We’re now just shy of the halfway mark on the season, and the Tampa Bay Lightning — by whatever your preferred measure — have pretty well established themselves as the NHL’s best team.
So … what, after last season’s letdown, has been the difference?
If you answered: “STAMKOS BACK,” well, we appreciate your ability to communicate succinctly, but we can only award you half marks.
This isn’t to say that Steven Stamkos hasn’t had a tremendous impact this season after spending most of last letting a surgically-repaired lateral meniscus set into his knee. He has. The Lightning captain, on pace to exceed 100 points, may very well be the front-runner for league MVP.
But if the Edmonton Oilers have taught us anything in this weak-link sport, it’s that a superstar alone doesn’t make a team special. For the Bolts, it’s in part the culmination of many seasons of identifying and cultivating talent at the top of the profession which has the Lightning on track to win it all this spring.
Within the seemingly endless stream of talent bolstering the prospect base (yes, that player starring at the world juniors is, too, a Lightning draft pick), three players in particular have emerged this season as essential to the Tampa Bay roster. And, in the grand scheme of things, perhaps that trio represents the final few pieces of a puzzle Steve Yzerman has been working to complete since taking the Lightning job seven-and-a-half seasons ago.
When Tampa Bay was ravaged by injuries last season, a toll that basically precluded a late run for a postseason spot, Brayden Point was in a little over his head.
The third-round draft pick from three summers prior — and a prospect never considered a lock to make the team — Point was thrust into top-line minutes through centre for the Lightning during the last few weeks of his first professional season.
Turns out, those were invaluable reps.
Knocked down into the two-hole with the returning Stamkos, Point now anchors a second line counted on to not just shut down the opposition’s best offensive line, but to outscore them too.
The pivot-of-choice for the toughest minutes, and a weapon on both the power play and penalty kill, teammates marvel over Point’s versatility and all-situations effectiveness.
“When you can (handle) both sides of the equation,” J.T. Brown explained, “it makes you a dangerous player.”
You’d have to be naive to expect a prospect to avoid comparisons between himself and the player he was traded for before being able to make an impact in the NHL. Fortunately for the Lightning, examining production will only fuel the unassailable confidence of Mikhail Sergachev.
Now three months into the season, Tampa’s rookie defender has more goals (8) and more points (26) than Jonathan Drouin, who the Montreal Canadiens mortgaged much of their future to add in a desperate attempt to inject offence into their lineup.
But it’s not though the Russian teenager needs the affirmation. Asked if he’s been overwhelmed at all in his short time in the NHL, Sergachev discarded the inquiry like he would an oncoming forechecker.
“No. No, not at all. I’m not even close to the level where I can be,” Sergachev said. “It’s just my first 40 games. Can’t be.”
The confidence he projects is shared in the Lightning room.
Being slowly waned off advantageous minutes, Sergachev has taken the next step in his study of the position in a top-four pair alongside Anton Stralman — and seen his production increase in line with his ice.
With the reliable Swede, a safety valve, at his side, Sergachev is in an ideal spot to achieve his potential — which teammates view as limitless.
“It’s untapped,” said Brown. “He’s got the skills, he’s got the knowledge. It’s up to him.”
“He’s going to be a superstar in this league for sure,” said Cedric Paquette.
Perhaps the perfect snapshot of Yzerman-run drafts: perhaps his riskiest pick turned out his jewel.
Chosen 19th overall in 2012, Andrei Vasilevskiy is the netminder selected highest over the last seven years. With 26 wins in 33 starts, and a league-best .939 save percentage and six shutouts less than three months into his career as an undisputed starter, Vasilevskiy has not just validated his slot, but may be establishing himself as they very best netminder in the game.
It’s easy, you may say, to pile up flattering stats on a team currently scoring a higher rate than any in the last four seasons. But in the eyes of his head coach, it’s quite the opposite.
“It all starts with our goaltender — he gives us a chance to win every night,” Jon Cooper said, recalling a recent shutout versus the Blue Jackets.
“You can look at the boxscore and say, ‘oh they beat Columbus 5-0,’ but nobody (remembers) there were two breakaways in there when it was 0-0 and 1-0 and (Vasilevskiy) stopped them both.
“When you have a goaltender that gives you a chance to win every night, whether we start in the first minute or first five minutes, he’s been there for us.”
NHL’s best-kept secret?
Given the value the franchise has placed on rest since Peter DeBoer was put in charge, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to see the San Jose Sharks identify and count on one of the best backup netminders in the NHL.
Having spelled starter Martin Jones 11 times already (which works out to about every 3.5 starts), Aaron Dell has posted eight wins, two shutouts and boasts a sparkling .934 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average.
A small sample, for sure, but also one that mirrors his numbers from 19 appearances with San Jose last season.
While several contenders in the Western Conference risk leaving points on the table with every start given to a backup — or, consequently, with what little rest they can give the starter — the Sharks never have to worry about what sort of performance they will get from the position.
“When either goalie goes in, we know we have a chance to win every night,” Marc-Eduoard Vlasic said.
Clinging to the final postseason spot in Pacific Division (though with a few games in hand), Dell’s efforts could prove the difference in the bloated middle of the Western Conference.
“We’re really lucky to have him,” Mikkel Boedker said.
An unrestricted free agent and due for a considerable raise this summer if he’s able to maintain the standard he’s shown over the last two seasons, Dell may soon have to forego his relative anonymity.
For now, his teammates will do their best to keep him quiet.
“There are a lot of players that don’t get enough recognition in this league,” Vlasic said, deflecting. “Maybe he’s one of them.”