That shouldn’t come as any particular surprise to most, even if you’ve only passively been keeping tabs on the NHL standings this year. Sure, it’s unlikely to become official for another few days — Toronto punched its postseason ticket on Monday, while Tampa could theoretically fall out of the hunt under catastrophic circumstances — but for close to five months, this showdown has been preordained.
The product of a divisive playoff format and one stubborn commissioner, the Maple Leafs will be forced to stare down a Lightning club that sent them packing last April, a series loss that signalled a sixth straight first-round exit and fifth straight in the final game of an opening-round series.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, will look to become the first team to reach four straight Stanley Cup finals since the dynastic New York Islanders of the early 1980s.
As was the case last year, there’s little doubt the series should be an excellent one.
But while the teams set to meet in the first round wear the same Blue and White jerseys they donned 12 months ago, both clubs have changed, though in different ways.
The Maple Leafs, quite publicly, went all in ahead of the March 3 trade deadline, reshaping huge parts of their identity in an effort to finally get over the hump. There’s unlikely to be much in the way of mystery when Toronto lines up for the opening faceoff of Game 1, with their explosive late-February trade flurry identifying a team that wanted to be harder to play against.
In the case of their opponents, however, the differences are much more subtle. Sure, the Bolts made their own blockbuster deadline move (which was perplexing at the time and hasn’t become any clearer since), but this is a team that by and large remains intact from the Prince of Wales Trophy-winning team of 2022. Aside from a few shuffled lines, there’s much more continuity year-over-year for Tampa than there is for Toronto, with just a handful of faces in and out the door.
It’s in spite of that continuity Tampa has regressed in the standings and is on pace to finish with a shade under 100 points, 10 shy of last year’s 110-point mark. They’re projected to score less (280-goal pace compared to 287 a year ago) and allow more goals (254-goal pace, 233 a year ago), yet another sign the club is more different than one may think. The Lightning have also been hobbling to the finish line, going 10-11-5 over the last two months and currently in the midst of a four-game losing streak.
But what factors are behind this? Are the Lightning measurably worse, or is it a case of bad puck luck? Has Tampa felt last year’s departures in a meaningful way, or are they simply getting worse production from their core?
The answer, as one might expect, is multifaceted.
Stanley Cup-winning depth
An enormous part of Tampa Bay’s success over the years can be attributed to the contributions of its depth pieces. Last year, Nick Paul played the Game 7 hero and his physicality was instrumental in making the Lightning the imposing side they are. Before him, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman defined what it meant to be a depth contributor on a Cup-winning team, providing scoring alongside some complimentary pugnacity.
In his 15-game cameo to date, Tanner Jeannot has decidedly not provided the type of spark that his predecessors have. Tampa’s thinning depth chart overall, however, goes beyond just their decisions at this year’s deadline.
During the 2021-22 season, Tampa had eight different forwards score at a rate of two or more goals per 60. The team was flush top to bottom with scoring threats beyond just the biggest names. The aforementioned Paul came in and was a menace, scoring 14 points in 21 games down the stretch, then adding nine more points in the playoffs. Others like Corey Perry quietly mustered together strong seasons in their own right, with the veteran reaching the 40-point plateau for the first time in four years. Meanwhile, the ever-underrated Ondrej Palat served as a staple in the top six as an additional scoring threat, generating chances as the third musketeer beside Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.
All three of those players are no longer providing that for Tampa Bay. While Palat is literally no longer contributing, signing a five-year deal with New Jersey last summer, both Paul and Perry have failed to provide the same sting they did last year. Combined with Jeannot’s inability to provide much of anything in the way of offensive punch (no goals and three assists so far), the Lightning’s depth scoring has dried up.
They aren’t the only players to see their numbers slide, however. Perhaps the biggest name to see their production dip has been Stamkos, who has gone from an offensive menace who also won his minutes to somewhat of an all-or-nothing star who has lacked the finishing touch of previous seasons.
It should also be noted these results all come while the league’s offensive environment is on the rise, meaning that merely stagnating is more of a step back than it is remaining the same.
Overall, Tampa Bay’s only two breakout contributors this season compared to last have been Brayden Point and Brandon Hagel. The duo has formed one of the more dynamic pairings in the league, with Hagel particularly seeing an enormous leap in his production by both standard and underlying metrics. Point, meanwhile, has arguably been Tampa Bay’s top catalyst, as he’s bounced back from injury to set a new career mark in goals with 45, with the 50-goal plateau well within his reach.
Both Hagel and Point have been excellent, and there’s little reason to suggest that success won’t sustain during a seven-game series. Without others taking a leap to fill roles, however, the linemates simply haven’t been able to make up for the lost production of their peers.
