Thursday, 19 October 2017

Russian Fire Extinguishers

It's fair to say that Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper's seat was a little bit hot to start the 2017-18 campaign.  After all, he was the man behind the bench last season as a team once pegged as a Stanley Cup contender crashed head-first into an early golf season.  That kind of disappointment will always put pressure on the coach in pro sports.

Thankfully for Cooper, his Bolts are off to a fantastic start this year.  With a 2-0 shutout victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets now in hand, Tampa sits at a healthy 6-1-1 in the standings.  That's good enough to put them in first place in the Atlantic Division.  So, that fire on the coach's seat?  It's gone now.

Some might point to the fact that the roster is healthy now and suggest that Cooper's systems were never really a problem last year.  Some might suggest that the coach made tweaks that are paying off for his club.  The reality of the situation would indicate that neither of those things are true.  Instead, Cooper has been the recipient of a tremendous amount of help from two Russian fire extinguishers.  The Lightning aren't doing anything particularly well to start the season from a pure Xs and Os perspective, but rather are the beneficiaries of timely goaltending performances from Andrei Vasilevskiy and out-of-this-world offensive production from Nikita Kucherov.  It is those two things that have masked some very serious weaknesses in team performance, the same weaknesses that led to early morning tee times in April.

To illustrate that point, consider the following: Prior to tonight's game, in which they allowed 43 (!) shots against, the Lightning ranked 25th in shots against per 60 minutes of all-situation time.  Vasilevskiy is being taxed at a tremendous rate, and luckily for Cooper & Co. he's largely been up to the task.

On the offensive side of things, it's hard to ignore the fact that the Bolts are riding a tremendous shooting percentage high.  Again prior to tonight's game, the Lightning were shooting at 11.11% at five-on-five, good enough for fourth overall in the NHL.  While the team does have elite shooters on its roster, no team in the league shot at a rate higher than 9.18% last year.  The rush of goals from all angles is therefore unlikely to continue.

The trouble with riding this positive wave of percentages is perhaps best exemplified by looking at expected goals.  As per Corsica, the Lightning (again, prior to the Columbus game) are currently scoring 51.52% of the goals at five-on-five when they are playing.  The expectation for them is a whopping 44.09%, good enough for a 28th place ranking.  If not for Vasilevskiy making an absurd number of saves and Kucherov scoring nearly every time he touches the puck, it's unlikely that the Lightning would be doing what they're doing in the standings right now.

Of course, the benefit of having guys like Vasilevskiy and Kucherov doing their thing is that it buys the rest of the team and coaching staff time to devise a plan to get things back on track.  Having a 6-1-1 cushion makes righting the ship a lot easier than it would be if the team was 1-6-1.  Still, don't be fooled.  There is an urgent need to right the ship.  Hot streaks from a handful of players in a small sample size are masking some fairly serious deficiencies.  It would be prudent for the team to address those things while the going is good.

Fire extinguishers are great for a while, but eventually they run out of foam.  It might be smart to stop playing with matches.

As always, thanks for reading.

(All statistics cited in this blog are courtesy of Corsica.Hockey, a premier source for hockey analytics.)

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