Going into the season the Tampa Bay Lightning were one of the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference as champions. Now halfway through the season, the Lightning are on the outside looking in, more than ten points off the division-leading Montreal Canadiens. The biggest reason for this unexpectedly slow start has been the mountain of injuries faced by the Lightning so far this season. The question is, can the Lightning get past these injuries and get back to the top of the conference?
It seems so far this year that many teams have been hit hard with the injury bug. The Canadiens have had their center position depth challenged with injuries to Alex Galchenyuk and David Desharnais. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been without pivotal players like Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang for extended periods of time. Yet these two teams have found a way to win games without their star players. The Lightning so far have not been able to say the same.
One reason for this may be the sheer number of injuries the Lightning have faced. In December alone nine different players missed at least a game, severely testing their organizational depth.
Of course, their biggest losses right now are star forward Steven Stamkos and starting goalie Ben Bishop. Stamkos has been sidelined indefinitely since November 15 with a knee injury and is not expected to be back for another two months. Bishop suffered his injury in a game against the Detroit Red Wings on December 21 and missed seven games already while still expected to be out another two weeks.
Some forwards have stepped up to fill the hole left by Stamkos. Jonathan Drouin, while being injured himself at times, has 23 points in 31 games which in on pace for his best year so far. Nikita Kucherov is also having a career year with 38 points in 32 games. Andrei Vasilevsky has done a fine enough job as replacement starter. So far his stats are actually better than what Bishop’s were when he was starting. But while these players have done a good job filling the roles they were put into, the team continues to lose games.
When looking at what the forwards have produced even with Stamkos out, it seems like the injuries to the forwards or the goal tending are not the cause of the Lighting’s mediocrity this season. Rather it seems to be a falter on the part of the defense, which has not faced much injury trouble at all this season.
That does not bode well for the Lightning. While getting their forwards back from injury might get them off and winning more games, if the team cannot get their defense playing at a higher quality they will not be able to get through the Eastern Conference in this year’s playoffs.
With General Manager Steve Yzerman looking to trade Ben Bishop before his contract runs out this summer, it would be wise to attempt to get back another top four defenseman to help shore up the defense. Considering Vasilevsky has outperformed Bishop so far this season, this trade might be the only hope the Lightning have of making a trip Stanley Cup Finals this year.
Considering how close the Atlantic Division is, it is certainly possible that the Lightning can lock up a top three spot in the division. However, if they continue to suffer injuries to crucial players and do not attempt to improve their defense it could be an early playoff exit to the team most thought could win the East.