It’s no secret the Tampa Bay Lightning are an active model for the current rendition of the Leafs. Each time the team failed and the idea of breaking up the core came up, the Lightning and their journey is always mentioned (ignoring the fact they’ve won rounds in the past).
“They had great regular seasons and flamed out in the playoffs before.”
“The Columbus Blue Jackets swept them.”
“They’ve struggled to try to find that next gear.”
“They kept the core together.”
The 2013-14 season was the beginning of the Nikita Kucherov years which saw the Lightning eliminated in the first round. Tampa went the distance the season after making it to the Stanley Cup Final but losing in five games. Brayden Point finally joined the fold for the 2016-17 season; however, the Lightning year didn’t make the playoffs. Fortunately, that was the final consolidation of the core we watch and drool over.
Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson and Andrei Vasilevskiy. As the years went on, further pieces were added to round out the rest of the roster in Yanni Gourde, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. And now, after all those upsets in the playoffs, the Tampa Bay Lightning have two Stanley Cups in 9 months.
This may be where you expect the, “See, Tampa had some growing pains (not as painful) with their core but kept it all together and surrounded it with even more talent (and Vezina level goaltending every year) to allow the team to improve and get stronger” speech but that’s not where I’m coming from. However, the Lightning do some fundamental things consistently that the Leafs should be watching and attempting to replicate within their own systems.
1. The Power Play Needs Electricity
The Leafs’ power play was an eyesore for the second year in a row. Additionally, in back-to-back years, the coaching staff got most of the blame. Then it was Paul McFarland, and now it’s Manny Malhotra.
What made this year’s man-advantage extinction more frustrating was how obvious the decline was as well as the personnel choice for each option. The Leafs went from stacking the top unit to breaking them up, to putting Joe Thornton on the top unit, to replacing Morgan Rielly with Rasmus Sandin.
Nothing changed, and as much as the dialogue was centred around the players getting in their own heads, I feel it’s also a reluctance to change perspective in relation to the personnel choices I mentioned earlier. For me, it comes to the presence of legitimate shot threats, which Tampa has an abundance of.
Watching their power play in comparison to the Leafs’ is so painful. At every position, the penalty killers should expect a quick pass or a bomb.
If you cheat to the left to stop Stamkos’ one-timer, you leave Kucherov open. If you cheat to stop Kucherov, Stamkos is open. If you cover low and try to stop either forward, Hedman will take that shot.
Another strategy the Lightning have used that the Leafs should adapt is the quick triangle plays. It starts with the net-front player grabbing the puck and dishing it to either player along the wall, who quickly finds the bumper player for a shot on goal. This could also start with the wall player passing to the net-front who finds the bumper. Of course, this requires speed and said bumper player to have a threatening shot. Luckily the Lightning have Point in that position.
The issue with the Leafs is that the main shooter is Auston Matthews, and rightly so. If penalty killers over-commit to his side, then you get what we saw from the second half of the season into the playoffs: hot potato. Passing the puck around, hoping for that one glimmer of light where the passing lane to Matthews opens up, and he can score.
There needs to be more respect garnered for the power play as a whole instead of covering a single player. Washington’s mission when on the man advantage is to try to stop Alex Ovechkin, but when that’s not possible, there is still T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and John Carlson who will all gladly shoot.
Making a connection to what Arvind had to say when appearing on the Maple Leafs Hotstove Podcast along with Acting the Fulemin (hilarious and insightful listen, by the way, check it out!) — the Leafs having a point shot isn’t going to be the determining factor. Sandin, who displayed a willingness to shoot more, got the tap ahead of Morgan Rielly down the stretch, but there wasn’t a significant change.
It’s the mentality that needs to change. Auston Matthews doesn’t have to be the sole finisher. We’re used to William Nylander getting those nice net-front goals, but he also has a wicked shot. I wonder if is a way to have Nylander along the wall as both a forward who can score and make great passes.
Where would that place, Marner? Well, we like to make the Point comparisons; why not try it. Marner will never turn into a pinpoint accurate sniper; however, his shot is accurate enough in those areas to make it on net. Additionally, his vision and awareness could grant him the ability to make those quick passes as a right-handed shot to Matthews on the left.
