; the lack of Hedman either completely or at full strength was obviously a huge part of that.. This year Tampa was able to play teams with different strategies and find ways to play to their strengths against all of them.
The second lesson is around patience and accurately assessing your team. It would have been easy to overreact to last season and fire Jon Cooper or make drastic changes, and the same could be said of the lack of playoff success in the past. Instead, Tampa stuck to their plan and continued to develop. Importantly, they didn’t bring on players that could add one dimension but simply aren’t effective hockey players - everyone brought in is able to help drive possession and control the game in addition to adding new dynamics.
Obviously, there are times where a team is headed the wrong way and needs to be blown up; the Lightning’s success points to the importance of identifying if you’re in that position and not overreacting if you aren’t. The Lightning leaned on an outstanding regular season instead of a poor small sample in the playoffs, and doing so brought the Stanley Cup back to Tampa.