In transcribing Julien BriseBois' near-midseason state-of-the-team media session Saturday afternoon ahead of Tampa Bay's matchup against divisional foe Montreal, a continuous theme of positivity pervades the interview.
For example, when asked to assess his team and where it sits currently, BriseBois breaks into an uninterrupted stream of standout performances and promising trends that lasts over seven minutes long and takes up nearly two pages on a Microsoft Word document.
His answer when asked about this season's negatives?
An 11-line paragraph.
"Life is pretty good," BriseBois acknowledges at the interview's onset.
No doubt, Tampa Bay is experiencing an unprecedented run of success to start 2018-19. Following a 6-5 win over Montreal, the Lightning reached the 30-win mark and needed the fewest games (39) in franchise history to do so. Their current 14-game point streak is the second-longest in team history. In December alone, the Bolts have set records for wins (12) and points (25) in a single month and are aiming to become just the second team in franchise history to complete a month without a regulation loss when they take on the Anaheim Ducks in Southern California Monday in the final game of the 2018 calendar year.
Video: Brisebois discusses the first half of the season
There have been many favorable developments along the way that have allowed the Lightning to break out to a staggering eight-point lead in the NHL standings, almost too many positives for BriseBois to list.
But he tried.
And so will we.
- Rookie defenseman Erik Cernak has been a pleasant surprise, so much so it certainly sounds like he could be in Tampa to stay. "He's too good for us to send back," BriseBois said. "He makes us better. He balances our right side and our left side. He and Ryan McDonagh turned out to be a really good pair. There's chemistry there."
- Speaking of McDonagh, BriseBois said of his performance October 24 at Colorado: "I don't know that I've seen a better game played by a defenseman, maybe ever." McDonagh has been everything the Lightning thought they were getting at last season's trade deadline and more, going up against the opposition's top offensive threats nightly and thriving, spearheading a penalty kill that's rebounded from a 28th-place performance in the NHL a season ago to eighth place following the Montreal game and contributing at a high level offensively despite getting virtually zero power-play time. "He's been a really good player for a really long time and now I think him being healthy has just allowed him to shine even more," BriseBois said.
- The Lightning are currently on pace to score 343 goals this season, shattering the franchise mark of 290 goals they set just last season. If that offensive prowess holds, you'd have to go all the way back to the 1995-96 season when the Pittsburgh Penguins netted 362 goals to find a team that's scored more goals in a season than the Bolts' current pace suggests.
- Special teams have been dominant. Tampa Bay owns the NHL's top power play at 29.8 percent. The penalty kill, which, according to BriseBois, "wasn't up to I would say the standards of a good team last year," ranks eighth in the League at 82.8 percent.
"Todd Richards has come over and taken over the penalty kill and done a really good job there," BriseBois said. "And Jeff Halpern has taken over the power play and he's done a really good job there." And don't forget about Derek Lalonde, like Halpern, also in his first season as an assistant coach for the Lightning. "Derek Lalonde's come in and brought a lot of enthusiasm and energy and perspective to our group, and he's been a great addition," BriseBois said.
- As to the head bench boss, BriseBois said Jon Cooper, in his seventh season and the longest-tenured head coach in the NHL, probably won't be up for the Jack Adams Award -- given at season's end to the League's top coach -- because of the nature of the award but certainly should be.
"The work that Coop's done this year I think has been outstanding," BriseBois said. "Even though we had a really successful year last year, he spent all season looking for ways for us to be better, and we are better. Obviously, a lot of that credit goes to the players. It's always the players first but I think Coop and his coaching staff have done an unreal job getting us ready so that we have a good start to our season, and the way he's been able to not only survive some injuries to key players but (thrive) and the consistency of our team, I think it's been really, really impressive."
Cooper is in the final year of his contract, but BriseBois said the team will announce a new deal at some point, whether during the season or after.
"I do foresee Jon being our head coach for many years to come," BriseBois said.
- Depth is at an all-time high. If one player goes out due to injury, another steps in and meets or even exceeds the lost production, Adam Erne's two-goal game against Montreal with J.T. Miller out of the lineup due to an upper-body injury is a perfect example. Said BriseBois: "We're trying to find minutes for our players, but we can roll four lines and the coaches can roll four lines and manage the wear and tear hopefully over the course of an 82-game season so that come springtime, maybe we're a little bit fresher than we have been in years past and hopefully that might make the difference come springtime."
- On certain players, BriseBois stated:
- Mikhail Sergachev has seen increased ice time this season and even over the last few games. "With him and Cernak now, we have two young defensemen coming in that have size and can skate and have skill that should be on our team for many years to come. That's very positive."
- Brayden Point was already a world-class player and has taken his game to another level.
- Steven Stamkos is the hottest goal scorer in the NHL right now with 14 tallies in December, but it's his work in the face-off circle, an area the Lightning were deficient last season, that's really impressed BriseBois. "Stammer in particular, probably more than anyone else has really stepped up his game," he said. "He's at 57 percent right now. He goes up against really good face-off guys. He takes big face-offs for us. So, even though he's been here for over 10 years, he's still improving. He's still finding ways to get better."
- Cedric Paquette and Braydon Coburn, tasked during the offseason with improving their skill on the puck, have made more plays to fit with the team's identity. "That's gotten both of them opportunities to play more, play a bigger role on our team."
- Andrei Vasilevskiy's having a fantastic season, another Vezina-caliber campaign, and when he went down to injury, Louis Domingue stepped in and won 11 of 13 games, the Bolts somehow going from two points behind Nashville in the NHL standings at the time Vasilevskiy was injured to a six-point overall lead in the League standings when he returned
"Like I said, we could be here all day," BriseBois grinned.
Which isn't to say the Lightning are devoid of any issues. The coaches have found it challenging to try to find ice time for everyone. On the back end, they've utilized a seven-man rotation of late where one defenseman sits each night, not an easy sell to a healthy player, especially a veteran one like Coburn or Dan Girardi, but a strategy that might pay off in the long run for the team. And the Lightning are allowing too many goals. When they have a lead, especially in the third period, they need to "shut it down." In a 6-5 overtime win against Philadelphia December 27, the Bolts were up 5-2 going into the third but gave up three goals and had to pull out the victory in overtime. That can't happen. The Lightning are allowing 2.97 goals per game, ranking 15th in the NHL. BriseBois would like to see that goals against number closer to two and the ranking somewhere in the top ten. "Considering the quality of the goaltending we have and the team we have, we should be higher up," BriseBois said.
But, really, that's it. Through the first half of the season, the Lightning have been better than the predicted, even exceeding BriseBois' lofty expectations.
"We were a good team last year, but individually if you look at the players, they're all better than they were last year, and I think that's why the team, even though I believe is almost identical to the record last year at this point, our team's a better team than it was last year," he said.