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Offensive Struggles Holding Back Tampa Bay Lightning

(Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

You have to play to your strengths in today’s NHL. Take the Dallas Stars, for instance. Their defense is somewhere between shaky and unproven (behind John Klingberg, of course) and their goaltending is far from elite. Yet they have the best record in the Western Conference right now — because they score goals.

That formula doesn’t work for every team, but it works for the Stars because they’re absolutely loaded up front. They added Patrick Sharp in the offseason, and some of their younger talents are developing into more consistent point producers as well. If anything, they’re actually better on offense now than they were a year ago. And that’s saying something, because they finished the 2014-15 campaign ranked second overall in the NHL with 3.13 goals per game.

The only team that put more pucks in the net than Dallas last season was the Tampa Bay Lightning, who effectively blended quality defense and excellent goaltending with a superb collection of scorers. The fact that they had those other elements working in their favor as well is why they ultimately had much more collective success than the Stars did. But make no mistake — their offense was the driving force.

Bringing essentially everybody back this season is a major reason why most people expected another deep run from Jon Cooper’s squad. And it could certainly still happen. But they’re off to a remarkably bland start so far, sitting at an even 8-8-2. Their goals allowed average is actually down, from 2.51 per contest a year ago, to 2.33 right now. That means it’s actually the scoring — or surprising lack thereof — that’s letting Tampa down in the early going.

Last season, the Lightning posted a robust 3.16 goals per game — a number made that much more impressive by the fact that they were able to keep it up over a full 82 games. Even in the playoffs, when the action got grittier and they faced Henrik Lundqvist and Carey Price for seven-game stretches, they managed 2.50 per game. This year it’s a meager 2.33. That’s good for 24th in the NHL, behind the likes of Columbus, Buffalo and New Jersey.

To be fair, it’s still early. And sitting at .500 just 20 percent of the way into the season isn’t exactly cause for panic. But it doesn’t help when you reside in a division with the Montreal Canadiens, who are already 10 points ahead of Tampa in the standings — with a game in hand.

So where exactly has the offense dried up? Generally speaking, Steven Stamkos is the first person everyone’s going to look at when attempting to answer that question, but he’s actually on pace for 41 goals right now — just two less than what he put up in 2014-15. Is that slightly below average for one of the game’s two or three most prolific goal scorers? Maybe a little, as he’s putting up 0.5 goals per game at the moment, compared to his career average of 0.56. But it’s not enough to make that big of a difference. Especially compared to the 43 goals he registered just last season.

(Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire)

(Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire)

The most notable drop-off from last year is actually occurring behind Stamkos. Specifically, the ‘triplets’ line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. That trio alone combined for 199 points last season, and was arguably the single most dangerous line on any team in the postseason. This year, they’re on pace for 123 points. That’s a significant difference.

Making matters worse, Palat is out for three-to-five weeks with a lower-body injury, meaning it will be a while before the triplets even play together — let alone get rolling — again. And while that means an opportunity for others to step up (um, Jonathan Drouin), it’s a very real obstacle for this club to overcome.

What made the Lightning so dangerous a year ago was the fact that they had such an abundance of secondary scoring behind Stamkos. Actually, it got to the point where it didn’t even feel like “secondary” scoring by the end, because it had become so reliable. A year after scoring 28 goals, Kucherov is on pace for just over 22 now. And the gap is even bigger for Johnson, who tallied 29 last season and is currently on the path to just under 14.

Maybe Drouin can finally take the next step, or perhaps guys like J.T. Brown can chip in a little more. And surely Valtteri Filppula is going to score more than once every 18 outings, right? There’s definitely still time to get everything rolling again, but it might take a while. Especially with Palat sidelined. And Montreal isn’t leaving much room for error — at least in terms of challenging for the division title.

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