Julien BriseBois likes where the Lightning sit in the standings as they approach the midway point of the NHL season.
But the Tampa Bay general manager said it’s difficult to tell how the team matches up against the rest of the league, since the abbreviated 56-game schedule makes for more games in less time and the Lightning are only playing their seven division opponents through the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs.
“When the season starts, where do we want to be at the midpoint of the season?” BriseBois said Friday during his midseason media availability. “Well, we want to bank as many points towards the standings as possible so that we’re in a position to secure a playoff spot in the second half of the season. And you look at the standings this morning, you look at wins and losses, goals for, goals against, our special teams, the only conclusion you can draw is that we’ve had a really good first half of the season.”
The Lightning entered Friday’s games ranked among the top four teams in the league in most statistical categories that matter — points (tied for third), goals per game (first), goals allowed per game (third), point percentage (first), power-play percentage (fourth) and penalty-kill percentage (second) — which can be expected from a team that returned most of its players after winning the Stanley Cup, even without high-scoring forward Nikita Kucherov.
But because of the uniqueness of this season, those quantifying factors might not go quite as far as they would in a normal year. The focus is on getting to the playoffs, but it’s more important to gear the team toward playing its best when it matters most, which is during the postseason.
Here are the main points that emerged from BriseBois’ media session:
The good and the bad
BriseBois said he sees a lot of consistency in the Lightning’s play between last season and this year, which is to be expected from such a veteran group. He said the team continues to improve its physicality, which shows in their play in front of both nets.
“In the defensive zone, we’re doing a much better job boxing out,” he said. “And in the offensive zone, we’re doing a much better job getting to the front of the net screening shots and tipping pucks, so that that’s a positive trend for our group.
“The one area where I think our play has slipped is we’re giving up more odd-man rushes and we’re giving up more quality chances off of odd-man rushes,” BriseBois continued. So that’s one area where I’d like us to tighten up in the second half of the season.”
BriseBois also said the Lightning are giving away too many power-play opportunities with minor penalties. Tampa Bay is second in the league in penalty minutes per game (10.6)
Is Kucherov on schedule?
The Lightning have played well without Kucherov, who is recovering from hip surgery. The assumption throughout the season has been that they will get him back for a postseason run, and BriseBois said Kucherov is on schedule to return for the playoffs. Kucherov began skating this week, a significant step in his rehab, which is “exactly on track,” according to BriseBois.
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“He’s following the schedule very methodically and following the protocol and working hard with our therapist to get his range of motion back and his strength back,” BriseBois said. “Now he’s skating, so it’s getting those muscles to start firing up again, and it is a process. It’s a long rehab. … As of now, everything indicates that he is right on track and he will make a full recovery, and when I see him every now and then his spirits are high and he’s itching to get back playing again and ramping up what he’s allowed to do.”
On the trade deadline
The Lightning had to utilize the long term injury reserve to become cap-compliant for this season, and as of now BriseBois said they have zero cap space to work with. So any trade acquisition would need to be accompanied by an equal amount of money going out.
“And because of that, realistically, I think it’s unlikely that we’re going to be adding a player between now and the (April 12) trade deadline,” BriseBois said. “The good news is that the team that we have right now as assembled has a reasonable reason to believe they can chase down another Stanley Cup. It’s got a roster filled with players that have proven that they can win a championship.”
BriseBois said that last season’s deadline trades, which cost the Lightning draft picks to acquire forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, were made with the idea that those players would be with the team this season, as well. Plus, there’s no “acquisition” the Lightning could get for the postseason better than a healthy Kucherov.
Andrei Vasilevskiy’s workload
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is off to a tremendous start, and a legitimate case could be made that he’s the team’s first-half MVP. He’s played 20 of the team’s 26 games, and the Lightning could do that because games were more spread out. But with the schedule tightening up, it will be interesting to see how the Lightning manage his workload.
“It’s always a balancing act,” BriseBois said. “Now going forward, we have so many games in such a short period of time ... we’re going to have to share the load. And we have faith in (backup) Curtis (McElhinney) that he can help us win games when he’s called upon. I think if it was up to Vasy, he’d play every game, but at the same time he understands that. His goal is to win another Stanley Cup, and we need him fresh, or as fresh as possible.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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