How COVID Could Test the Bolts' Depth
Health—it matters more in the NHL playoffs than its victors would like to admit. And it provides an irritating swat-away-responsibility excuse for the defeated. The Lightning are familiar. Last April, Victor Hedman was stricken by injury and only played in two of the four playoff games. And in the games he did play, he was clearly not former Norris Trophy winner Hedman. Things ended poorly.
But 2020, a bonkers year in every respect, will add COVID-19 to the list of concerns for teams as they try to navigate the minefield of an enlarged playoff bracket. This week, the Lightning publicly announced that three of their players tested positive for COVID. It seems likely other teams will be besieged by the virus during the playoff run. This means depth and the ability to incorporate players who can make a decent contribution should teams lose players for two-week increments, become as important as ever.
As a thought exercise, I have assessed what might happen if the Bolts lost their best forward, defenseman, or goaltender to see how the Lightning could survive in this uncertain landscape.
Note: With the NHL continuing play while the pandemic is still ravaging the country, I don’t want this column to come across as glib. If the NHL playoffs occur, players are going to test positive for COVID, which will have an effect on play. This much is indisputable. I am merely trying to think through the Lightning’s durability when public health seeps into a highly physical, injury-prone contact sport.
Forward depth if the Lightning lost Kucherov:
The Lighting don’t usually trail by large margins; generally, they are one, two, or three Kucherov shots and passes from erasing a deficit or widening their lead. Their fortunes often rise and fall on his whim. Should Kucherov be sidelined for a series or longer, the Bolts’ shift-to-shift ambitions change.
Tampa Bay currently runs on an individual-power model. The star-studded first line, Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy can all drag the team to victory with solo resplendence. If Kucherov is replaced by Mitchell Stephens or Carter Verhaeghe, the Lightning shift to a shared-power model. There is less variance between lines when Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point commandeer their own. The Lightning’s margin of error would radically change, demanding more accountability. The power play would also be hindered. At even strength, the team would be more reliant on victories in the corners and shot volume than east-west passing.
The Lightning are fortunate to have strong forward depth. Before Tampa Bay acquired Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, Verhaeghe and Stephens were plucky energy players, exhibiting mental acuity in terms of controlling possession. The depth of the Lightning forwards forced Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Yanni Gourde to see action as well-paid bottom-six forwards.
Timing is another vexing, and possibly disastrous, issue. The Lightning may be able to eke past an opponent in the first round without Kucherov, Point, or Stamkos, but that becomes a fantasy once pitted against Boston or Washington. Unless of course those squads are missing integral players too because of ill-timed COVID cases. The vicissitudes of luck may depend on the hub city and logistics.
Defenseman depth if the Lightning lost Victor Hedman:
If Victor Hedman gets injured or sick, the orientation of the Lightning defensive group shifts from a maximalist approach to an incremental ambit. The maximalist approach demands that the Lightning defensemen jump into the rush, pinch and interchange on the cycle, and try to halt the enemy forwards by stepping up in the neutral zone.
How much sovereignty the Lightning can assert without getting waxed starts to get dicey when one considers possible replacements for Hedman: Braydon Coburn, Luke Schenn, or maybe the scariest of all – Zach Bogosian. Dan Girardi may have retired, but the legacy of Tampa Bay starting one defenseman with the agency to cripple his team could live on if key members of the defensive group get injured or sick.
I suppose Jon Cooper could avoid using a one-size-fits-all strategy and encourage Mikhail Sergachev to keep dialing up his aggression while the vulnerable sixth defenseman is heavily shielded. But the Lightning don’t seem to operate that way. Rather, they move as a herd, and if Hedman is absent, I suspect the entire defensive corps intentionally limits how much it tries to influence a contest.
But a two-week stretch without Hedman affects the Lightning forwards as well. They would have to demonstrate an unflagging commitment to transition defense. Without consistent back pressure, the Bolts’ defensemen could be torched when they inevitably sag on their gaps and struggle to contain opponents’ transition attacks.
The upshot is a defensive group under a carapace. Instead of dictating play and trying to push the enemy into squeamish situations, they would be, well, on the defensive.
Goaltender Depth if the Lightning lost Andrei Vasilevskiy:
For a backup goaltender, Curtis McElhinney is a solid option. But the modifier is there for a reason. Like gazing at street painting, the more one comes to understand art and its Masters, the more unwieldy its street purveyors seem.
McElhinney will need a few things if Tampa Bay should succeed with him between the pipes. First and foremost is a more earnest focus on discipline. If the Lightning commit penalties at their usual clip, McElhinney will drown. The power plays in the postseason are too good, and any good coach will slice and dice the Bolts’ penalty kill with a backup in net.
The second objective would be keeping the front of the net tidy. That means defensemen blocking shots or boxing out. In the last postseason the Lightning failed miserably in this respect. Columbus manhandled the Lightning defensemen in the slot. If they aren’t going to block shots, the Lightning at least need to give McElhinney a clear sight line.
With Phase Four slated to start at the end of July, the Lightning need to be prepared for all scenarios. As scary as envisioning losing Kucherov, Hedman, and Vasilevskiy is, Tampa Bay needs to be ready for what will surely be a chaotic and eventful 2020 playoffs.