Bobby Taylor Q&A: Tyler Johnson surprises as Lightning’s midseason MVP
TAMPA, Fla. — So far, so good, but there’s so much more to do.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have reached the All-Star break with an eye toward the future after a strong recent past. They’re atop the Eastern Conference with 64 points through 48 games. They’ve enjoyed solid contributions from Tyler Johnson and Steven Stamkos, as well as breakout production from Nikita Kucherov. They’ll be tested soon, especially with a five-game West Coast swing from Feb. 15-22, but they’re in favorable shape to keep ambitions high for April and beyond.
What are the most promising developments so far? What are the largest questions that remain?
Recently, Sun Sports analyst Bobby Taylor spoke about where the Lightning stand at the All-Star break.
FOX SPORTS FLORIDA: The Lightning have enjoyed a successful pre-All-Star break run. What are your overall thoughts on their position?
TAYLOR: I think they’ve been very good. I mean, obviously, there are some down spots we had in December, when we weren’t winning too often. But the thing that is very impressive, when you really look at it, is that we never went two games without a win. That certainly helps when you don’t go on those three- and four- and five-game losing streaks. Rarely did we lose three in a row. To me, that’s what you really have to take a look at a lot of times, because I think that’s where you can really fall behind, and it’s really hard to catch up, to have those long losing streaks. And they did a good job of that. Last year, we had the Johnson and (Ondrej) Palat surprise. This year, it’s (Nikita) Kucherov. I mean, they’ve done a tremendous job. You’ve really got to look at the scouting, in my mind.
They’re such a resilient team. Everybody keeps thinking that they’re going to run them out of the rink, and they keep finding a way to come back and win and be very competitive. That’s what I really like about the team.
FSF: What has been the biggest surprise or best development of the pre-All-Star break portion of Tampa Bay’s schedule?
TAYLOR: Young defense. It’s strange when you take a look at where all our injuries are occurring, basically. This is the odd part about sport, in my mind. Injuries resulted in one of the best things to ever happen to our team. And how can you say that? I say that, because (Brett) Connolly and (J.T.) Brown went out in Winnipeg. So they put Kucherov with Palat and Johnson.
But for me, the defense, that’s a very hard position to play, because of the fact that it’s almost like a linebacker in football. You’ve got to know when to drop back in pass protection. You’ve got to know whether to charge or rush the quarterback. It’s the same at defense (in hockey). You’ve got to know when you can go, and when you can’t go. Everything is fast. Everything is really split second. It’s not like you can get four or five seconds to make a decision. You’ve got to make it right away, pretty much. (Nikita) Nesterov has been an unbelievable surprise to me. I know it’s only seven or eight games. But still then, in seven or eight games, you see a great deal of potential there that he could become a regular in the National Hockey League. I also think when you take a look at injuries, (Victor) Hedman goes out for 18 games, look at what (Anton) Stralman did for us. Oh my God. I knew he was a good player, but I didn’t realize how good of a player he was until I got to see him every single day. And (Brian) Boyle, he’s so much better than I ever expected, because he’s such a dedicated guy to win the game.
FSF: Injuries to defensemen Radko Gudas and Matt Carle are notable recent developments. How much of an impact will the absence of both players make, and what’s the best way to overcome those injuries?
TAYLOR: It’s the minute eaters. Matty averages 20 minutes a game. Plus, he’s the first guy on the penalty kill. Gudas, with that edge to his game. Guys really play differently when he’s on the ice. Believe me. Way differently. And we don’t have that. That kind of a little bit of an edge that we have back there isn’t there anymore. Those are very key components, in my mind.
Now you’ve got to find guys that are playing 14 (minutes), can they play 16? That’s the difference when a guy like Matty Carle is out there. … It’s a major-league adjustment for those extra three to four minutes a game. Matt has been used to it all his career. That’s the biggest thing when Carle is out — finding guys and making sure you don’t overplay them.
FSF: What’s the biggest question for you as the Lightning continue play in the coming months?
TAYLOR: We’re going to be playing some heavy teams — heavy teams meaning that they like to lean on you, use the body a lot. That’s what tires you out. We’re going to go to the West Coast. That February month is going to be huge. We’re playing all Western teams. We’ll play big teams in St. Louis. You’ve got big teams in Anaheim and LA. San Jose, we’ve seen already. They play a fast game, and they’re a heavy team too. They hit a lot. That will really show what we have, in my mind. Can we play through that? That’s what’s going to happen in playoff hockey. You know darn well that they put the whistles away.
So your power play isn’t going to be a big deterrent for a lot of guys, because you’re not going to get called for it that often. So to me, it’s how you’re going to play these heavy games. So far, they’ve done pretty well with it. But we haven’t had a steady diet of it. When you get into the playoffs, you’re playing one team seven games, that’s a steady diet. It’s harder to play teams that are constantly pushing on, pushing on. That tires you out more.
FSF: On Sunday, Johnson will make his first All-Star Game appearance and Stamkos his third. What do you think of their play so far?
TAYLOR: Johnny has got to be one of those guys who you’re looking at as our MVP. It’s hard to really see Johnson, Kucherov and Palat (separated) — all three of them, really, are kind of clumped together. But Johnny is the straw that stirs the drink. He’s the centerman, the guy who basically runs the seam. I think it’s well-deserved. I think, finally, they’re starting to look and see that we’ve got talent here.
Stammer, by self-admission, hasn’t played up to where he really wants to be. He’s not at that level of where he thinks he should be. But he’s still, what, third in the league for goals? That’s another trait of this club that I really like. It’s not satisfied. Most teams would be easily satisfied, "Oh well, we’re in first place." These guys, every time you talk to them, every time, they say, "We can be better. We can be better." That’s a great trait to have, it really is, because you don’t sit on your butt and say, "OK, I’ve arrived."