Entering the Detroit game, they were still on the outside of the Atlantic Division playoff picture, although they were very close, holding games in hand and climbing. The first three months of the season had been much more of an up-and-down roller coaster than the smooth ascension the year before. The Bolts hadn't won more than three games in a row at any point. They had embarrassing losses to Carolina (embarrassing in the sense they managed two total shots in the second and third periods plus overtime), at Ottawa and a blowout defeat by Colorado on their resume.
And, yet, BriseBois might be more confident where this team's headed than the one a year ago that tied the NHL record for regular season wins.
Supporters might not see it yet because the team's record has hovered around .500 all season, but there's plenty of reasons for optimism as the calendar flips from 2019 to 2020, and BriseBois thinks the Lightning are setting themselves up to go on an extended run everybody thought they would make last season.
"I think as much as last season our record outperformed our play, this year it's kind of the opposite where our record has lagged behind our play on the ice," BriseBois said from a conference room across from his office on the bottom floor of AMALIE Arena. "But if we keep playing the way we've been playing, that should correct itself and it will bode well for the second half of the season and we'll end up in the spring time where we want to be being one of the eight teams in the East participating in the playoffs.
BriseBois said he left many games last December disappointed by how the team was playing despite its sparkling record during the month.
This season, BriseBois has left disappointed but for different reasons, mainly that his team wasn't being rewarded for its effort on the ice.
"If we keep playing the way we've been playing, our record's eventually going to catch up to our play and we're going to have a strong second half," BriseBois said.
The major challenge for the Lightning entering the 2019-20 campaign was to reduce the number of high-quality scoring chances against. The Bolts set out to accomplish this goal through three steps.
First, they wanted to do a better job protecting the middle of the ice in the defensive zone. The personnel the Lightning added in the offseason, bringing in heavy, hard-to-play-against skaters like Pat Maroon and Luke Schenn, two guys who make a living below the hash marks, helped. So too did a shift in philosophy.
"Some of that was tactical, some of that was mindset, some of that is doing a better job boxing out," BriseBois said. "We've done that."
Secondly, BriseBois challenged his team to turn the puck over less.
"Every single player on our team that was here last year is turning the puck over at a reduced rate versus what they were doing last year," BriseBois said. "We've made that correction."
Lastly, the Lightning wanted to eliminate the number of penalties they were taking. Although they led the NHL for penalty kill percentage during the 2018-19 regular season, the thinking goes if you reduce the number of power-play opportunities against, you'll reduce the number of quality scoring chances against too.
Tampa Bay started 2019-20 slowly with this objective but has been gaining steam of late. As of January 3, the Lightning are ranked right in the middle of the NHL tied for 15th for minor penalties taken.
"Last year to kind of put it in perspective, over the course of 82 games we took three more minor penalties than we drew. This year we're already plus-6, less than halfway through the year, so that's a huge swing. And again, that swing it's a process. October was a little bit of a learning curve, and now it's trending in the right direction."
Despite the results not necessarily matching the play on the ice, BriseBois said he's been impressed with his team's commitment to achieving its goals and its ability to maintain focus even under difficult circumstances.
"I love our players' attitude," BriseBois said. "Every day they come to practice, they work hard. Every day, I feel that they believe. And every day when we have a game, they compete from the first minute to the last minute almost every game. It's been pretty impressive considering the maybe somewhat desirable difficulties that we've faced that hopefully will help grow our resilience as a group and that will pay off dividends later. I've been impressed with the team's attitude."
Those dividends might actually be paying off now, finally. As of January 3, the Lightning have won five in a row for their longest win streak of the season to date. The Bolts have worked themselves into a playoff position. Against Atlantic Division opponents, Tampa Bay has been nearly unstoppable, reeling off 13-consecutive wins and going 15-2-2 versus the division.
"If our metrics were giving us reasons to think that this isn't working, then we'd be making adjustments, we'd be making changes probably," BriseBois said. "Right now we look at the process, at the buy in, at the exertion level and the effort and performance, it all indicates that we should win more games than we're going to lose and if we do that we should end up in the playoffs."
To be sure, the forecast isn't entirely sunny for the Lightning general manager. He'd like to see the number of quality scoring chances against continue to reduce.
"That will lead to fewer goals against and that will lead to more wins," BriseBois said. "We score enough. That's not an issue."
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy hasn't been as sharp to start 2019-20 coming off his and the organization's first Vezina Trophy. BriseBois figures that's an anomaly that will eventually correct itself, which we might already be seeing as Vasilevskiy has won his last four-consecutive starts and is 8-1-1 over his last 10.
