What's Wrong With the Lightning's Defense?

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 22: Right wing Matt Frattin #39 of the Toronto Maple Leafs battles defenseman Victor Hedman #77 of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the puck November 22, 2011 at St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

In the wake of Wednesday night's stinker against the San Jose Sharks, the question can no longer be avoided: what's wrong with Tampa Bay's defense? Where did everything go wrong?

You don't have to be a hockey or statistics nerd to realize that the Tampa Bay Lightning have a serious problem with their defense. All it takes is to look at one number: 114.

One-hundred and fourteen goals allowed. That's the third worst total among all NHL teams, and even that's not entirely accurate as the Bolts have played 1-2 fewer games than the two teams that have allowed more than them. The Anaheim Ducks are looking like the worst team in the NHL right now (9-19-5, 23 points), but even they have "only" allowed 110 goals to date.

It's easy to blame the goalies for the team's defensive struggles, as both Dwayne Roloson (.883 Sv%) and Mathieu Garon (.901 Sv%) have been well below average this season at stopping shots. They definitely deserve the majority of the blame, as the Bolts' defense has (surprisingly) been good at limiting shots on net. Roloson saw an average of 27.5 shots against per 60 minutes last season, compared with 26.4 SA/60 this season. But when you're allowing more than one out of every ten shots to slip by you....that's a problem.

Total shots on net doesn't tell the whole defensive story, though. While we don't have the data to back this up, there's an argument to be made that the Bolts are allowing more high percentage shots (AKA "scoring chances"). When the game is tied, they are controlling the puck only 46% of the time this season -- far less than last season (53%) and among the worst rates in the NHL. This lack of puck control allows the other team more time to get off shots, as we saw Wednesday night when the San Jose Sharks got off 43 shots against the Bolts, many of them close to the net.

So where could the Bolts improve on defense? Which players have been performing the worst? It's pretty easy to see once you jump into the data.

Boltsd1_medium

This chart takes a bit of explaining. I've grouped the defenders by their most common line partners, starting with the first line combo of Victor Hedman / Eric Brewer and then proceeded down to the second and third defensive lines. As far as the stats, the first column is simple: Time On Ice. The second column tells you the average quality of the opponents that the defender has faced -- a higher number means better competition -- and the third column tells you how often the defender is on the ice for a faceoff in the offensive zone (OZone%). And finally, in the last column, we have that player's Corsi rating, which measures how many more shots a team takes than their opponent when that player is on the ice.

Once you digest the numbers, it doesn't say anything all that unexpected. Brewer and Hedman are facing stiff competition and being used primarily on defense, and both of them have played well considering their competition (in particular, Hedman is a stud). Clark and Kubina are seeing time on both sides of the ice and are facing second-line caliber talent, and they have struggled. And in the final line, coach Boucher is using Bergeron as an offensive weapon (and he's doing well in that role) and then mixing and matching with Gervais and Gilroy depending on the competition and situation.

Without context, though, it's difficult to frame where the Bolts are struggling. What if we take a look at their defense next to last year's defense?

Boltsd2_medium
Click to embiggen.

With Ohlund out and Lundin departed through free agency, it's easy to see how everyone shifted up. Hedman is facing much stiffer competition this season than last, but he's still playing great; in fact, he's playing better than either Mattias Ohlund or Mike Lundin did last season against that top competition. The same can be said of Brewer; the Lightning acquired him in a midseason trade last season, but he's facing even tougher competition this season and still producing the same. Between the two of them, they give the Lightning the strongest first defensive line that they have had in at least the past five seasons.

Meanwhile, Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina have been relied upon considerably more than in the past, but they appear to be over-matched facing tougher opponents. In particular, Clark seems in over his head against the tougher opponents, and he's not nearly as effective on defense when he doesn't have Hedman around to pick up the slack. Kubina's performance on the second line would be easier to live with if he had a strong line mate, but as it stands now, the second line is the Bolts' weak link.

In an ideal world, the Lightning would acquire a strong #3 defenseman, allowing them to shift everyone down and put Clark and Kubina in roles where they could succeed. It may be tough for them to pull off that sort of trade, though, given the scarcity of top defenders; they will likely have to cross their fingers and hope that Ohlund comes back from his injury sooner rather than...well, never.

But hey, it could be worse, right? I'm actually somewhat surprising how optimistic I am about the Bolts' defense going forward. Hedman and Brewer are both under control through the 2014-2015 season (and Hedman will be around even longer), giving the Lightning a core to build around. Finding a second line defender is easier (and cheaper) than finding a defensive stud, that's for sure.

So is defense to blame for the Bolts' problems? To a degree, as the Bolts have no real defensive depth after Hedman and Brewer. But at the same time, the defense isn't nearly as bad as their 114 goals allowed makes it look. We're going to have to look elsewhere to find the real culprit.

Coming up next, I'll take a look at the Bolts' goaltending and power play / shorthanded performance. Follow us on Twitter to be alerted when I finally get around to writing them.

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