Can Ageless Martin St. Louis Carry Lightning's Offense Without Steven Stamkos?

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor INovember 24, 2013

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 19:  Martin St. Louis #26 of the Tampa Bay Lightning warms up prior to playing in his 1000th career NHL game against the Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center on November 19, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Noah Graham/NHLI via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Tampa Bay's high-scoring superstar Steven Stamkos is out indefinitely with a broken leg. But wait! The Bolts also have last year's scoring leader Martin St. Louis.

At age 38, with over a thousand NHL games under his belt, can their accomplished captain carry the offense? Unfortunately the odds are against him, as recent declines in his playmaking abilities, and in the team's overall power play, may have been masked by Stamkos' exceptional play.

That's not to say that St. Louis isn't a highly consistent and accomplished scorer. He is seventh among active players in career assists (585) and ninth in points (933). Only San Jose's Joe Thornton has more points than St. Louis since the 2003-04 season when he first won the Art Ross trophy.

Nevertheless, Tampa Bay has lost four straight after two initial wins without Stamkos. They've scored 13 goals in those six games, five of which directly involved St. Louis. That's a full goal per game fewer than they averaged when their prolific sniper was in the lineup.

Is this what we should expect from the Lightning for the foreseeable future, or can St. Louis help drive the offense back up to its previous heights?

A look at three analytics in particular can shed some light on this question. First, a look at St. Louis' scoring both with Stamkos and without over the past six seasons, a closer analysis of his playmaking in a way that's independent of his winger's scoring talent, and finally an examination of which way they've been trending with the man advantage.

With and Without Stamkos

Obviously playing with someone of Stamkos' offensive talents is going to boost one's scoring, but by how much? Thanks to the information made available to us by Hockey Analysis, we can quantify that boost by comparing St. Louis' scoring both when he's been playing with Stamkos and when he hasn't.

The following table shows how many points St. Louis has scored in both situations over the years, and in how much ice time. Based on his rate of scoring per 60 minutes, he did better with Stamkos in four of six seasons, including in 2013-14. Overall Stamkos has increased his scoring by 10.8 percent, which has worked out to an extra 17 points over those six seasons.

St. Louis With and Without Stamkos (five-on-five)
Hockey Analysis

It's not quite as simple as that, of course. Whether or not St. Louis' scoring will slip by 10 percent depends on whom St. Louis will be playing with, and how great that skill gap is between them and Stamkos.

When Stamkos entered the NHL in 2008-09, St. Louis had been playing mostly with Vincent Lecavalier (now of the Flyers), with either Vaclav "Vinny" Prospal (now a free agent) or Ryan Malone on the other wing.

By 2009-10 the two were put together, usually with someone tough like Ryan Malone or Steve Downie on the other wing. Teddy Purcell was added to the mix starting in 2010-11, and Alex Killorn more recently.

While these are mostly legitimate top-six forwards, you hardly need analytics to conclude that when he wasn't playing with Stamkos, St. Louis was generally playing with secondary scorers only (Lecavalier excepted).

Unfortunately that will continue to be the case in Stamkos' absence. For the first three games without Stamkos this season, St. Louis played with Alex Killorn and Brett Connolly, and then shuffled to play with Valtteri Filppula and Teddy Purcell for the next three.

While Filppula, Purcell and Killorn previously gave Tampa Bay a legitimate secondary scoring threat, this now effectively places all their top-shelf scoring talent on a single line. If opponents can key in and shut down that one line, that only leaves the promising young line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik as their next greatest scoring option.

The only way Tampa Bay will continue to be one of the league's greater scoring threats is if St. Louis' highly respected playmaking skills can make a top goal scorer out of these secondary players, who include only three 20-goal scorers, and a single-season career high of 27 (Malone in 2007-08).

St. Louis' Playmaking Decline

Judging a playmaker by his assist totals can be deceiving, especially when they're lucky enough to play with a sniper like Stamkos who scores on 17.5 percent of his shots.

Counting the number of setup passes a player is making can help evaluate their playmaking contributions in a way that's more independent of their linemates. While these passes are unfortunately not currently recorded explicitly, the estimates suggest that St. Louis' days as one of the league's top ten playmakers are over.

Martin St. Louis' Playmaking
Hockey Abstract

While his assists may have held strong over the year, there's a clear downward trend in the number of setup passes that St. Louis has been completing. While that may be enough opportunities for Stamkos to keep lighting the red lamp, it's likely not going to be enough for the likes of Filppula and Purcell.

Tampa Bay's Power Play Decline

Tampa Bay may have three power-play goals in the six games since Stamkos was injured, but based on the number of shots they've been taking, that's not likely to continue.

Tampa Bay's Power Play

Tampa Bay's shots per two minutes with the man advantage was a very consistent 1.74 to 1.80 from 2007-08 to 2010-11, which includes seasons both with Stamkos and without. While there's no obvious explanation for such a drop, from 2011-12 to present, Tampa Bay has averaged between 1.43 to 1.52.

Stamkos is largely to credit for how the Bolts have been able to keep humming along at around the league average level despite dropping to the league's basement in shots generated. Will Tampa Bay continue to score on 19 percent of its shots without him? Probably not, at which point the issues with the Lightning's power play, which may date back two years, will get blamed on his absence. And there's likely very little that even St. Louis can do about it.

Closing Thoughts

St. Louis is one of the most accomplished scorers of the past decade, but both he and the team in general have been on a slight decline offensively over the past two or three seasons. The true extent of that decline has been partially masked by the exceptional play of Stamkos, one of the game's best goal scorers.

In Stamkos' absence, a 38-year-old St. Louis will be relying on the likes of Filppula and Purcell to help him drive the team's offense, two players in their late 20s with only two 20-goal seasons between them. It will be an uphill battle for Tampa Bay's captain, who may no longer be a legitimate Art Ross contender nor an elite top-10 playmaker with anyone but Stamkos at his side.

Of course, St. Louis has had the odds stacked against him before, and found a way to exceed expectations. Stamkos' absence may be his greatest challenge yet.

All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted. 

Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.


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