TAMPA, Fla. — Two power names, one imbalance. A pair of sure-fire producers, one reason their impact didn’t go as far as it should.
First, some math. The league’s two top points producers (center Steven Stamkos and winger Marty St. Louis) + the league’s assist leader (St. Louis) + the league’s second-highest goal scorer (Stamkos) should equal a playoff contender. But that wasn’t the case with the Tampa Bay Lightning last season. Something scrambled the logic.
Part of the reason? The Bolts ranked No. 26 with a 3.06 goals-against average.
Oh, the Lightning’s offense had spark, thanks to their dynamic duo. But often, so did threats on the opposite bench.
“We know we have one of the best offenses in the league,” Lightning goalie Anders Lindback said Tuesday. “It’s so important that we tighten it up a little bit more. If we can get our defensive game a little bit better, we’ll be in really good shape.”
It’s hard to argue there. It’s tempting to wonder how good the Lightning could have been last season had they showed more defensive discipline. Despite the obvious obstacles — a coaching change, sustained losing streaks after a strong start, etc. — this was a skilled group that was capable of more with tighter play when defending the puck.
Would they have finished with an 18-26-4 record with more consistent play on that end? What about closing with 40 points, good for third-fewest in the league? It’s unlikely.
This much is certain: Stamkos and St. Louis will produce again. Both will be stars, as long as they stay healthy. Stamkos, entering his sixth season, has earned at least 91 points in each of the past three full-length seasons. St. Louis, entering his 15th, has earned at least 80 in five of the past six full-length campaigns.
The power names will be back. What about a stronger firewall?
“Each and every year, you gain more experience in this league,” Stamkos said. “You want to be more of a leader, and you’re definitely willing on take on that role.”
“The points stuff, that’s a great individual accomplishment,” St. Louis said. “But I don’t think you judge yourself as a player based on that. … I’ve got to find a way to be better so that I can help my team get into the playoffs. I think that’s everybody’s attitude.”
It’s a good one to have leading into Jon Cooper’s first full season as coach. No one needs to tell the men in Tampa Bay’s locker room twice about the challenge ahead, about life in the Atlantic Division that includes five returning playoff teams: the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings.
The task will be far from easy. The Lightning don’t need to be the league’s best on defense this winter, but an improvement would make Stamkos’ and St. Louis’ contributions go that much further. These are far from me-first, attention-seeking personalities. Both have the right priorities in mind, but the Lightning must maximize their output.
Need proof how much they hope that happens?
Stamkos, in March, when asked about his individual gains: “It’s kind of meaningless, really. Obviously, you want to produce, but you want to do it when the team is winning.”
Need a sign of their passion?
St. Louis, in April, after winning the Art Ross Trophy: “I’d trade a lot of that to be in a playoff and have a chance at a Stanley Cup.”
“I think it gave us a little bit of a wrong impression where we were,” Lightning defenseman Sami Salo said of last season’s imbalance. “We scored a lot of goals, but those were power-play goals. That kind of put us in the wrong road that we can score a lot of goals. We took a lot of offensive chances and let other teams have a lot of odd-man rushes, a lot of easy goals. Once you get into that (situation), losing three or four or five games, it’s not easy to get back in.”
That was the trouble with the Lightning last season: Once momentum swung in one direction, they struggled to turn it back. Thing is, they have two proven producers to push them toward a course correction should a similar event occur again … if they can prevent others from scoring at a similar pace.
It will be interesting to watch the chemistry develop. Stamkos and St. Louis respect Cooper, and the working relationship could create large returns in time.
The D, though, must become big.
“They don’t stop working one second,” Lightning rookie winger Jonathan Drouin said. “When those guys score goals and score 60 (points) a year and they still work as hard as everyone, you’ve got to put your work in and try to become a little bit of them.”