The Tampa Bay Lightning and the rest of the hockey world held its collective breathe on Nov. 11 as Steven Stamkos went sliding into the goal post on a back check against the Boston Bruins. Stamkos crashed into the post and fractured his tibia, leaving a big hole in the Lightning lineup and the team searching for ways to adjust.
The numbers speak volumes for Stamkos' impact on the team. The Bolts' 2-1 shootout win over Montreal on Nov. 12 was the first time in 344 straight games Stamkos hadn't been in the lineup, per Arpon Basu of NHL.com.
According to Basu's report, Stamkos had missed only three games in his career before the injury. Before the Nov. 12 game, Stamkos had 14 of the Lightning's 52 non-shootout goals—26.9 percent of the offense. Counting all of his points (goals and assists), he was a part of 44.2 percent of the Lightning's production. Only Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby has been a bigger part of his team's offense (46.9 percent).
A successful surgery hasn't yielded a timetable for his recovery and return—yet. In the meantime, the Lightning will need to figure out how to adjust without Stamkos and here is how.
Defense, Defense, Defense
Have we stressed defense? One of Tampa Bay’s biggest weaknesses in the last few seasons have been defense. They are off to a solid start this year—tied for 11th in the league with a 2.39 goals-against average—but the Bolts are missing a big piece of the puzzle now.
With such a big part of the offense missing, the Lightning will need to stress defense—as they displayed in the Montreal game from Nov. 12. Scores of 2-1 or 1-0 may not be typical Lightning scores, but they could be the norm for the next few months.
Coach Jon Cooper said (via NHL.com):
"The one thing coming into this season wasn't how many goals we were going to score; it was how many we were going to keep out of the net," Cooper said. "We've done that this year. It started with our goaltending, but as a collective group we don't give up the grade-A chances we used to. You need five guys to do that, not just one guy.”
Team defense will be a big part of the Lightning maintaining a playoff spot without Stamkos.
Smart Plays at the Blue Line
The Lightning still struggle with consistency at the blue lines occasionally. With a young team of forwards, they can try to get too fancy with the puck entering the offensive zone, which leads to odd-man rushes the other way. Similarly, the Lightning need to be better at getting the puck out of their own zone.
With Stamkos in the lineup, Tampa Bay can get away with a turnover here and there. Odds are, the Lightning sniper will amend those mistakes with one of his patented one-timers. With that offense out of commission, the Bolts won't be able to play catch-up as effectively.
The Bolts will need to play smarter hockey at the blue lines if they are going to survive the next few months.
Be More Efficient on Special Teams
Tampa Bay has enough weapons on the team to be devastating on the power play, and they have the size and speed to be effective on the penalty kill. The Lightning need to make adjustments to take advantage of their opportunities.
The Bolts are currently 20th in the league on the power play (17.4 percent) after going 12-for-69 in their first 18 games. They are a surprising fifth on the penalty kill at 86.2 percent. They have given up nine goals on 65 opportunities.
There will be some growing pains with the power-play units as they adjust to life without Stamkos. As the game against the Canadiens showed, the Bolts no longer have the presence that forces defenses to shift. Tampa Bay was able to make cross-ice passes but they were out of sync early. Things should improve with chemistry.
The easiest way to help the penalty kill is to limit penalties. Giving up power-play goals makes things difficult for the team to come back from. Tampa Bay averages 12.7 penalty minutes per game (22nd in the league).
Penalty numbers are slightly higher due to the 10 majors and two misconducts, but the Lightning have taken 70 minor penalties in 18 games.
Without the offensive production Stamkos provides, the Bolts need to make sure they are limiting penalties and taking advantage of power-play opportunities.
If the Lightning continue to play their game, they can continue to be a dangerous team. The upcoming road trip to the West Coast will show the team and its fans just how effective the Bolts can be without Stamkos.
Statistics courtesy of NHL.com.