Fair or not, Lightning’s lopsided plus-minus numbers are troubling

Unable to score while struggling to keep the puck out of its own net, Tampa Bay is staring at some ugly figures on the stat sheet.
The Lightning's Anthony Cirelli (71) handles the puck as the St. Louis Blues' Robert Thomas (18) defends during the second period of Tuesday's game in St. Louis.
The Lightning's Anthony Cirelli (71) handles the puck as the St. Louis Blues' Robert Thomas (18) defends during the second period of Tuesday's game in St. Louis. [ JEFF ROBERSON | AP ]
Published Nov. 16|Updated Nov. 16

CHICAGO — After the Lightning’s 5-0 loss Tuesday to the Blues, the stat sheet told an ominous tale of Tampa Bay’s all-around struggles.

Forwards Steven Stamkos and Nick Paul were both minus-5. Defenseman Darren Raddysh was minus-3. And for the second straight game, defenseman Mikhail Sergachev was minus-2.

Plus-minus is an imperfect statistic, but it’s one many players use to gauge their all-around game on a given night because it’s specific to how many goals were scored by their team compared with how many were scored against it while they were on the ice.

“When a player is well on the plus side, he knows he’s on the plus side and he likes the stat,” coach Jon Cooper said Wednesday. “If a player is on the minus side, he hates the stat and doesn’t like the look of it.”

When a team goes through a rut like the Lightning’s — they have back-to-back shutout losses in which they’ve been outscored 9-0 — plus-minus numbers can get ugly. Seeing their numbers trend the wrong way has become a source of frustration for Lightning players.

“Over an 82-game season, there’s probably some merit to it,” Cooper said of plus-minus as a reliable way to evaluate play. “But looking at it at 15 games, I don’t think there’s a ton of merit to it.”

Entering tonight’s game against the Blackhawks, the Lightning have been outscored 14-3 over their past three games, including a 5-3 loss to Chicago on Nov. 9 in Tampa.

“There’s so many games in hockey,” said forward Brandon Hagel, minus-4 after leading the Lightning last season at plus-23. “I mean, we’ve lost three games in a row before. Things like that happen. There’s ebbs and flows. It’s just finding ways to get out of it and getting out of it quick. I think that’s the biggest part.

“We’ve just got to dig in, find a way out of this hole. It’s something maybe some guys aren’t used to, especially not scoring two games in a row. But at the end of the day, it’s a challenge, a little bit of adversity, get it out of the way early. And if this ever happens again, we’ll be able to get out of it way quicker.”

Of the active players on the Lightning roster, only two are positive plus-minus. Forward Mikey Eyssimont is plus-2. Reserve defenseman Haydn Fleury is plus-1 but has played in just two games and is returning from an AHL conditioning assignment. (Two players are even: defensemen Victor Hedman and Nick Perbix.)

The Lightning's Mikey Eyssimont (23) and St. Louis Blues' Scott Perunovich (48) chase a loose puck during the first period of Tuesday's game in St. Louis.
The Lightning's Mikey Eyssimont (23) and St. Louis Blues' Scott Perunovich (48) chase a loose puck during the first period of Tuesday's game in St. Louis. [ JEFF ROBERSON | AP ]

That the Lightning enter tonight’s game minus-11 as a team in 5-on-5 play has a significant role in their plus-minus stats, especially considering they’ve allowed 44 goals in 16 games 5-on-5, second most in the league entering Wednesday.

Sergachev’s minus-14 was second worst among NHL defensemen, and he has almost become the poster boy for the Lightning’s defensive-zone lapses. His defense partner, Raddysh, is minus-9. The Lightning’s big three forwards — Stamkos (minus-7), Brayden Point (minus-8) and Nikita Kucherov (minus-2)— are a combined minus-17.

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“People can judge that stat all you want. Is it completely indicative of your play personally and all these (situations), whether it’s a plus or minus?” Cooper said. “No. But there’s times that you’re plus when you had nothing to do with that play, either. So it’s an all-encompassing stat that probably isn’t completely fair.”

Take Tuesday’s loss. The Lightning went into the final minutes of the second period trailing by a goal despite leading in shots, attempts, scoring chances and high-danger opportunities.

But with just less than four minutes left in the period, Point failed to get the puck deep and then went off for a line change. Stamkos stepped up on the forecheck, but as Point and Anthony Cirelli skated to the bench, Blues defenseman Torey Krug threaded a cross-ice pass to Jordan Kyrou through the neutral zone.

As Kyrou collected the puck at the blue line, Paul and Hagel trailed coming off the bench and Sergachev and Raddysh were caught flat-footed with no forward help. Kyrou had a clear line to the net and scored, putting St. Louis ahead 2-0. The Blues scored again on their next shift, completing deflating the Lightning.

Paul, Hagel, Stamkos, Sergachev and Raddysh were on the ice for the Kyrou goal, but the ill-timed line change was the key, and those lapses are glaring when you’re struggling.

“It’s not like we didn’t have the puck a ton or created our chances,” Hagel said. “It’s just one of those where things didn’t go our way. We’ve got to be able to keep pushing forward instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, I guess you could say.

“I think we all know that in the dressing room, and I think we’re going to. That’s why we need to put things behind us and keep moving forward.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieintheYard.

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