PHILADELPHIA — When the hockey world crowned the Lightning Stanley Cup favorites last summer, few envisioned this:
Tampa Bay is a mess, fighting for its playoff life as it reached the midseason point Saturday. General manager Steve Yzerman, dubbed an offseason winner for "keeping the band together" after two long playoff runs, said he's earnestly trying to make changes to his roster before March's trade deadline.
"When a team doesn't win, that kind of thing happens," wing Alex Killorn said.
Yzerman has to. This underachieving team looks lost, and often uninspired. It could use a shakeup. It badly needs another top-four defenseman. If the panic button hasn't already been hit at Channelside Drive, it should be soon. But making changes is easier said than done.
"If there was something I could have done to this point that would make our team better, I would have done it," Yzerman said. "We'll keep trying."
Yzerman said this trade market is as challenging as he can remember. There's the salary cap, which has remained relatively flat the past few years, and likely will again next season. There's the expansion draft in June. And with so many teams within striking distance of a playoff spot, Yzerman said many GMs are uncertain about what direction they want to go in. "It's been very, very quiet," Yzerman said.
Yzerman said the Lightning is fortunate to still be close to a playoff spot, but even that's slipping away. It trails Ottawa by two points for third place in the Atlantic Division, but the Senators have three games in hand. Saturday's 4-2 loss to the Flyers dropped Tampa Bay to five points out of the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Lightning has a hard enough time winning consecutive games, much less going on a run, especially with a six-game, 13-day trip looming next week.
You can't discount the Lightning's injuries in this situation. Tampa Bay has spent half the season without captain Steven Stamkos, who is out until March after knee surgery. Nikita Kucherov and Anton Stralman have missed time. Ben Bishop is out after a Dec. 20 injury. At one point, six of the 12 forwards were sidelined, forcing the Lightning to use 32 players this season.
But that's not an excuse. Team defense has taken a big step back, from fifth in the league in goals against last season (2.41) to 22nd entering Saturday (2.81). The Lightning has allowed four or more goals 15 times. The goaltending hasn't been as good, unable to cover for glaring issues on the blue line. Offensively, the Lightning hasn't gotten much out of its bottom six other than Brian Boyle (10 goals), who has been in the top six due to injuries. The saving grace has been the power play, ranked second in the league, but the penalty kill has been bad (24th, 79.4).
The inconsistency and lack of urgency at times have been alarming. Is it a coaching issue? Is it up to the players?
"It's all of us; we're all in this together," Yzerman said. "This just doesn't happen overnight. Unfortunately, it takes time to teach, to learn and apply it."
Time is running out.
Most valuable player: Wing Nikita Kucherov is the Lightning's leading scorer and was especially huge in the weeks after Steven Stamkos' injury Nov. 15. Jonathan Drouin and Brian Boyle carried Tampa Bay for a while in December. But where would this team be without Victor Hedman? The defenseman has been a horse, averaging a career-high 24:42 of ice time. His 36 points were second among NHL defensemen entering Saturday. For a blue line that has struggled and lacks depth beyond the top pair, Hedman's presence is paramount.
Most improved: Not many expected rookie forward Brayden Point to make the team out of camp. But he not only forced his way onto the roster, you can argue that he has been Tampa Bay's best forward during stretches of the season. A model of consistency, Point found himself in the top six and a fixture on the power play before an upper-body injury sidelined him Dec. 28 for four to six weeks.
Biggest surprise: You knew about Brian Boyle's versatility, the veteran able to play all three forward spots and fill in on defense. But what was unexpected was Boyle's 10 goals, three off last season's total. He was a factor on the power play when Kucherov was hurt. And his leadership filled a large void left by injuries to Stamkos and Ryan Callahan.
By the numbers
32 Players to appear in games this season
26 Times the Lightning has allowed the first goal
15 Games in which the Lightning has allowed four or more goals (11 all last season)
85 Hits by Cedric Paquette, a team high despite Paquette missing eight games
79.4 Success-rate percentage for the penalty kill, 24th in the 30-team league entering Saturday