Monday, March 12, 2007

'Bout Time National Hockey Media

Hey guess what. It’s time to write about a Tampa Bay team! It only took 2 weeks and 7 posts until I got around to actually writing about a local team. Trust me more articles on the Rays and the Lightning are upcoming. I may even throw in something about the Buccaneers….if it’s a particularly slow news cycle.

It seems that the national media is just now waking up to something that we’ve known in Tampa since about November of last year – Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St Louis are pretty good players. As teams across the league are finding out if you put them on the same line than they become a very dangerous line. Articles in the USA Today and on espn.com have recently sung the praises of the two prolific scorers. Gary Shelton a writer for the local fish rag, The St Pete Times, made mention of the duo “skating through the Hall of Fame”.

Now I’ve read his column a few times and am not sure what he meant by that comment (read it here: http://www.sptimes.com/2007/02/25/Lightning/MVP_race_begins_with_.shtml). The column has spoken about Vincent and Martin being among the best scoring tandems since Mario Lemiuex and Jaromir Jagr wreaked havoc on the NHL during the early 90’s. It’s a good article, but after only 7/8ths of a season it’s a little early to be comparing them to some of the great line combinations of all time. Let’s give it a few years first.

For most of the year the titanic twosome, along with line mate Vinny Prospal, have taken the Southeast Division and the rest of the NHL by storm. The Lightning has scored 211 goals this season and 97 of those goals have come from Vinny, Vinny or Marty. That’s 46 % of the team’s goals from 3 players who have spent most of the season on the same line.

Granted with coach John Tortorella’s fondness for switching lines almost at random during games they haven’t scored all 97 goals together as one line, but it is still an astonishing percentage for 3 players to have. In the case of Lecavalier and St Louis it’s a case of getting your money’s worth. Two of the teams highest paid players and 2/3 of the fabled Big Three (Brad Richards is the Athos to Lecavalier and St. Louis’ Aramis and Porthos) the line mates lead the Lightning in scoring.

Whereas the national media is making it seem like this pairing has popped up overnight– they have actually been on the team together since the diminutive St Louis joined the Lightning in 2000-01 as a free agent. They are in their 6th season together as teammates. That is a lot of game and practice time together to learn each other’s tendencies.

While they played sporadically together during the first St Louis usually found himself on a line with Richards and Fredrick Modin. Lecavalier has played with a myriad of players throughout his career from the Sheldon Keefe’s of the world to the Dave Anderchuks. The off-season trade of the Swedish forward Modin to Columbus for Marc Denis forced Tortorella to tweak his lines heading into this season.

The coach had been hesitant to pair the two in the past due to their occasional lack of effort on the defensive effort. It took a resurgence in St Louis’ effort and the continued development of the mercurial Lecavalier as a defensive forward to gain their coach’s trust. Now Tortorella, one of the leagues strictest coaches, only has to worry about the two being too creative and too unselfish with the puck.

St Louis especially gets into ruts where he tries to set up his teammates rather than shooting the puck himself. Too be an elite scorer in the league there has to be a bit of me first attitude in the game. St Louis will pass up good shooting opportunities in the hopes of giving another player a great scoring chance. When he is on a goal scoring streak the former University of Vermont standout has a shoot first mentality. As the playoffs roll around the Lightning need St Louis to be a little less nice.

On the other hand Lecavalier, once dubbed the “Michael Jordan of hockey” tends to be a little too creative from time to time. He is always thinking on the ice and trying to make a move a defender hasn’t seen before. Much like Sid Crosby he has excellent vision on the ice and from time to time will try and make a difficult pass to a teammate just because it will catch the other team off guard.

Tortorella has done a great time of reading the two and when they start trying to shine too much on the ice he splits them up for anywhere from a shift or two or a few games. Once he sees that they are back in the proper mindset he puts them back together and the unleash the own brand of hockey fury upon the league.

As proof of his trust in the pair they are also on the top penalty killing line for the Lightning. While overall the team hasn’t done a great job of killing penalties (their 78.2% is good for 28th in the league) they are among one of the most dangerous penalty killing lines. In only 271 shorthanded chances the Lightning have scored 11 shorthanded goals. Nine of those goals belong to, you guessed it, Lecavalier and St Louis.

If they are able to succeed together in the playoffs (if the Lightning make it) is a big question mark. With their opponents working to shut them down the duo will need other lines to be effective. When the Lightning are at its best the other lines are creating pressure. If Nick Tarnasky, Andre Roy, Ruslan Fedatenko and Eric Perrin are creating scoring chances then the Lightning will go far. If everything falls on the MVP (as in Martin, Vincent and Prospal) line then it could be a short postseason.

The Bolts are playing their best hockey since their Stanley Cup run. For the first time since then they are also making the nation of hockey take notice.

1 comment:

Charo said...

Thanks for writing this.