Bourne: In trying to be ahead of the curve, did the Lightning (and Leafs) head too far down the skill road?
By Justin Bourne
Nov 15, 2019
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
There were a few quotes in the wake of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s absolute rout of the New York Rangers that caught my eye, and played into a theory that’s been slowly forming between my ears. In the spirit of not burying the lede, that theory looks something like this: a few NHL teams saw the direction the NHL was heading in terms of style of play before most other teams did, they loaded up on speed and skill, were right about said direction … only they took it too far.Imagine if 15 years ago an NBA team came to believe that 3-point shooting was more valuable than the rest of the league realized – they’d have been right – so they built a 15-man roster of strictly 3-point specialists, regardless of their height, defensive abilities or other attributes. They’d have found themselves making a ton of 3s, and that would’ve provided them with a nice advantage on many nights. But boy, that singular focus may have cost them on the glass when their shooting was off, they may have been unable to get stops at the other end, and while they may have won a lot of games, their more perimeter group may not have been able to hang in physical playoff contests against more well-rounded opponents.
You probably felt me straying from the basketball analogy a little bit toward the end there, which is where we loop it back to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Tampa started slow this season after last year’s torrid Presidents’ Trophy-winning run, which prompted captain Steven Stamkos to make some comments that raised some eyebrows, at least two of which were mine. At the time of the below quote, the Lightning had fallen to 1-1-1 after three games, a little more than a month ago:
“We just got totally outclassed by a team (Carolina) that was hungry to play, had a game plan, played to their structure. We just continue to be the freewheeling team that thinks that we can come into games and win because we’re skilled. I don’t know how many times we can just continue to try to keep doing the same things. We saw the results in the playoffs last year, we talked about it in camp – trying to change the way we play – and we just keep falling back into the same old bad habits that we’ve been doing that cost us the season that we had last year.”
The next day Stamkos followed that up by noting, “It’s been seven straight games now if you go back to playoffs.”
So, obviously the team, or at the very least the team’s captain, wasn’t happy with the team trying to skill its way to victory.
After their Thursday night drubbing of the Rangers, there were more eye-catching quotes. First, from Kevin Shattenkirk:
“Schenn’s goal really started to put the wheels in motion for us. A simple play like that, that gets to the net and goes in, it sparked us and told us, ‘Let’s start playing the way we know how — playing simple hockey — and good things will come from it.”
The Athletic’s Joe Smith noted Tampa’s preferred style of play in his Luke Schenn-focused article following that win, where he followed up with Jon Cooper:
But on a Lightning team that’s trying to re-shape its identity — going from ‘free-wheeling’ to more ‘grind-it-out’, blending high skill with less high risk — Schenn has earned trust from the coaching staff.
“He plays like a guy who has played 700 games in the league,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He can make the first pass for you. He’s poised where guys that are a little bit new in the league aren’t as much. He’s a good physical presence in front of the net. If you need to box somebody out, ‘Schenner’ will be the guy that does it for you.”
So, that’s what the Lightning are trying to be. A team built around Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and the like … they’re trying to grind it out, and play simple.
It’s maybe a small stretch, but it reads to me like they want their 3-point shooters to get more rebounds.
It’s impossible to hear that and not think of the ever-fascinating Toronto Maple Leafs, who trot out their own list of elite skill players, who too talk to the media about their style of play, referencing their … tenacious forechecking, their will to be hard on the puck, tough to play and heavy. Those are themes after almost every series of postgame interviews.
I do fully believe that is the team’s will. I am not certain that’s in line with the team’s construction. I’m also not certain having Steph Curry trying to pull down boards from Joel Embiid is going to work.
We’ve seen NHL teams, for years and years and years, try to win the other way. If you keep the focus just in Toronto, they’ve very recently tried to show that it can be done with grit and sandpaper, and yes, truculence. That … that did not go well. It rarely (if ever) does. Because more iterations of that experiment have been tried by numerous teams, and generally failed, I think most of us would nod in agreement with “toughness without skill can’t win a Cup in today’s NHL.”
With where hockey has looked like it’s been headed though, with the absolute plummeting decline of fighting in the league and the increased emphasis on ability, it was worth wondering if a team could break the mold, and win with a group that makes the sinful “extra pass” and gets a little “fancy” by hockey standards. By roster construction, Tampa and Toronto look like groups who believed that to be possible.
I still think there is, in fact, something to that concept. The question is really just “has the game moved away from toughness and toward skill at a fast enough rate that the teams that got out ahead of that shift can have real success?”
Hockey has moved a bit toward skill-with-smiles from safe-with-snarl, but I wonder if all the quotes we’ve seen from a team like Tampa Bay speak to the fact that they’re seeing it hasn’t actually shifted as fast as maybe they bargained for, and that a lot of what made teams of old successful is still very, very relevant. They seem to be doubting that extra pass that, to me, pushes them from just another team to a special one.
What generally happens in the NHL, is that everyone looks at the last Cup winner and tries to be that. The Kings and Bruins were big and heavy and defensive? Big and heavy and defensive is the way to go. The Penguins and Blackhawks are talent-heavy and rely on a few core skill guys? Get the stars and fill in around them. The Blues won without any player making big money and a goalie tandem? Well guess what teams are trying now.
What we’re talking about with Tampa and Toronto here, though, are two teams who bucked the copycat trend (with roster construction) and chased the league-wide trend (in terms of playing style), and tried to get out ahead of it and let the game come to them. Their skills-first plans have won them a ton of games, as more often than not speed and skill triumphs over average, but boy: it sure feels like they’ve hit a point where they have their doubts about how to win when the games get hard against the best teams. We don’t see them saying “we want to score more” despite rosters that scream that their best chance is “just outscore everyone.”
They say they’re trying to simplify. Does that mean these teams went too far in their commitment to skill in a game that still asks teams to be able to do a lot more than just make skilled plays? If they are in fact trying to simplify, it seems like the teams themselves have at least contemplated that very question.