It’s very rare indeed that a team goes worst-to-first in modern sports. People made a massive deal in the past week of the Red Sox having done so, obviously, but the difference there is that the Red Sox having finished last was the anomaly for many reasons, not the least of which was the amount of money spent on fielding a last-place team.
In the NHL, it’s even rarer; most teams go worst-to-kind-of-okay-to-good-
Teams that are very good usually don’t stay that way for long periods of time, unless they’re the Red Wings. Even the very best teams in the league have “windows” in which they will be able to legitimately compete for the Stanley Cup, with the Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks in recent years being noted as the kind of team for whom the window is closing.
One team that falls well outside the norm for this kind of thing is currently sitting atop the Flortheast Division, and they are a team that no one expected to finish anywhere near a playoff spot. In fact, that division alone was expected to send Boston (meh), Montreal (meh), Ottawa (ugh), and Detroit (sure) to the playoffs at the very least, with a little wiggle room for the Leafs to sneak in if they kept getting the bounces that served them so well last season (they have so far). Tampa never entered the equation.
And yet there they are, second in the Eastern Conference with 20 points from their first 14 games, on pace to rack up 117 points over the 82-game season. They of course will not do that, because pretty much no one gets 117 points. Since the second Bettman lockout, only four teams have done it (and the Blackhawks were obviously on pace to do so; in fact, they were on pace for 132), and all of them won the Presidents’ Trophy.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are not going to win the Presidents’ Trophy, but there is some question at this point as to whether the thing they’ve done so far have been little more than smoke and mirrors and, perhaps more accurately, luck. You watch a Bolts game here and there and nothing, really, pops out at you to explain why the team is where it is in the division its in. They score a decent-enough amount of goals per game (seventh in the league at 3.21), then don’t allow a huge amount (10th at 2.5), their power play is good (10th at 21.4 percent), their penalty kill is too (seventh at 85.4 percent). That’s nothing but top-10s in the major statistical categories, and so you say to yourself, well, they’ve earned it.
It’s early yet, and a lot of teams are just now starting to round into form after shaky starts, while others that started hot despite their quality are already sinking into the league’s lower depths. Tampa, though, remains buoyant behind those strong stats, but it’s tough to say how long those hold up. For one thing, the team is on the losing end of the shot attempts battle most nights, with just 48.6 percent of all such events at even strength for the whole of their 14 games. With the score close, the number slips to 48.5 percent, though it grows to 50.5 percent with the score tied. They are, however, currently shooting 9.6 percent as a team, compared with their opponents’ 8.5 percent, and that says that the good things will probably come to an end in some way relatively soon.
(All those other teams that are off to improbably good starts this year, by the way? They’re in much the same boat Anaheim, Colorado, Toronto, Phoenix and Tampa are first, second, fourth, eighth and 10th in the league in PDO, respectively, which doesn’t exactly speak to their abilities to sustain things at the rate they’ve been going. Colorado’s probably the most egregious of these, just 0.1 points off the No.1 PDOers in Anaheim, albeit against some of the stiffer competition in the league. Their strength of schedule is 11th to Anaheim’s 22nd. One suspects that probably none of these teams are actually all that “for real.”)
But how much of it, then, is the team itself, rather than the teams they’re playing. Obviously Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis could — and do — score against everyone all the time. But look at their other big contributors: Val Filppula, the big free agent signing this summer, looks like a great pickup behind his 5-6-11 in 14 games, but that’s help, a little bit, by the fact that he’s shooting 31.3 percent. Alex Killorn is, in his second full season, much more likely a product of the people he plays with (the aforementioned Messrs. Stamkos and St. Louis) than Teddy Purcell, who’s shooting the puck more and keeping his shooting percentage manageable (14.3 percent).
Of course, the big reason being cited by people these days is Ben Bishop, he of the .925 save percentage in 11 games this season. Is this why the Bolts went out and got him? After all, this is the best save percentage of his career, which has been getting better in the past few seasons despite the repeated changes of scenery. But what’s interesting is that his current even-strength save percentage (.927) isn’t that much better than the one he’s dealing with in all situations.
One has to think that his luck on the PK, on which he’s stopped 93.1 percent of all the shots he’s faced, runs out at some point in the very near future; in fact, only three goalies in the league have even faced as many shots when their team is down a man, and those dudes haven’t fared nearly as well. Mike Smith (.894), Ryan Miller (.919), and Jonathan Quick (.833) are all miles behind Bishop’s .931.
So that, really, is what Tampa’s success boils down to: Ben Bishop has been unconscious on the PK, which has led to the team killing 85 percent of all penalties when he’s in the game (34 of 40). Funnily, Colorado is in an even better, if more noticeably-leaking boat, successfully killing 90.9 percent of their PKs so far this season.
Bishop is at some point going to stop looking like Ken Dryden when his team’s down a man, and also at some point, Tampa’s power play is probably going to stop having the third-highest shooting percentage in the league (17.1 percent, behind only St. Louis’ 23.1 and Montreal’s 17.7 percent).
Turns out that Tampa’s even-strength goal differential of plus-3 (tied for 11th with Toronto and Detroit) probably won’t be enough to keep it afloat when its special teams inevitably hit a wall. And that’s why, come April, we probably won’t think of Tampa as being all that special at all.