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How Long Before Lightning Make Changes?

Every hockey team goes through slumps. It’s only natural when you play an 82-game season. Unless you’re the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, or the Chicago Blackhawks during the lockout-shortened season from a few years ago, you’re going to hit the inevitable rough patch. And there’s no denying that the Tampa Bay Lightning have easily hit their worst rough patch since Jon Cooper took over as head coach in March 2013.  As a result, the natives are restless and some of them want changes.

Following Saturday night’s come-from-ahead 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on home ice, the Lightning are 1-6-1 in their last eight games. They’ve managed to score more than one goal in regulation just twice during that span. What’s even more alarming is the fact they’ve given up four or more goals six times during this ghastly eight-game stretch. For the season, Tampa Bay has surrendered four or more goals in a game 10 times out of 29 games. By comparison, they gave up four goals in a game last season just 22 times in 82 games played.

“You can’t win in this league if you are going to give up four or five a night,’’ Cooper said after Saturday’s loss. “That’s the tough thing, we are giving up four or five a night and that’s tough to win games when that happens.’’

Game-to-game and even period-to-period consistency has been a major issue with the Bolts as well. At some point, various factors have come into play. At times, goaltending has been an issue, as Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy haven’t always been on top of their game this season, although Vasilevskiy’s performance has been better up to this point and Bishop has been playing better in recent starts. However, the team has given up way too many quality scoring chances in front of Bishop and Vasilevskiy, causing many to want changes on the blue line. At other times, the power play has dried up. Other nights, the penalty killing has let the team down like it did when they allowed the Penguins to score three power play goals on Saturday. Sometimes the team struggles during 5-on-5 play. Tampa Bay also recently came out of a stretch where they played 14 games in 25 days and finished up a span of 16 out of 23 away from Amalie Arena. Unfortunately for the Bolts, that’s no excuse, as everyone is dealing with the same weird schedule due to the World Cup of Hockey back in September. There’s the injuries to Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan, the former who was playing some of the best hockey of his career and the latter who is a big voice in the team’s dressing room. Of course, we can’t mention the Lightning’s problems without mentioning their penchant for giving up the first goal or falling behind 2-0.

The Lightning have given up the first goal 18 times in 29 games this season, and hold a record of 4-12-2 in those contests. They’ve also fallen behind 2-0 in the opening period eight times this season, and 13 times overall. That’s nearly half their games. Constantly playing from behind has done this team no favors, and while they were able to rally from deficits early in the season, the Lightning just can’t keep living on the edge. Which brings us back to the original question:

Are changes on the horizon?

When things are going poorly, it’s easy for fans to want changes to be made. The world of sports is a “what have you done for me lately?” type of world. There’s no doubt that the Lightning are in a major slump, but the team went through a tough stretch early last season before rebounding and making a run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. But there’s no doubt this season feels differently. There’s too many early deficits, too much inconsistency, and way too many high-quality scoring chances being surrendered. As we’ve seen from Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, he has proven to be very patient in his job. He’s never been one to make impulse decisions, preferring to analyze situations and weighing all options before making a decision on whether or not to act. Remember the Jonathan Drouin situation last year? He won’t act unless he’s certain it’s in the best interest of his team.

But there’s no doubt that if things don’t improve by New Year’s Eve or even Christmas, the team will have to consider making some kind of change to turn things around. I’ve decided to list a few changes the Lightning can make to reverse their recent skid, with the first two options being listed as the most likely to happen, while the later options are far less likely at this point.

MAKE THE CALL TO SYRACUSE FOR A FORWARD

Over the course of Yzerman’s tenure as the Lightning’s general manager, he has been lauded for his ability to draft and develop players while keeping the prospect pipeline strong. Due to injuries, players like Joel Vermin and Michael Bournival have been called up from the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL and have played very well. Although Bournival has been sent back down, Vermin has stuck around, and he was one of the last players cut during training camp after an excellent camp and preseason. Why not go to that well again? Recall a couple of these young forwards in the system that have made their prospect group so strong. Tanner Richard has 7 goals and 17 points in 21 games with the Crunch and his play has been lauded this season. Yanni Gourde has 7 goals and 21 points in 23 games and is also a plus-10. Maybe a call-up could be what’s needed to send a message to some of the team’s veteran bottom-six forwards, especially since the team has struggled to put the puck in the net over the last few weeks.

