Heading into our second game against the Lightning this season, we wanted to check in with one of our favorite division rival blogs in Raw Charge before our two teams faced off. With two franchises having more in common than one might think you'd find between an Original Six team and a Cup-Winning expansion team (suck it, Blues), we gave them four questions to answer and they were kind enough to oblige us with some answers.
Head over to Raw Charge and check out their questions for us as well. They've got a knowledgeable and passionate community over there and they like Steve Yzerman almost as much as we do. That counts huge in my book.
Four Questions with Raw Charge
1. What's the general feeling surrounding Steve Yzerman this season as far as how far into his franchise reload he is and the kind of job he's doing? Is there any consternation about how busy he seems to be making himself right now? Between running the Lightning and putting together Canada's Olympic team as their GM he already had a full plate, but now he's also committed to play in the Winter Classic Alumni Showdown for the Wings. It's got to be hard to begrudge a guy doing all those things, but at the same time, you kind of want all his focus on the Bolts, right?
While no fanbase is unanimous on everything, the majority of fans appreciate Yzerman's patient approach to building the Lightning. After all, this approach has gotten the team the kind of depth they'll need to survive the loss of Steven Stamkos. It has also allowed Yzerman to avoid the worst of the free agent and trade market for the most part. That's kept costs down significantly and we're still seeing visible progress in the on-ice product. Things are tightening for him, though. It's been three years now. Right now it looks like the Lightning can stay competitive enough to be in the playoff hunt come April. If the Lightning get to the playoffs this season then significantly falter next season, a lot of the goodwill he's built up could erode. And it remains to be seen how much he'll be able to dip into the minors for players for next season, which may force him to overpay for free agents this summer.
There was some grumbling in the spring when Guy Boucher was let go and over the summer when people questioned his moves at the draft and in free agency. Very often the moves he makes aren't the obvious ones, and that can make people nervous. It takes time to see the end game of some things (such as the Filppula signing). So far, however, most of his decisions have either panned out or at least seemed like a reasonable thing at the time. He's very good at not letting criticism distract him from his plans, and he's not afraid to do nothing--which is a vastly underrated skill. And even when he surprises people (which is often) it usually turns out to be something that's good for the club.
So far, there's very little concern being expressed over his involvement with either Team Canada or the Winter Classic. Just pride, really. That might change if something goes wrong and it appears that he drops one of the many, many balls he has in the air. It's hard to imagine what kind of a blunder that might be, however.
2. Speaking of former Wings, how is Valtteri Filppula performing at this point? By this point, a large portion of Red Wings fans would much rather have him than Stephen Weiss (4 points in 26 games), but how's he holding up with Bolts fans after a strong start to the season has cooled down a bit (thanks in no small part to the Stamkos injury)?
Valterri Filppula has been nothing short of a revelation in Tampa Bay. Two of the biggest issues for the Lightning last season were puck possession and goals against, and Filppula has been an elixir for both. The Bolts are controlling 51.5% of all shot attempts with Filppula on the ice, and he's been on the ice a ton (19:43 per game, behind only Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis) and getting very tough assignments, both in terms of zone starts (47.4%, 4th lowest on the team) and quality of competition (4th hardest on the team). In short, he's playing big top-6 minutes, being asked to do so against a lot of top lines, and he's excelling. His puck-handling and on-ice vision have also made him one of the Bolts' best players in the neutral zone; he has an insistence that borders on downright stubbornness to carry the puck into the offensive third rather than play dump and chase, which has been a tremendous boon to the possession game the Lightning are trying to play.
Playing center was something some were unsure about with Filppula, but he's taken to the 2C (and even 1C, with Stamkos out) role quite nicely. No one can replace the elite scoring/shot rate that Stamkos offers, but the Lightning are doing well enough to keep their heads above water without number 91, and Filppula has been a big part of that. He's winning over 50% of his draws and is regularly the first forward back into the defensive zone. You'll rarely catch him making an egregious error or turnover that leads to a goal against. And he's the only Lightning forward with more than one successful shootout attempt this year -- he's 3/4 after being stopped on his 4th attempt by Philipp Grubauer recently in Washington. Considering the Lightning are 3-1 now in shootouts this season, it's not outlandish to give Filppula a lot of credit for those bonus points earned.
