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The Tampa Bay Lightning Aren’t As Terrifying This Year. But That Doesn’t Mean They Can’t Three-Peat.

With the many exciting contenders vying for the Stanley Cup this season, it can be easy to forget that one of them is attempting to become only the sixth-ever NHL team to win three or more consecutive championships. 

The Tampa Bay Lightning are comfortably in playoff position, so perhaps it’s overstating things a bit to say they have flown under the radar this season. But they are barely among the league’s top 10 in points percentage, and they trail multiple teams in the betting odds. (Our forecast model agrees; we give the Bolts just a 5 percent shot at the three-peat.) So are the Lightning still formidable enough to win? And how does this year’s squad stack up to the two previous title-winning versions?

Offensively, Tampa Bay is slightly down from the regular-season editions of those two championship teams, continuing a pattern of slow decline dating back to its record-tying regular season of 2018-19. That team was a powerhouse (until, uh, the playoffs), producing the 27th-most goals per game relative to league average in NHL history, which meant it easily led the league in scoring. The 2019-20 Bolts also led the league, albeit with 0.47 fewer goals per game relative to average, and they maintained roughly the same level of relative output through the playoffs — unlike their predecessors — thanks to the postseason leaders in goals (Brayden Point) and assists (Nikita Kucherov). Last season’s Lightning offense fell further during the regular season, ranking eighth in league scoring with Kucherov sidelined for the entire year, though they did bounce back in the playoffs after he returned for another stellar postseason run.

Which brings us to this year, when Tampa Bay ranks ninth in scoring with its lowest relative goals per game in a regular season since 2016-17. While the Lightning still have some dangerous weapons, with four players — Kucherov, Point, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman — averaging at least 0.90 points per game, their scoring depth is less potent than in the past. (It also hasn’t helped that Kucherov missed 35 games earlier in the season because of a lower-body injury and COVID-19 protocols.) Moreover, Tampa’s power play success rate ranks outside the top 10 for the first time in seven seasons, its shot volume and quality is down from 2019-20 and 2020-21, and the team hasn’t ranked so low in Corsi percentage (13th) since finishing 26th back in 2012-13.

Some of this is because of the attrition of winning championships in a salary-capped league, as almost all of the Lightning’s top contributors this season are still holdovers from the 2019-20 title team’s core. Among Tampa Bay’s top 19 players in goals above replacement1 this season, only four — goalie Brian Elliott and forwards Corey Perry, Ross Colton and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare — were not also on the 2019-20 Lightning. Meanwhile, a number of the contributors from those championship rosters were lost over the intervening years, including forwards Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. Although some of those losses hurt the offense more than others (Goodrow is mainly in the league for his defense), the overall effect has been to hollow out Tampa’s supporting cast and put greater pressure on its star players to generate more of the scoring.

At least the Lightning are holding up as well as ever on defense: They rank eighth in fewest goals allowed per game, with a relative number (0.31 goals per game better than average) tied with 2018-19 and 2020-21 for the best of any season in franchise history. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy continues to be one of the sharpest in the game — over the past five seasons, nobody has come close to matching Vasilevskiy’s performance and consistency in net — and in front of him, Tampa Bay’s defense corps has allowed the fifth-fewest expected goals against per minute of any team. That’s all good news for the Lightning’s three-peat bid, as their defense was actually a more important driving force in their two championship runs than their offense, relative to league average.

The best-case scenario for Tampa Bay is that its offense ticks up in the playoffs with a healthy Kucherov rounding into peak form — he has 13 points in nine games this month — and its defense locks down again en route to a third consecutive Stanley Cup. The gloomy side of the argument is that the Lightning have struggled against most of the clubs they might face in the postseason — they are 15-22 against teams with at least a 50 percent chance of making the playoffs in our model, including a dismal 7-15 mark against fellow Eastern Conference teams in that category. Like most aspiring repeat champions, Tampa is now older (their GAR-weighted age of 29.0 ranks fourth-oldest in the NHL this year), and their depth has been eroded as compared with previous versions of the team:

Tampa Bay’s top players aren’t quite as strong as usual

Adjusted goals above replacement (GAR) for members of the 2021-22 Tampa Bay Lightning, compared with the average GAR for that ranking within the team in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 regular seasons