MAKE A TRADE FOR DEFENSIVE DEPTH OR BRING BACK SLATER KOEKKOEK

With the team’s play in their own end ranging from decent to bad, the team might consider using some of their considerable depth at forward to bring in another defenseman to provide some quality depth and provide the team with a wake-up call. It also wouldn’t hurt to bring defenseman Slater Koekkoek back to the lineup. Koekkoek played very well in last season’s playoffs after Anton Stralman went down, and although he has had some struggles this season, you could say the same thing about the rest of the team’s blue-liners. He was a healthy scratch for last Thursday’s 5-1 loss against Vancouver and then was sent down to Syracuse, as Cooper felt like Luke Witkowski was playing well enough to warrant the move. Although he was recalled on Monday afternoon, it just seemed like the wrong message to send to a young, up-and-coming defenseman that has been developing long enough in the AHL after being a first round pick in 2012. Koekkoek isn’t going to get better by playing with Syracuse. Do you really trust him less than Nikita Nesterov, who has been prone to turnovers and ill-timed penalties? Or Jason Garrison, whose play has declined precipitously this season? Or Andrej Sustr, whose game has fallen off a cliff over the last month? Even Braydon Coburn and Victor Hedman have had their rough moments this season. The only defenseman who hasn’t struggled at some point has been Stralman, and look at the team’s play in its own end when he was out of the lineup. Not saying that Koekkoek is the cure-all for all of their issues in the defensive zone, but he hasn’t been their worst defenseman. Not by a long shot. Don’t be surprised if the trade market isn’t explored to improve the team’s defensive depth, as they could still use another top-4 blue-liner.

TRADE BEN BISHOP

Now we’re getting into territory that the team probably isn’t ready to approach just yet, but it’s something that could happen a little further down the line. Ever since Vasilevskiy was signed to a three-year extension during the offseason, the writing has been on the wall that this is Bishop’s last season in Tampa Bay. Especially with Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Drouin being restricted free agents this offseason and Hedman’s extension kicking in after this season ends. Bishop was reportedly nearly dealt to the Calgary Flames last summer before the deal fell through. However, Yzerman has hinted that it’s “very possible” that Bishop could be retained by the Lightning for the rest of the season. The only problem in today’s NHL is that pesky little thing called the salary cap. Blockbuster mid-season trades don’t happen much anymore because of the cap, and lets face it; the goalie market isn’t there right now. Calgary brought in Brian Elliott as a cheaper alternative to Bishop, but he struggled mightily before giving way to backup Chad Johnson, who has been sensational. Carolina might have been a possibility at one point, but Cam Ward has rebounded.

That leaves the Dallas Stars, whose goaltending situation remains as mediocre as it was last season, with neither Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen seizing control of the job while putting up sub-par numbers. While Bishop would be a perfect fit with Dallas, crunching the numbers and trying to find a deal that works for both teams would be a challenge. Tampa Bay would probably have to take back either Lehtonen or Niemi, and neither of them would come cheap. Lehtonen’s cap hit is $5.9 million and Niemi’s is $4.5 million, with both contracts expiring in the summer of 2018. The Lightning would probably want a high draft pick, an up-and-coming defensive prospect, and for Dallas to pick up a portion of either Niemi’s or Lehtonen’s salary. As you can see, there’s a lot of moving parts at work and still plenty of time before the trade deadline. The Lightning’s crease will belong to Vasilevskiy soon enough, but don’t be caught off guard if a deal doesn’t get done for another few months, if one happens at all.

GO FULL NUCLEAR AND FIRE JON COOPER

This option has popped up on social media over the last week in wake of the team’s most recent losses to Vancouver and Pittsburgh. I’m just gonna say that giving Cooper the axe at this moment in time would be rash, impulsive, and foolhardy. It’s not like he’s forgotten how to coach, as he’s a guy that has won at every level he’s coached. Since taking over behind the Lightning bench near the end of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Cooper has led the team to the playoffs in each of his three full seasons, including trips to the Stanley Cup Final and Eastern Conference Final in back-to-back seasons. He’s earned the right to try and correct things and get the team’s season back on track. Now I’m not saying he should be completely absolved of any blame. His constant shuffling of lines since Stamkos got injured hasn’t worked, as it seems like he’s just throwing darts at a board at times. Teams have adjusted to Tampa Bay’s style of play, and the Lightning haven’t always adjusted in response. I’ve already mentioned his decision to give Nesterov more ice time while sending Koekkoek back to Syracuse. He hasn’t been perfect, but if the team is going to be given the chance to work their way out of this slump, then Cooper should be given that opportunity as well. The Lightning have fought through slumps in Cooper’s tenure before, but nobody can deny that the leash is shorter this time around, especially with the team having such high expectations entering the season. Should the team start to turn things around, then making a change behind the bench isn’t even an option. But if the Lightning’s tailspin continues and they fall further and further out of the playoff picture heading into January, then we might see changes coming that nobody expected when the season started.

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