The clear con to this is it may limit Rielly. Setting up Matthews for a one-timer in this scenario would be difficult, but Nylander wouldn’t have an issue with the handedness matching up. Additionally, a structure like this shouldn’t be set in stone. Player movement on the power play should be encouraged and could make for more creative plays.
2. We Don’t Need a Shutdown Line
“But Phil Danault shut-” I know I know, let me explain.
What do we always see in the playoffs? Yes, you want the stars to show up and do what they’re paid for, but it ends up being the bottom six that scores the big goals. If the Tampa mayor didn’t jinx the team, we’d be talking about that nasty pass Mathieu Joseph made to Pat Maroon to tie the game.
The Lightning play to their strengths. Yes, they’ve added pieces over the years that bring those intangibles and ferocity you need in the playoffs, but they’re also all pretty skilled. The third line isn’t dubbed the shutdown line because they’re all Selke nominees. They’re not even called the shutdown line, to begin with. Goodrow-Gourde-Coleman are the energy line, and they force you to spend more time defending by being relentless on the puck in the neutral zone, hemming you in and wasting your shifts.
And hey, they’re pretty skilled as well.
BLAKE COLEMAN— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) July 1, 2021
WHAT A GOAL! SUPERMAN STYLE! pic.twitter.com/WQMAsSs7H9
The Leafs have tried different versions, and the “best” version was the Hyman-Engvall-Mikheyev line which had an expected goal% of 63.9 at 5v5 while scoring 5 goals (via MoneyPuck). Katya has made this joke before, but it's a problem when Zach Hyman looks like Mario Lemieux out there. Of those three, the only player we could expect to score is Hyman, as Engvall’s consistency comes and goes while Mikheyev is worse than Michael Grabner.
Having a shutdown line isn’t going to do anything when you need a goal. Tavares was taken out of the series while Matthews and Marner were being contained and hitting posts. Nylander and Spezza were the only other plays to do anything of significance. That’s what you need in the playoffs. It would be best if you had your depth to answer for you when your stars can’t. Ideally, you want your stars to break free of their defensive constraints and perform, but it’s not always that easy.
Stamkos and Point only have one goal between them (although the latter had a three-assist performance in Game One), and the team was fine.
3. Goaltending Can’t be a Mystery
As strong as the Lightning have been these playoffs, Andrei Vasilevskiy has been there to close the door when they need him. The pure save percentage stats he’s put up is one thing, but the noodle-groin cat netminder has three shutouts in elimination games stopping all 69 total shots faced.
There has never been a mystery as to who is starting ever since Vasilevskiy grabbed the goaltending reigns in Tampa, and most importantly, you knew what you were getting when he started. It hasn’t been crystal clear, especially last year when a good number of goals against Vasilevskiy would be trickling pucks off initial saves. Still, he’s been an undeniable Vezina presence in net.
The Leafs never know what they’re going to get in goaltending. With Frederik Andersen, either we’d get a game of November of Freddie or a game where the open five-hole was on every highlight reel. Jack Campbell took over as Andersen went down, and there were stretches of great goaltending and not-so-great goaltending. At least we can say Campbell was not a problem against the Habs. However, we look ahead to next season, and there are still mysteries.
Was this season from Jack Campbell legitimate? Can he duplicate it in the playoffs? Does he need a tandem? If so, who should it be? Should the Leafs bring Andersen back? If they do, should it be Campbell or Andersen who starts? What factors should come to play when making that decision?
There are way too many question marks around the most important position in the game, and that needs to be addressed immediately. Teams generally want the skaters to take control of a series though it’s not rare where it’s a difference in goaltending.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are the mould the Leafs are trying to duplicate, and just by watching them dominate their way to a Stanley Cup in back-to-back years, there are obvious differences in mentality and habits. Like many Leafs fans, I don’t care about the regular season as much as I have in the past. However, there are certain things I and I feel the rest of the fanbase need to see to restore any sense of excitement for the playoffs.
Do I really think the Leafs would change the power play up that much? No, but I do hope they start to break free of their current mannerisms regarding the team and leave more room for dynamic change when need be.
Can the Leafs win without a shutdown line? I’m not sure. I’ve seen them try to create one, and it hasn’t worked. Plus, I’d rather have four lines that can make the opposition pay for making defensive errors than have one line that is only designed to be peak Riley Nash.
Will the Leafs solve their mysteries in their goaltending? They better.