Tampa Bay Lightning’s Defensive Zone Structure Underperforming – TechVerdant

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The Tampa Bay Lightning defensive zone structure has not been good. It has been covered extensively over the last two years. Defensive zone giveaways are killing the team. Full 60 minute efforts are completely lacklustre. Jeff Blashill has been called out before. Mikhail Sergachev and Nick Perbix have been directly linked with the giveaway issues. Where does it end? What pairs must the Lightning create to find some form of responsibility up and down the lineup? Can the Lightning defensive zone structure even be “fixed” by these moves? 

Tampa Bay Lightning Defensive Zone Structure Needs An Overhaul

Last season, giveaways were an issue in their own end. Sergachev had the most, Perbix had one of the highest rates of defensive zone turnovers, it’s been repeated. However, it has gotten worse, another repeated concern that cannot be stressed enough. In two tracked games, the Lightning have paired Victor Hedman and Perbix together, plus Sergachev with Darren Raddysh. 

In those two games, those pairs have combined for 14 and 15 defensive zone turnovers, respectively. That’s 29 total between those two pairs. Overall, there were 54 defensive zone turnovers for the team, including forwards, meaning that top-four accounted for ~54% of the turnovers in two games. But that’s just what we at Last Word have tracked. Over the remaining games that went untracked, those numbers could either find more balance, or it could become even worse. 

Tampa Bay Lightning Defensive Zone Structure 

Another topic that has been stressed and brought up an irrational amount of times, is the allowance of tipped shots on net. It is simply unacceptable. It was discussed before the season began as something that could give Johansson some trouble. Johansson has been up to the task, but it hasn’t gotten any better. Lightning goalies have faced 54 tipped shots in 13 games, which is an absurd 4.15 tipped shots on net per game. For those wondering is that *really* that bad? 

Yes, it is. Last season, the Lightning allowed 4.4 tipped shots on net per game between Elliott and Vasilevskiy. That comes after the Lightning did not allow more than 3.6 tipped shots per game the four seasons prior to Blashill joining the coaching staff. What does that mean over the course of a full season? Well, Lightning goalies are on pace to face roughly 340 tipped shots over the course of 82 games. Last season, they paced over 360 tipped shots on net over an 82-game span. The worst season before Blashill, of 3.6 per game, is roughly 295 tipped shots on net. That is considerably better than any of Blashill’s two seasons as assistant. 

The Eye Test Does Not Do Them Any Favours

Stats are stats, however. Sure, numbers tell the details of “why” things are happening the way that they are. Sometimes, however, the stats are good, but the eye test claims otherwise. And vice versa, where stats can make it seem a player is worse than they look when you watch them live. But it simply does not matter whether you are watching the Lightning try and play defence, or you are looking at the numbers. This team is bad. Like, “finding ways to lose” bad. It starts at the head with the coaching, it’s been well documented where the Lightning writers here at Last Word stand. But at this point, the players seem to do nothing to correct themselves or each other. 

In the below images (or X’s?), there will be a series of defensive breakdowns last season.

 

 

Now, it is important to remember that it’s from last season. This season, the Lightning coaching staff (Jeff Blashill, and to a degree, Jon Cooper) decided to switch their defensive zone scheme. They went from a man cover scheme (wingers get the defenders at the point, centre on centre, defenders find a guy and stick with them) to a “box+1 zone” scheme. Basically, it is the “box” penalty kill scheme, where the forwards get one half of the ice (right and left) and cover, while the two defenders do the same. Now, they are running this at even-strength, and the centre is the extra guy who supports the slot. Yet, the results are… identical. Take a look at the image below from this season, so far. 

Oct 10, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Nashville Predators center Ryan O’Reilly (90) scores on Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Jonas Johansson (31) during the second period at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

The picture doesn’t do it justice but O’Reilly has a clear line right to the front of the net. It is something that has happened more often than not.

Not All Doom And Gloom, But New Pairs Could Point Them In Right Direction

It’s always tough when it feels like the entire team is seemingly struggling in their own end. But the fact of the matter is this: Sergachev and Perbix cannot be together, due to the sheer amount of turnovers they give up. However, Perbix is the best on the team when it comes to defending against the rush, which is something the team generally struggles with. Thus far, Perbix has allowed the lowest rate of controlled entries against when faced directly with a rush, at 18.75% this season (in two tracked games). Meanwhile, Calvin de Haan has the highest rate of zone entry breakups at 40%, meaning he denies 40% of the rushes he has faced directly. Putting them together, alongside of de Haan having the lowest total of defensive zone turnovers (one) and turnover rate (3.7%). Maybe a shut-down bottom-pair?

Sergachev has played on his off-side in the past with Hedman, but that did not feature much success in the past. Meanwhile, Sergachev and Cernak have also spent time together this season, to the tune of being the worst defensive pair by all metrics on the team thus far with at least 30 minutes together. They’re the worst in expected goals for percentage, shots for percentage, Fenwick For and Corsi For percentage, Scoring Chances For percentage, the list goes on. Which leaves Sergachev to play with Raddysh or Fleury. Raddysh had success, albeit limited, with Sergachev this season. Despite the turnover problems, it’s hard to find an alternative that fits with the other potential pairs. 

The New Pairs

With Sergachev going with Raddysh, that leaves Hedman. Hedman has consistently been paired with generally depth defencemen over the years (Luke Schenn, Bogosian, Rutta, etc.,). That leads to the idea of Hedman playing Cernak, a more talented shut-down guy who can let Hedman focus more on offence. It’s who Hedman has spent the most time with already this season. But the success hasn’t been exactly there. However, it’s better than Cernak and Sergachev, and not much worse than him with de Haan. 

Victor Hedman – Erik Cernak

Mikhail Sergachev – Darren Raddysh

Calvin de Haan – Nick Perbix

There’s no guarantee this will work, but these pairs offer the most success as individual pairs. But, looking at the film? Knowing that Blashill is at the helm of the defensive zone coverages? Sorry, but Bolts Nation likely will remain less optimistic than they realistically should be. 

2023-24 tracked stats via Kyle Pereira and Jack Pallotta

2022-23 tracked stats via Kyle Pereira

Goalie stats (Tipped shots) via HockeyViz

Chance stats via NaturalStatTrick and Money Puck

Main Photo: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

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