Getting to know the Tampa Bay Lightning
...And how worried Bolts fans are right now.
[Editor's Note: We wanted to get to know the Tampa Bay Lightning a bit better, so we asked Bolts fan (and closet Wings fan) Achariya to give the Tampa Fan's perspective on the Wings' first round opponent. Enjoy!]
Last year's playoff series between the Red Wings and Lightning felt kind of great, honestly. It felt magical, because it was the meeting of Steve Yzerman's old team and his new team, and maybe (to Lightning fans) like meeting your big brother for a friendly few weeks of "this is the playoffs, kid" style hazing.
This year's run feels entirely different. Frankly, it feels like a shitty playoff run that the Bolts might not survive. Not only does the Lightning lineup feel strained at the seams right now due to the loss of a top-pair defenseman in Anton Stralman, and the team's 1C in Steven Stamkos, but a lot of stress fractures are beginning to show in a lineup that should have been well tested by last year's run.
Jon Cooper has serious trust issues
At the beginning of the season, I was asked to talk about the Bolts by The Committed Indian, in advance of our first post-SCF meeting with the Blackhawks. The editor asked me an interesting question, "What would prevent the Bolts from going one step farther this spring other than weirdness or injuries in the playoffs?" And these were my answers:
Worst case scenario: Tyler Johnson is still nursing lingering issues from the wrist he broke a few months ago, and cannot regain the scoring power that lifted Tampa over the other contenders in the Atlantic. He was Tampa's hidden sniper, lying in wait for just one careless moment from an award-winning goaltender like Price or Lundqvist to unleash his sneaky shot into the net. The season is young, but Johnson's line has been comparatively quiet, matching Tampa's third line in production. Without Johnson's touch, and without chemistry gelling with his line mates, I fear that Tampa won't be the same team it was last season.
More worst case: Bishop gets so worn out because Cooper is afraid of starting Vasilevskiy that he gives up five goals every game, like he did against the Predators earlier this week.
Uber-worst case: We've seen the extent of Cooper's ability to coach, and it's not quite good enough. He's stopped evolving.
Two out of three of my predictions became real. Ben Bishop, on the other hand, deserves a Vezina look for carrying a hurt team on his back into playoffs.
Yes, Tyler Johnson was nursing injuries. His wrist was still healing for most of the season, and didn't really show signs of getting better until after the All-Star break. Now he's been concussed, thanks, Canadiens. But that in itself isn't the terrible part. The terrible part emerges from my "Uber-worst case" scenario: Jon Cooper is a pretty good coach with good systems who relies far, far, far too heavily on a few favorite players to carry out his on-ice plans.
Why was Johnson, with his clearly broken wrist, still a 2nd line center in the Eastern Conference Final and in the Stanley Cup Final? Why did Cooper continue to deploy him throughout this season as a 2C, despite his wrist being incompletely rehabilitated? In press conferences, Cooper has answered with things like, "It's his play away from the puck that matters," but what he's done is deploy a consistently ineffective player despite all signs that this player couldn't play.
There are more questions about deployment than that.
He played older veterans like Brendan Morrow instead of Jonathan Drouin in last season's playoff race, to the extent that even Drouin realized it was bullshit, and tried to leave the organization.
Why is slower, less skillful Ryan Callahan given more time playing beside Steven Stamkos, instead of better skaters like Ondrej Palat or Drouin? Why is Stamkos sometimes used as Valtteri Filppula's winger, and why use this deployment when it very obviously is part of the tense talks surrounding Stamkos's contract negotiation?
Why is Matt Carle allowed to remain on the ice despite Slater Koekkoek hiding out in the prospect ranks? It's not like he's a rare right-shot defenseman like Andrej Sustr, so...why? Why does Cooper make the deployment choices that he makes, despite the plethora of skilled young players like Drouin, or Jonathan Marchessault, or Anthony DeAngelo, or Adam Erne in the system?
Bolts fans are deeply concerned because with Stralman out of the lineup with a very broken leg, Carle has appeared occasionally as Victor Hedman's defensive partner. That's...first-pair D-man Matt Carle. I'd play literally anyone instead of him, and it's not like we don't have them around. Excellent prospects Nikita Nesterov and Koekkoek are also left-shots, but they've been scratched on occasion in favor of veteran Carle (at least that was getting better before this latest round of injuries).
All of these questions are troubling during the regular season, but in the playoffs, they become critical.
Until Cooper can get over his insecurity about trusting in youth or people that he doesn't "know" from his days coaching them in the AHL, there will always be questions about his deployment. This is why, no matter how solid Cooper's breakout systems, or clever his matchups, he's in danger of ceasing to evolve as a coach.
Tampa's one actual saving grace is the number of injuries to the lineup.
Now Cooper MUST trust Drouin, and MUST play younger D to make up for all of the injuries. Will this forced reliance on a new crop of players help more than hurt, in the end?
Bolts Jolts @BoltsJolts
@Brock_Seguin Also now it's looking like Cooper might not even play Namestnikov. Yeah I'm out. #unbelievable...Or not.
What are you going to do now, Cooper? Will you evolve beyond your prejudices, or will we see the same veteran players and busted lineup choices on the ice instead of healthy ones?
Will this Pokemon evolve?
One last critique of Cooper
Please, please, for the love of hockey, hire an actual, real special teams coach instead of trying to do it yourself.