Father Time is undefeated
Despite the offensive talent that comprised their two Stanley Cup wins in 2020 and 2021, an underrated part of what made the Lightning so exceptional was their stifling defensive presence. Victor Hedman understandably earned much of the praise, but he’s far from the only player who made the Lightning such an imposing force on the defensive side of the puck.
Ranking fourth and sixth league-wide in 2020 and 2021 respectively by expected goals against per 60, Tampa’s defense orbited around the foursome of Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak with brief cameos from other contributors along the way. Alongside a 2021 breakout from Jan Rutta, the group was comfortably amongst the league’s elite.
That began to change last season, however, as the miles of three straight Stanley Cup visits began wearing the club down, and by this year, the bottom had officially fallen out. The Lightning have dipped below the midway mark league wide and sit 17th in expected goals against at 5v5. That’s far from cataclysmic, but on an individual level, it also demonstrates some harrowing facts about how that once-fearsome top four has played, or at least what remains of it.
Hedman, the man at the center of it all, appears to be in the midst of a losing battle with Father Time. While the Swedish star bounced back in an enormous way from an injury-riddled 2021 for the most productive season of his career in 2022, the same cannot be said about the 32-year-old’s campaign this go around.
The offense remains intact, but Hedman has been Tampa’s outright weakest regular defenseman this year by expected goals, actively losing his minutes with a 49.9 percent xGF% this season. The only Lightning defenseman to allow more than three expected goals against per 60, the Lightning have actively been worse with their No. 1 defender on the ice, which certainly doesn’t bode well if they plan on another deep run.
As for the rest of the aforementioned group, the attrition faced while circumnavigating a flat salary cap certainly hasn’t helped. With McDonagh shipped to Nashville last summer for spare parts, alongside Rutta’s departure for Pittsburgh in free agency, the Lightning lost two of their steadiest defensemen and have seen the rest of their group take the hit as a result.
Rutta, in particular, appears to have quietly been a more important limb than was otherwise anticipated. While he was undoubtedly helped in a significant way by being attached to Hedman at the hip, both appear to have been better than the sum of their parts while together. Rutta in particular led all Lightning blueliners last season defensively while playing top-four minutes, suppressing high-danger chances at a better clip than any of his peers.
This year, newcomers Nick Perbix and Ian Cole have filled the shoes of the aforementioned departed defenders admirably, but there’s more to the picture. Perbix is a 24-year-old rookie who has exceeded expectations and recently found himself on the club’s top pair beside Hedman. With that said, however, the results haven’t come close to Rutta’s against top competition, while the pair has seen mixed results during what has been a particularly rough stretch. Both defenders are ultimately emblematic of a common theme on this year’s Lightning blueline — the changeover has been ongoing, and the pipeline is running thin.
Between the pipes
For all the new faces, aging veterans, and regressing depth, one very significant constant remains from last year’s Lightning squad. Regardless of the cavalcade of stars the Bolts can boast, none shine as brightly as Andrei Vasilevskiy.
A staple in the Vezina Trophy conversation, and likely the defining goaltender of his generation, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know The Big Cat will be the X-factor come playoff time.
Vasilevskiy’s boxcar stats this year appear largely unremarkable at a glance. His .914 save percentage ranks tied for 12th in the NHL, while a 2.69 goals-against average would be the highest mark of his career as a starting netminder and sits 17th league-wide. Perhaps he bleeds after all?
Not so fast. Remember, league-wide offense is higher than it’s been since Mark Messier made his guarantee. While offensive stagnation in the case of the Lightning’s forwards is cause for concern, Vasilevsky’s numbers remaining flat, especially given that the team around him has taken a step back, speaks to the type of season he has produced.
Through 55 games played, Vasilevsky ranks sixth in the league (min. 20 games) in goals saved above expected with 20.8, per Evolving Hockey, the highest mark of his career both on a cumulative and rate basis.
The fact he's only gotten better as the squad around him has faltered is a testament to how much of a game-breaker the 28-year-old can be. Few netminders around the league offer the consistent excellence Vasilevsky brings to the table, and there’s little doubt he will be an enormous problem yet again for the Maple Leafs once the puck drops on the postseason.
What's to glean?
So what have we learned from this exercise? And how much of it can we chalk up to external factors? Perhaps the Lightning are merely bored as they await the same opponent they’ve known they’d face for weeks and know they’re capable of flipping the switch when the moment calls for it.
That much is impossible to say with any certainty. Without being in the dressing room, there’s no way to know exactly what the temperature is in Tampa, and whether or not they actually are worse off than last year.
Reading between the lines, however, between the benchings, the sluggish performances, and the wear and tear of playing nearly 30 more playoff games than the second-busiest team, it becomes a lot clearer that there’s no better time for the Maple Leafs to find an opening and exorcise their first-round demons.
All stats via Evolving Hockey unless otherwise indicated