"You're not going to pitch a shutout every night. That's not realistic," BriseBois said. "I fully expect him to have a really strong second half because I know how hard he works and I know how good of a player he is and I know how driven he is to lead this team."
BriseBois would like to see his squad do a better job managing the game in certain situations too, specifically when holding a lead going into the third period. Losing in overtime in Washington D.C. 4-3 on November 29 after playing nearly flawless over the first two periods in building a 3-1 advantage was a bitter pill to swallow. The Lightning have to improve in that area, and maybe they have after they made a 2-1 lead stand up for over 51 minutes in Thursday's 2-1 victory in Montreal that put the Lightning six points in front of the Canadiens in the standings with two games in hand as well.
"That's a big part of winning hockey games is if you're in the third period, you're up by two, it doesn't matter that you score the next goal, it just matters that they don't get it," BriseBois said. "Yes, it's making good decisions at managing the game. If you're down two and there's a minute to go, that's when you may want to cheat offense because getting scored on doesn't matter at that point. It's about getting the goal. That was one area where we wanted to be better as a group and one point of emphasis in the offseason. And that's a work in progress and that will never be perfect either. We've been better. We've been better of late, and we can still become better at that."
Maybe, more than anything, that was the main takeaway from BriseBois's sit down.
The Lightning have been better.
They've been better of late.
And they're working to become even better still.
FROM THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR
Here are some more excerpts from BriseBois' interview that didn't fit within the context of the above story but were interesting answers nonetheless.
On whether he'll be looking to fill a void in the Lightning's top nine forward group either internally or externally: "I definitely would like to improve our forward group. I'd like to improve our D group. With young players, you don't know when that's going to happen. We have a very good example here, little bit of recency bias, Mikhail Sergachev's 21 years old I believe, in the last month he's taken a huge step. He went from being a good, serviceable NHL player that was somewhat sheltered and performed well on the power play and blue line into a player we can throw out there in any situation right now. He's part of the guys driving the bus. You don't know when that's going to happen. That might happen with Carter Verhaeghe or Mitch Stephens or Mathieu Joseph in the coming weeks or the coming months. That would be great. If we improve the team organically, we'll take it. Even if they do, we'll still be looking for opportunities to improve the team because that's what the job is. You're always looking for opportunities to improve the team. So whether it's coming from the outside or internally or both, we'll take all the help we can get."
On his philosophy on rentals at the trade deadline: "I think it's a case-by-case basis. A number of variables go into these decisions, your team, your competition, where you are in the standings, cap space, contracts on the books, a lot of things go into this. Player personnel decisions, it always comes back to the player, the person, the contract. Those go into that as well. During the break, I looked into trade deadline deals leading up to the deadline over the last 10 years. There aren't too many good deals in there. It's not a great time to be buying. You're buying at a premium and it rarely pays off. So, philosophically I'd say it's not a good time to buy. But it's one of the few times where you can actually buy. There aren't a lot of times during the year where teams are moving NHL players who can contribute today without you having to take anything out of your lineup."
On which player has surprised him the most this season: "I think Sergachev's been our most improved player, especially over the last month here, he's really stepped up his game. Surprised? I don't know, a lot of players have played really well. I don't know that there are any huge surprises. The obvious one, I think Ondrej Palat, having a healthy summer, he's come back a better player right now than he was last year. Alex Killorn is more invested in the team's success and I think he's taken more ownership for the team's success and that emotion has carried into games and that's carried into his play. Tony Cirelli keeps getting better. But the big guns, Hedman is playing amazing hockey. Stamkos, Kuch, Pointer, they're really good players playing some really good hockey. Doesn't mean every night they're going to be the best player and they're going to guarantee us wins, but over an 82-game season, they're pretty good players and they help us win more often than not."
On who's filled the leadership void with players like Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman moving on: "I think Alex Killorn is one player that's really stepped up in terms of taking more ownership for the team's success and being more vocal out there. Some of it was going to come from Kevin Shattenkirk and Pat Maroon and I think they've done a really good job for us. They have experience. They've been on good teams. They know that an 82-game season has its ups and downs. They know you don't go 82-0 and then 16-0 in the playoffs and the key is to keep believing. I know that's a word that keeps coming back. Pat was on St. Louis last year, like that's the ultimate keep believing, you never know I guess. He's lived it firsthand recently. Just having someone who's gone through that has enriched our group and its belief that 'Okay, every now and then we're going to hit a bump in the road but we're a talented group, we're a good group, we know what it takes and we can get it done.'"
On if he would like to see NHL players competing in the Olympics: "I've only been a GM for 14 months, but I know enough not to answer that question. I don't want Jeff Vinik to have to pay fines."