TAMPA — If you're a concerned Lightning fan, you've got company.
It's frustrating to players and coaches that Tampa Bay, a preseason Stanley Cup favorite, is playing mediocre hockey as the calendar flips to December. So you can imagine how the struggles are sitting with the Hall of Fame player who built the team.
"I can't say, if I look at it all together, that I'm really pleased with where we're at at this point," general manager Steve Yzerman said Friday. "The intensity, the urgency in our play hasn't been there."
The Lightning (13-11-1) has lost a season-high four consecutive games heading into tonight's game against the Capitals at Amalie Arena. It has collected just two points in the past 10 days, dropping Tampa Bay to the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
But don't expect significant changes from Yzerman. As much as he is constantly looking to improve his team — and recognizes it has needs — trades are difficult to make in a salary cap world. You need a partner. And Yzerman insisted he won't make a move just to "shake things up."
"If there's an opportunity to make us a better team, I'm certainly willing to explore it," Yzerman said. "But I like our team. I like the character of our players. We're very careful of the type of person we bring in and which players we move out. That isn't going to change."
Yzerman thinks about how much as changed since the Lightning's mid-November road trip, during which it won four of five games in the week it lost captain Steven Stamkos to knee surgery.
"We were pleased with the direction our team was going," Yzerman said. "Not saying everything was perfect. But we were generally pleased with how we were playing, the trend we were going. In two weeks, that has obviously changed significantly."
The difference has been the Lightning's play in its zone, which has often been soft and careless. Tampa Bay has given up 19 goals in its past four games. And that figure could have been a lot worse had it not been for goaltenders Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Yzerman reiterated that it's "very possible" the goalie tandem could remain intact through the March trade deadline.
"We're giving up far too many scoring chances. That would be the biggest concern for me," Yzerman said. "There's breakdowns in our systems and way too many unnecessary turnovers."
The Lightning should try to bolster its blue line by the trade deadline. Its defensemen have struggled. Its lack of depth was magnified when top-pair defenseman Anton Stralman missed nine games with an upper-body injury (he returned in Thursday's loss to the Blues). Nikita Nesterov is coming off another rough game, and Jason Garrison suffered a lower-body injury Thursday blocking a shot. Garrison's status is uncertain going forward.
"I don't put it squarely on the defensemen's shoulders," Yzerman said. "We need as a group to be collectively better. Being a better defensive team takes a commitment from defensemen and forwards. And right now we're out of synch."
Yzerman takes into consideration the Lightning's difficult, condensed schedule. It has played 15 of its first 25 games on the road. Besides the injuries to Stamkos and Stralman, forward Ryan Callahan is now out with a lower-body injury. Tampa Bay's record against teams that held a playoff spot entering Friday is 1-9-0, and it has bee outscored 38-20 in those games.
Yzerman is pleased with the work the coaching staff and players have done behind the scenes to try to snap out of this. But it better snap out of it fast.
"We can't keep sliding," Yzerman said. "We need to get points, whether it's getting into overtime or shootouts. We're not getting points, and we're falling behind (in the standings)."
Around the league
As expected, the players union rejected the NHL's offer to extend the labor deal three years in exchange for an agreement to go to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The players' participation is hung up on the NHL's insistence that the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation pay expenses such as transportation and insurance, as they have since NHL players started playing in the Olympics in 1998. The IOC has been resistant to continuing the funding, but the international federation has said it can find the money.
"Hopefully we'll still be able to conclude an agreement to go to the Olympics," union executive director Donald Fehr told the Canadian Press.
Information from Times wires was used in this report.