The Tampa Bay Lightning have been the NHL’s elite team for the better part of the past eight seasons. Since the start of the 2014-15 season no team has won more regular season games (379) or playoff games (70, which is nearly double the next closest team), while they have reached at least the Conference Final in five of the previous seven seasons, including three Stanley Cup Finals.
This season they are chasing history in trying to become the first team since the early 1980s New York Islanders to win three consecutive Stanley Cups.
For much of the season they looked like a team that was perfectly capable of doing that, even after losing some key contributors to the past two championship teams (the entire third line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow; Tyler Johnson).
They even found a way to go all in at the trade deadline again by adding Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul to their forward group.
On paper they are still an imposing team that has the potential to go on a run and win it all once again. But there are some concerns starting to rise to the surface as the playoffs get close.
Let’s start with the fact that over the past month-and-a-half they are only 9-10-2 overall, with only one of those wins (a 4-3 overtime win against Carolina) coming against a playoff team. Even worse, since the start of March they are just 1-9-1 against other playoff teams, continuing what has been a season-long struggle against other contenders. They have only won 15 of their 37 games against playoff teams for the season, with only nine of those wins coming in regulation. That is significantly worse than their performance over the past two years against similar opponents.
So what is happening this season, and especially lately.
Andrei Vasilevskiy looks human instead of superhuman
You can talk about Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, or Victor Hedman all you want, but Vasilevskiy is the cog that makes this machine run. He is the best goalie in the world, and it is almost unfair to put a player like him behind a team like this. He would make any team a contender the second he shows up.
When he is at his best he makes the Lightning an absolute powerhouse.
He has been, for the most part, very good this season. But “very good” for Vasilevskiy is a step below what we are used to seeing from him. Since the start of January his performance has been even further below his normal level.
Since the start of the calendar year Vasillevskiy has managed only a .907 save percentage in his 35 appearances, which is very uncharacteristic for him. His all situations save percentage ranks 22nd in the league among the 38 goalies with at least 25 appearances during that stretch.
Part of it could be the normal volatility we see from goalies. They can run hot and cold for different stretches (or seasons) and nobody is immune to that.
It could also be the result of his workload over the past couple of years. Vasilevskiy has played a LOT of hockey since the start of the 2019-20 season, appearing in 201 regular season and playoff games. He also played every minute of Tampa Bay’s past two playoff runs, never getting a night off and never being removed early from a game. The next closest goalie in terms of workload over that stretch? Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyk who has appeared in 179 games. After that, it is Calgary’s Jacob Markstrom at 161 games. There is nobody even close to Vasilevskiy in terms of workload the past three seasons.
The Lightning have not really had a dependable backup to give Vasilevskiy much time off, and when combined with his overall brilliance it makes it difficult to take him out of the lineup. But eventually he needs a break, and we might be starting to see the impact of all of that playing time right now. Can he be expected to maintain his play over another extended playoff run without much of a break?
Brandon Hagel is not Blake Coleman
What really separated the Lightning from everybody else the past two years was having a third dominant line that could swing games in their favor. The trio of Coleman, Gourde, and Goodrow was — by far — the best third line in the league and posted truly dominant numbers together across the board. They outscored teams 37-20 (regular season and playoffs) and were close to 60 percent in their shares of shot attempts, expected goals, and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.
All three of those players left this offseason. Coleman to Calgary in free agency, Goodrow in a trade to the New York Rangers, and Gourde to Seattle in the expansion draft. That is a significant part of their team to replace, and while they have found some solid replacements (Corey Perry has been great; Ross Colton is very good) they have not really found a trio that can do what the previous line did.
When the Lightning acquired Hagel from Chicago at the trade deadline there was an obvious comparison to Coleman. Under contract for a couple years on a cheap deal, good goal numbers this season, and even a comparable trade price. If we are being honest, though, that is where the comparisons end. When the Lightning acquired Coleman he was a much more proven player, a better possession driver, and a superior defensive players. A lot of Hagel’s value in Chicago this season was tied to a (probably unsustainable) 22 percent shooting percentage. The risk for any acquiring team was what value he could provide when that shooting percentage leveled off.
So far Hagel is playing just around 12 minutes a game for the Lightning, scoring just three goals (one empty netter) with zero assists. Lately he has been playing on a line with Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn, a trio that looks good on paper and should be good in theory, but has not yet produced much in the way of meaningful results.
This is still a very deep group of forwards, but they have definitely lost over the past year and have not fully replaced it.
None of this is to say the Lightning are doomed in the playoffs or are going to be an easy out. Doubt them at your own peril. Their recent track record speaks for itself, and the talent level on this team is still among the best in the league. There is also nothing to say that Vasilevskiy can not get hot, or that everything starts to click for them again at any moment. But Vasilevskiy’s struggles, the downgrade on the third line, and the rise of several other teams in the Eastern Conference (Florida, for example) does make them look a little more questionable than they have been the past couple of years.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.