TAMPA — The Lightning figured this season would be tougher.
But it is stunning that the defending Eastern Conference champion is below .500 (7-8-2) and ninth in the Eastern Conference heading into tonight's game against the Flames at Amalie Arena. The league's highest-scoring team last season can't score, averaging 1.3 goals per game in its past nine, with seven losses in that stretch.
Fans are frustrated and worried. General manager Steve Yzerman said he feels their pain but isn't ready to hit the panic button — yet.
"Obviously, I share the fans' concern," Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times in a 15-minute conversation Wednesday. "We all want to win and play better. We have expectations.
"But again, we have to break this down and analyze where we are, what we're doing and why we're not winning. I want to stress to our team that it's hard to win in this league. We're just on the wrong side."
Yzerman, a Hall of Fame player and former Red Wings captain, is as competitive as anyone. Losing drives him nuts. But Yzerman said he has seen plenty of good things, from his players' effort to team defense and goaltending (the Lightning was 10th in goals against entering Wednesday's games). Scoring will come, he said.
That's why Yzerman isn't planning on making a trade just for the sake of shaking things up.
"I don't believe in that," Yzerman said. "I'm not going to do something just to do something. … We talk 12 months of the year around the league, talking to guys, exploring ideas, trying to find fits for things. But if the stars align, you have something that makes sense."
In making sense of the Lightning's puzzling scoring slump, Yzerman, who had 692 career goals, said the key is players not worrying about scoring. Goals will come as a result of the process, creating turnovers on the forecheck, going to the net and getting rebounds.
"That's how goals go in. They're not all beautiful goals," Yzerman said. "That's the one part of our game I think is lacking, just the determination to get to the net, win loose pucks in the offensive zone and do the things you have to do."
Yzerman noted that's easier said than done, that players can't get caught up in scoring so it affects other parts of their game. "I know that feeling … when you're trying to score a goal, trying to make a play, trying to make things happen," Yzerman said. "Generally, goals are going in when you're not thinking about scoring."
It's "human nature" that confidence takes a hit when a player isn't scoring, Yzerman said. And that appears to be the case with the Lightning, which is "out of synch," center Brian Boyle said, displaying a far cry from the dazzling speed and skill it showed last season. Associate coach Rick Bowness said, "We can't get any flow to our game."
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If one player messes up mentally on a shift, the rest blows up. Hockey is an instinctive, fast game in which thinking too much can be detrimental, Yzerman said.
Said Boyle, "When you lack (confidence), you hesitate. You're thinking about a play you've done 100 times and maybe it didn't work once recently and you worry about it not working and start thinking negatively. Positive thinking — there's a lot of power in that."
The biggest issue with the Lightning, Bowness said, is its inconsistent execution. As defenseman Anton Stralman said, Tampa Bay has yet to play a complete 60-minute game. It came out flat in the first period of Tuesday's 4-1 loss to the Sabres.
The Lightning will play desperately during a stretch but not early in a game. It has held just one lead after the first period in 17 games. It has net presence when it doesn't have a lot of shots, and shots when it doesn't have much traffic in front of the net.
"That's why we are where we are," Bowness said.
A lot of things that went right last season, such as the breaks it got, aren't going Tampa Bay's way, from hitting posts to getting fluky goals. "It seems like any mistake we make is in the back of our net," Boyle said.
Defenseman Victor Hedman said there's "no reason to panic," that the players believe in their group and how they play. This is almost the same team that won 50 games last season and reached the Stanley Cup final.
"You look back to the way we play, it should be the same," captain Steven Stamkos said. "We haven't changed many systems, have the same personnel. If anything, we can look back to the work ethic that we had, the little things we did that made us successful. We've got to get back to those things, because obviously we know they can work in this league."
Yzerman said there's always urgency. A team doesn't want to fall too far behind and miss the playoffs, like the Bruins and Kings did last season. Boyle said the Lightning has to work its way out of its slump.
"Nobody is handing us points," he said.
"We're going to do what we have to do, if we have to come back." Yzerman said. "But that's not the plan."
BLUNDEN REASSIGNED: Right wing Mike Blunden was sent back to AHL Syracuse.