The point totals are maybe a little bit low for what people expect out of a typical 2nd line center, especially one earning the third most among forwards on the team. He's currently on pace for just around 55 points on the year, but that's nothing that wasn't expected. Hampered by injuries and a lot of bad luck his last season in Detroit (career low 979 PDO one year after his career high of 1035 and his 60 point season skating with Zetterberg) he was definitely a candidate for a bounce-back season. In spite of his own ridiculously high shooting percentage this year with the Lightning (20.8%), his PDO is still pretty low at 995, 2nd worst on the Lightning and mostly due to an on-ice shooting percentage of just 6.1%. So when more pucks start to go in for his linemates, another 60 point season is not something that is out of reach for Filppula, but even if he just stays on his current pace he's more than justified his contract and made Yzerman look smart for signing him, particularly over the glut of centers near his age that came available last summer like Stephen Weiss, Mike Ribeiro, Mikhail Grabovski, and Derek Roy.
When the cap goes up to the projected 71 million, his 5x5 deal is looking as if it is going to be a steal for his age 30-33 seasons, and his offensive flexibility as a C/LW means he'll be the perfect candidate to slide down to 3C or play left wing in the top 6 when one of Jonathan Drouin or Vlad Namestnikov ascends the depth chart as the long-term 2C behind Steven Stamkos.
3. How comparable would you say the Red Wings and the Lightning are this season? What are the biggest similarities/differences you see?
The Wings and the Lightning both enjoy a similar place in the standings within the Atlantic Division. In fact, Detroit is only a point ahead of Tampa Bay right now. They similar in that aspect, but the very different part comes in when you look at the playoff picture. The Wings are sitting in third in the division, which automatically gives them a berth, while the Lightning sit just outside atop the Wild Card standings.
The Lightning have a better home record than the Red Wings, and the reverse is true for the road record. But for the past ten games Detroit has held things together much better than Tampa Bay has. Probably because the Bolts have had more of their lineup in flux than the Wings have.
Same goes with injuries. Detroit has lost some key personnel recently, keeping them out of the lineup, like the captain Henrik Zetterberg with a herniated disk. Tampa Bay has also lost key personnel recently, that being Steven Stamkos to a broken leg and more recently Victor Hedman to a lower body injury. Zetterberg, however, is only listed day-to-day, as his Hedman for that matter, while Stamkos is out indefinitely. [Ed note: this was written before Zetterberg was placed on LTIR]
It appears that, on the surface, there are a number of similarities between the two teams. But if you scratch that surface just a little, then Lightning's problems are a seemingly magnified version of the Red Wings'. The biggest comparison and contrast between the two teams are probably the number of players on injured reserve. Detroit might be leaning heavily upon their farm team due to injuries this season, but Tampa Bay has stripped that cupboard almost completely bare.
4. Talk to us about the hockey fan culture in Tampa Bay. Lazy northerners love to take pot-shots at the state of Florida, but the Lightning are currently outdrawing Ottawa both in terms of percentage and total number of fans at home games so far. Measured simply by the number of butts in the seats, they're hanging just outside the top third in the league for attendance. Is there a strong swelling of pride among Bolts fans that their numbers are strong despite being underrated?
Well, let’s be honest about Florida for one second: often enough, it earns every type of pot shot that the north (or west, or elsewhere in the south) throw at it. But it’s not a case of "Florida doesn’t deserve pro sports" like was stated by a Boston columnist earlier this fall (while trying to build up local pride in New England).
I think it’s been stated and shown elsewhere on the Internet that Tampa Bay is a devoted hockey market. The Lightning aren’t the top team in the region – football (be it pro or collegiate or high school) dominates the culture and baseball has long, long ties to the area through spring training and as a hotbed for baseball talent (counter point: Yeah, yeah, the area loves baseball up until you put a MLB team in St. Petersburg, but that’s a ball of wax for a different blog). That doesn’t mean the Bolts haven’t carved their niche in the local psych over the years.
It was chronicled almost five years ago the torrid decline of the team’s attendance during the tenure of owners Len Barrie and Oren Koules… And earlier this year we pointed out over at Raw Charge that everything has rebounded since then with thanks to the direction of ownership. It should be admitted that the product on-ice improved which helped bring fans back, which can lead to the accusation of being a fickle sort. The truth is that the economics of the area don’t afford us as much disposable income to buy tickets when the product isn’t worth watching.
Current ownership has given fans every reason to enjoy hockey in Tampa, and that’s not latching on to the competition level of the club alone. The ambiance at the Tampa Bay Times Forum is one of the most complimented ones – from the deluxe center-ice scoreboard to the pipe organ to the hanging tesla coils that fire off lightning bolts after ever Tampa Bay goal, hockey in Tampa’s unique experience at a hockey game you won’t find in many other NHL markets. And we do take pride in that.