LOS ANGELES — When Lightning defenseman Jake Dotchin saw the puck deep in the Sharks’ zone during Wednesday’s first period, he knew it was time to pinch.
"Any time with the (forwards) making plays, if you’re open, they’re going to find you," Dotchin said. "It’s just what we preach."
Seconds later, center Brayden Point sent a backhand pass from behind the Sharks’ net. The puck took a Lightning-friendly bounce right to streaking Dotchin, who ripped a one-timer from the right circle for his first NHL goal. In the second period, fellow defenseman Slater Koekkoek scored, also from the right circle, also at even strength as the Lightning won 5-1.
The Lightning is at its best when its defense is offensive, and the blue line has 42 points through the first 16 games, second in the NHL entering Thursday’s game against the Kings. Though the Lightning’s top line has stolen the show in the season’s first month, the production from the back end has been an unsung spark in the team’s 12-2-2 start.
And just think: 2016-17 Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman hasn’t even gotten rolling yet, with just one goal (and 11 points) entering Thursday. When Hedman does, watch out.
"You need that," captain Steven Stamkos said. "You need your ‘D’ to jump into the play, and they’ve done that extremely well. They’ve got more confidence as the season has gone on. And we’re going to need production from them if we want to keep this up."
Since coach Jon Cooper took over in 2013, he has encouraged defensemen to be active in joining the rush. That style played a big role in the Lightning’s lengthy playoff runs in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Tampa Bay racked up 32 and 34 goals, respectively, from defensemen. But last season, it relied too heavily on Hedman, who had 72 points (16 goals, 56 assists). The Lightning got just 17 goals from its other defensemen. Through 16 games this year, Tampa Bay had 10, from four players.
One reason for increased blue line production is personnel. The addition of playmaking rookie Mikhail Sergachev provides another offensively gifted puck mover (and a threat on the power play). Sergachev had 12 points (four goals) entering Thursday. That’s at least equal to the points Nikita Nesterov (12), Braydon Coburn (12), Dotchin (11) and Jason Garrison (nine) had all last season.
But when you look beneath the surface, there’s more, says Hockey Graphs, an advanced statistics website. Last year’s top seven defensemen combined to generate 1.32 expected goals per 60 minutes (the number of goals to expect defensemen to score in 60 minutes of ice time based on how many shots they are taking and where they’re taking the shots from); this year’s group is at 1.69.
The .37 difference may not seem like much, but it’s a 25 percent improvement. That’s significant. Part of the increase is because Tampa Bay’s defensemen are generating four more unblocked shots per 60 minutes. So they are taking more shots, and better ones.
And these numbers are at even strength, so power-play points aren’t padding the stats. Whether Koekkoek (three goals in seven games) and Sergachev can keep up their pace remains to be seen. But that the Lightning’s defense is so active and efficient gives opponents something to think about besides the powerhouse line of Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov.
"Especially the way the game is played today, your offense is a five-man unit," Cooper said. "When you’re ‘D’ is chipping in and then becomes a threat, you have to defend everybody. It’s been helping us."
(Points and goals by season since 2012-13, with NHL ranks)
2012-13: 20 goals (tied-11th), 89 points (10th)
2013-14: 34 (tied-12th), 174 (5th)
2014-15: 32 (20th), 163 (11th)
2015-16: 34 (tied-16th), 142 (19th)
2016-17: 33 (tied-20th), 160 (15th)
2017-18: 11 (tied-2nd), 42 (2nd)
First 16 games, Lightning defensemen
2017-18: 11 goals, 42 points
2016-17: four goals, 30 points
2015-16: four goals, 28 points
2014-15: eight goals, 35 points