The Tampa Bay Lightning don’t have what you would call a rich tradition when it comes to defense.
Truth be told, it’s been downright lousy.
In the 23 seasons the Lightning have been playing hockey, they’ve finished dead last in the NHL three times – 1998-99 (3.56), 2007-08 (3.24) and 2011-12 (3.39) -- for goals against, the main barometer for defensive proficiency. In nine seasons, the Bolts finished in the bottom five.
Tampa Bay’s average GAA rank over 23 seasons?
That would be 20th, including one season when there were just 24 teams in the league, five seasons with 26 teams and a season each with 27 and 28 teams.
In other words, the Lightning are historically one of the worst defensive teams in the league.
But since head coach Jon Cooper’s arrival midway through the 2012-13 season, the Lightning defensive numbers have been trending upward.
In the season before Cooper replaced Guy Bouchet as head coach (2011-12), Tampa Bay was the worst defensive team in the league with a 3.39 GAA. In just 16 games as the man in charge in 2012-13, Cooper helped the Lightning knock that number down to 3.06.
In Cooper’s first full season with the Lightning in 2013-14, the team GAA improved remarkably, dropping over a half point to 2.55.
It fell again over last year’s Eastern Conference champion season to 2.51.
“There haven’t been huge chances since Cooper’s arrival, just little tweaks here and there since he came in,” said defenseman Matt Carle, who was with the Lightning for 12 games during the 2008-09 season when the Bolts finished 27th out of 30 teams and rejoined Tampa Bay for good prior to the 2012-13 season. “It’s just a comfort within the system I think. Our group has stayed pretty much intact since we’ve been here. There’s a lot of familiarity with guys that played for (Cooper) in the minors before they came here so guys are comfortable buying into the system and implementing it and for the most part it’s starting to pay off.”
This season, the Lightning had their best-ever regular-season finish for team GAA, ranking fifth in the NHL at 2.41 goals given up per game. The previous best – tied for eighth in 1993-94 – came in the Bolts’ second-ever season.
Since Cooper came to Tampa Bay from the Bolts’ AHL affiliate in Syracuse, the head coach has placed a major emphasis on improving the Lightning’s defensive statistics each season.
“It’s something that’s been talked about ever since I’ve been here, but it’s something that we finally this year are seeing the results,” Carle said.
Besides Cooper and his coaching staff’s emphasis on the defensive side of the puck, having a reliable goaltender like Ben Bishop in net has been perhaps the biggest single factor in the Bolts’ improving numbers each season. Bishop has played just three full seasons in Tampa Bay but already owns franchise records for wins (115), shutouts (16), GAA for a season (2.06) and wins for a season (40).
“He’s a great goalie,” Carle said. “To be a good defensive team, you have to have a good goalie. I think in our systems, the way we play, we’re pretty aggressive in taking away time and space, and it makes it hard to play against.”
The Lightning haven’t really had a top goalie for a sustained period in their 23-year history. Nikolai Khabibulin, who owned most of the Bolts’ goaltending records before Bishop’s arrival, was with the team for four seasons -- three as the No. 1 guy – but left after backstopping the Bolts to the Stanley Cup in 2004.
Daren Puppa suited up the most games in goal for the Lightning (206) but is just third for wins (77). Getting consistent play from Bishop the last three-and-a-half seasons has helped the back end gel as a cohesive unit.
It doesn’t hurt either that Bishop’s been a Vezina-candidate in two of his three seasons in Tampa Bay, and the one year he wasn’t up for the Vezina, all he did was lead the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final.
“There’s a lot of familiarity there with us playing in front of him and us as defensemen knowing when we do get aggressive where chances are going to be coming from,” Carle said.