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Lightning’s Mathieu Joseph can reach another level if he can manage his speed

The forward has had several shorthanded breakaway opportunities but needs to shift gears to take better advantage of them.
With four forwards from the back-to-back Stanley Cup teams no longer with the Lightning and top scorer Nikita Kucherov injured, Mathieu Joseph, pictured, has his first real opportunity to play a top-six forward role.
With four forwards from the back-to-back Stanley Cup teams no longer with the Lightning and top scorer Nikita Kucherov injured, Mathieu Joseph, pictured, has his first real opportunity to play a top-six forward role. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 6, 2021

TAMPA — Jon Cooper’s words still stick with Mathieu Joseph five years later. After Joseph’s first preseason game five years ago, the Lightning coach pulled the forward aside and told him he had a promising future in the NHL, but first he’d have to learn to play better away from the puck.

“He was saying that I was on top a lot and that I have good speed and stuff,” Joseph said last week. “But at the same time, I wanted to be better defensively and be in better position in general and also getting better at using my stick.”

After three seasons battling for pucks and using his speed on the forecheck on the Lightning’s bottom lines, Joseph, 24, now bears one of the Lightning’s most important defensive tasks as a member of their top penalty-kill unit. .

“He’s more comfortable in the NHL,” Cooper said. “I think that’s a big thing for me. “He has more confidence in what he can do. I think his work on the penalty kill probably helped him out. It’s helped his 5-on-5 game out considerably. I think (PK partner Pierre-Edouard) Bellemare’s helped him out. But he is much more aware of the ice away from the puck. And I think that’s helping him when he gets the puck.”

This is an important year for Joseph. With four forwards from the back-to-back Stanley Cup teams no longer with the Lightning and top scorer Nikita Kucherov injured, Joseph has his first real opportunity to play a top-six forward role.

Though he hasn’t played on the PK since his minor league days, Joseph and Bellemare look like they’ve been killing penalties together for years. It helps that the two are both native French speakers, though Joseph’s French Canadian version is slightly different than the Frenchman Bellemare.

Bellemare has made a career of killing penalties, and he plays the forward position up top that applies pressure. When he’s able to take possession of the puck, all he has to do is flick it up ice and Joseph can use his speed to stretch the ice and create shorthanded scoring chances.

Lightning forward Mathieu Joseph (7) tries to get the puck past Washington Capitals goaltender Vitek Vanecek (41) a game earlier this month in Tampa.
Lightning forward Mathieu Joseph (7) tries to get the puck past Washington Capitals goaltender Vitek Vanecek (41) a game earlier this month in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“He’s a fast guy, on the PK especially,” Bellemare said. “He’s way faster than I am, so it’s better for him to be in the position where he can get the breakaways. … I think we connected pretty well right away and then I think we were pretty excited to put together the PK, so we try to keep it simple and to keep it honest with each other where we can play at a level that’s pretty high and fast-paced.”

Joseph and Bellemare created several shorthanded breakaways in the first 10 games. That possession time is extremely valuable in killing penalties, but Joseph has yet to score on one of those opportunities, and he was unable to get off a shot on a few.

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Joseph understands that’s the part of his game he needs to improve to take it to the next level. He’s one of the fastest players on the Lightning — only Brayden Point might be faster — but Joseph has yet to develop Point’s ability to create his own space by changing speeds and keeping defenders guessing.

“Speed is terrific, but change of speed kills,” Lightning TV analyst Brian Engblom said. “There’s fast, and there’s ultra-fast. He’s right up there. But he’s still learning how to use that, because the rink has boards around it. It’s not a lake.

“You watch Brayden go through the neutral zone and cruise and then step on the gas and change speeds. It’s like a Formula 1 car. You can feel the gears changing. It’s the same thing with Joseph, but it’s like he still has wild speed. He needs to downshift.”

Joseph will be the first to admit that sometimes he’s gotten too caught up in going full speed. Chances didn’t come often when he played on the bottom lines, and he admits his eyes got big when he got the puck with open ice in front of him.

“That’s definitely not what you want to do in the NHL,” he said. “So I’m still learning how to manage my speed and not just go all-out right away when I get the puck. It’s definitely something I’m trying to work on, trying to accelerate maybe or slow down instead of going full speed. But I think that comes with the reps and experience of playing more games..”

Lightning right wing Mathieu Joseph skates before a game against the Washington Capitals earlier this month.
Lightning right wing Mathieu Joseph skates before a game against the Washington Capitals earlier this month. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Joseph had two shorthanded breakaways in an overtime win in Detroit last month and got shots off on both. On the second, he went full throttle through the neutral zone and beat two defenders. But he ran out of track and shot into Red Wings goaltender Alex Nedejkovic’s pads from in front of the goal.

“He waits a little too long, waits to get too close to the goalie or too close to the defenseman and just doesn’t quite get it yet,” Engblom said. “When you have that kind of speed and you’ve gotten penetration, you get to the tops of the circles, already you’re in scoring position. You don’t have to get to the second hashmark to score. ... If he gets a grasp of that, he will score a ton of goals.”

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