Adjusted GAR
Player Pos Games OFF. DEF. Goalie Total 20/21 Avg. For Rk vs. Avg.
1 Victor Hedman D 75 14.8 8.9 0.0 23.8 25.8 -2.0
2 Steven Stamkos C 74 15.6 4.2 0.0 19.8 18.7 +1.1
3 Andrei Vasilevskiy G 58 0.0 0.0 17.5 17.5 16.8 +0.7
4 Brayden Point C 61 9.4 2.3 0.0 11.7 15.3 -3.6
5 Nikita Kucherov RW 40 9.4 1.3 0.0 10.7 14.4 -3.7
6 Alex Killorn C 75 7.2 3.1 0.0 10.3 12.4 -2.1
7 Mikhail Sergachev D 71 4.4 5.8 0.0 10.1 12.0 -1.8
8 Jan Rutta D 71 0.7 6.7 0.0 7.4 10.8 -3.5
9 Anthony Cirelli C 70 3.6 3.8 0.0 7.4 9.4 -2.0
10 Corey Perry RW 75 4.6 2.8 0.0 7.3 9.2 -1.9
11 Ondrej Palat LW 70 4.3 3.0 0.0 7.2 6.7 +0.5
12 Ross Colton C 72 4.6 2.2 0.0 6.7 5.0 +1.7
13 Ryan McDonagh D 64 0.7 5.5 0.0 6.3 4.5 +1.8
14 Pat Maroon LW 74 0.7 3.2 0.0 3.9 4.4 -0.4
15 P. Bellemare LW 74 -0.6 4.1 0.0 3.5 3.6 -0.1
16 Brian Elliott G 17 0.0 0.0 2.8 2.8 3.4 -0.6
17 Erik Cernak D 48 -0.9 3.5 0.0 2.6 3.1 -0.5
18 Zach Bogosian D 41 0.3 2.3 0.0 2.6 2.5 +0.1
19 Mathieu Joseph RW 58 0.3 2.0 0.0 2.3 2.2 +0.1
20 Nick Paul LW 14 1.2 0.6 0.0 1.8 1.7 +0.1

Adjusted GAR is prorated to an 82-game schedule. Through games of April 17, 2022.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

Though it remains solidly above-average, on paper this has been the weakest of Tampa Bay’s potential championship squads from the past several seasons, in a year when most of the other top contenders have only gotten stronger. Staring at a likely opening-round matchup with the talent-laden (if probably cursed) Toronto Maple Leafs, the Bolts’ three-peat bid might not even survive the first round of the playoffs. But if Tampa is able to keep its string of postseason successes going, it would line up among the greatest dynasties the sport has ever known. Right now, the Lightning rank 15th in average three-year Elo rating (going into the playoffs) among potential three-peat bids in NHL history, neck-and-neck with the 1998-99 Detroit Red Wings:

Tampa Bay is in a special club — and it could get more special

Three-peat Stanley Cup bids in NHL history ranked by the average of the team’s Elo rating through the previous two postseasons plus the current regular season

Elo Ratings
Year Team Yr 1 Final Yr 2 Final Yr 3 Reg Season Average Won 3rd Cup?
1978 Montreal Canadiens 1673 1716 1704 1697.7 🏆
1979 Montreal Canadiens 1716 1711 1656 1694.6 🏆
1980 Montreal Canadiens 1711 1665 1621 1665.8
1986 Edmonton Oilers 1644 1639 1635 1639.3
1984 New York Islanders 1656 1627 1602 1628.3
1983 New York Islanders 1628 1656 1586 1623.4 🏆
1982 New York Islanders 1593 1628 1647 1622.6 🏆
1976 Philadelphia Flyers 1602 1614 1628 1614.4
1958 Montreal Canadiens 1616 1591 1595 1600.6 🏆
1961 Montreal Canadiens 1599 1607 1595 1600.4
1959 Montreal Canadiens 1591 1604 1597 1597.2 🏆
1960 Montreal Canadiens 1604 1599 1584 1595.7 🏆
1989 Edmonton Oilers 1616 1624 1543 1594.2
1999 Detroit Red Wings 1606 1607 1558 1590.5
2022 Tampa Bay Lightning 1603 1596 1569 1589.3 ??
1993 Pittsburgh Penguins 1558 1575 1615 1582.7
1956 Detroit Red Wings 1579 1608 1561 1582.5
1970 Montreal Canadiens 1583 1600 1555 1579.4
2018 Pittsburgh Penguins 1584 1586 1561 1577.0
1967 Montreal Canadiens 1552 1590 1550 1563.7
1964 Toronto Maple Leafs 1560 1575 1547 1560.8 🏆
1932 Montreal Canadiens 1552 1565 1561 1559.2
1949 Toronto Maple Leafs 1554 1589 1522 1555.1 🏆
1965 Toronto Maple Leafs 1575 1556 1533 1554.8
1950 Toronto Maple Leafs 1589 1547 1521 1552.7
1938 Detroit Red Wings 1553 1552 1486 1530.1
1926 Montreal Canadiens 1518 1526 1451 1498.2

Through games of April 17. 2022.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

That team’s reign ultimately ended in the second round of the playoffs, as Detroit’s aging roster came up against another talented team with fresher legs (in the form of the bitter rival Colorado Avalanche), and the Red Wings blew a 2-0 lead to lose in six games. A similar fate could very well be in store for this year’s Bolts, particularly given the heightened competition atop the league this season. After all, making three consecutive deep runs in the NHL postseason is one of the most grueling tasks in all of sports, and there’s a reason most of the teams that try it ultimately fail. But Tampa Bay still has the ingredients to make history — and no matter what happens, it’s going to be entertaining to watch this Lightning team try to pull it off. 

Check out our latest NHL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. My spin on value stats like Tom Awad’s Goals Versus Threshold and Hockey-Reference.com’s Point Shares. GAR strives to better balance value between positions by ensuring that forwards get 60 percent of leaguewide value, while defensemen get 30 percent and goalies get 10 percent. (You can find historical GAR data here.)

Neil Paine is the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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