For anyone living under a rock, the Tampa Bay Lightning have started the season in ridiculous fashion, posting a record of 13-2-2 in the first 17 games of the season. They currently sit at the top of the NHL rankings and have at least 8 points more than all teams in the Eastern Conference. In short, the Lightning are on fire and nobody can seem to stop them. However, many fans are calling the Bolts a one line team, as their scoring is being largely propelled due to the insane play of Nikita Kucherov and the returning Steven Stamkos. I however believe that to be complete rubbish. Let’s look at a few key points that prove how the Tampa Bay Lightning are currently the best team in the NHL:
Although Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos have 29 and 30 points respectively this season in 17 games, it would be a mistake to assume that they are the only productive forwards for the Bolts. In fact, former 1st round pick Vladimir Namestnikov (27 overall in 2011) is currently at 18 points so far this season. Namesnitkov seems to be coming into his own offensively since being put with Stamkos and Kucherov, but let us also give credit here. Vladimir has 8 primary assists so far this season ( 10 assist total), which demonstrates that he is indeed driving key plays and complimenting Kucherov and Stamkos quite well.
I can’t say enough good things about Brayden Point for the Tampa Bay Lightning. This is a 21-year-old who was asked to be an NHL franchise’s number 1 center for over 30 games last year. How did he respond? He put up 40 points in 68 games (50 points in 82 games), which is great for a rookie on an injury depleted team. How does he follow that up this year? He steals the number 2 center position from longtime Tampa Bay veteran pivot Tyler Johnson and puts up 17 points in 17 games so far this season. Those are more points than most teams’ first line centers! Sophmore Yanni Gourde (12 pts) and Ondrej Palat (10 pts) have rounded out their top-6 nicely, as their key secondary scoring has often made the difference in tighter games. With all eyes on the top line, this trio of Gourde, Palat and Point has really had the time to shine and pick apart distracted defenses.
Underestimated Defensive Corps
Once an organizational weakness, Tampa Bay has slowly rebuilt its blueline in a way that has become the envy of the NHL. First and foremost, they have franchise defenseman Victor Hedman ( 2nd overall 2009) leading the charge. Last year, amid all the injuries and chaos in Tampa Bay, Hedman was near a point-per-game in scoring as he finished the year with 72 points in 79 games. This year he has followed up his excellent play quite nicely, as he has posted 13 points in 17 games so far this season. Anton Stralman has been an absolute rock this season on Tampa’s second pairing, coming out with 6 points and a whopping +14 in 17 games. He helps anchor the second pairing, while Hedman is easily able to anchor the first pairing with rookie Jake Dotchin.
On top of those existing defensive veterans, there appears to be a rookie defenseman taking the city of Tampa Bay by storm. His name ladies and gentlemen, is Mikhail Sergachev. Acquired over the summer from Montreal in the much-discussed Drouin trade, Mikhail Sergachev not only made the Tampa Bay Lightning, he’s put up 12 points in 17 games so far this season. Often called out for his on-ice nonchalance, Sergachev has been a force on the ice and has been a very high corsi producer. His possession of the puck and ability to strike with his deadly slap shot make him a serious concern for opposing teams.
Lastly, the third defensive pairing is manned by two veteran defensemen by the name of Brayden Coburn and Dan Girardi. After Girardi was bought-out by the New Rangers this summer, many applauded the defensively stricken Bolts for reaching out and securing his services. Now paired with Coburn, Girardi seems to have found stability and has upped his physical game to make for an above average shut-down third pairing.
The Future Is In Nets
Andrei Vasilevskiy is for real folks. The former 2012 19th overall pick was seemingly given the keys to Tampa’s crease once Yserman traded longtime net minder Ben Bishop to the L.A. Kings last February. Long viewed as a future number 1 goalie, Vasilevskiy has simply taken the ball and ran with it. He is 12-1-1 so far this season and has conceded and has a save percentage of .928. These are insane numbers from a 23-year-old starting goaltender, only Carey Price or Tuuka Rask have ever produced such results at such a young age in today’s NHL.
Vasilevskiy has stood on his head on certain games this season, posting a shutout and already cementing his place in this year’s top NHL saves, as he has been lights out from Tampa Bay. His calming presence for the Bolts allow their defense to quickly turn the puck around for a snap counter-attack. His 35 completed passes so far this year show that he, similarly to Carey Price and the Washington Capitals’ Brayden Holtby, is a positive contributor to his team’s possession and corsi numbers. In fact, Vasilevskiy is often credited with being the third defenseman once he’s made the key save.
Haters Gunna Hate
Although it is very early in the season to be calling any team the best ( see Montreal Canadiens last year with 13-2-1 record), it is clear to see that Tampa is not simply over-performing. They have the organizational depth to compete with the best in the league today and for the foreseeable future. At this point, their success hinges on health, as key injuries to franchise players could sink them in similar ways to last season, which saw Stamkos out for practically the whole year. If the Bolts can stay out of the doctor’s office this season, expect them to win the Norris and challenge for the Stanley Cup.
We quickly forget that this is the same Tampa core that found its way to the Stanley Cup finals two years ago, but they have acquired some necessary experience and key young players to push them over the edge. The acquisition of Sergachev, the experience gained by Gourde, Namestnikov, Palat, Kucherov and Dotchin over the last year and the stellar work of Andrei Vasilevskiy make them serious contenders. I dare anyone to name a team that is better assembled right now from top to bottom, because I certainly can’t and that is scary indeed.