Despite losing 6-4 in Detroit Thursday to close out an otherwise very successful road trip and falling behind Carolina and level with Florida in the Central Division standings on points, Tampa Bay remains in first place in the National Hockey League on point percentage (.760), which factors in the disparate number of games teams across the League have played.
The Lightning are at or near the top of nearly every major statistical category in the NHL. They're leading the League for goal differential (+34). They're first for goals scored per game (3.64), a spot they've occupied since the 2017-18 season. The Bolts are allowing the third fewest goals per game at 2.24 (they were first until surrendering six goals to Detroit).
Tampa Bay boasts the second-best penalty kill in the NHL (87.5%) and the fourth-best power play (28.1%). No other team in the League ranks in the top four for both special teams categories.
Coming off an impressive run through the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs when it didn't lose back-to-back games and needed just 22 games to eliminate Columbus, Boston, the New York Islanders and finally Dallas in the Cup Final to hoist the Stanley Cup for the second time in franchise history, Tampa Bay has shown no signs of slowing down as the defending Cup champion.
"If you look at the standings this morning, you look at wins and losses, goals for, goals against, our special teams, the only conclusion you can draw is that we've had a really good first half of the season," BriseBois said in his opening remarks before taking questions from reporters. "When I look at the points of emphasis that we believe help us be successful, areas where we need to excel at, i.e., limiting the number of quality scoring chances against, battling hard physically, managing the game, when I look at the numbers for our players this year versus last year, I see a lot of consistency. I see numbers that are very similar."
The Lightning haven't experienced, at least through the first half of the season, the Cup hangover that often plagues champions in their quest to win back-to-back Cups. The shortened offseason, travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and an abbreviated training camp prior to the 2020-21 season all have aided the Lightning in this regard. Most of the Bolts remained in the Tampa Bay area after winning the Cup September 28. The moving target of a start date for the new season forced them to stay in hockey shape for much of the offseason to be ready once training camp started. And the abbreviated, one-week camp, while a hindrance to other teams needing to work in new ideas, players and systems benefitted the Lightning, who returned nearly the same team that won the championship a few months prior and needed little preseason time to ready themselves for another run at the Cup.
"They're a mature group. They are a talented group. And they are a resilient group," BriseBois said. "And when I look at them and I see them interact amongst themselves and I watch them practice and I watch them play games, I see no signs of complacency after winning a championship. I see steely resolve. I see a humble confidence. And I see a hunger for more. I see it in our players. I see it in our coaches. I see it in our staff."
That's not to say the Lightning are a perfect group. There are a few areas BriseBois and the coaching staff would like to see improvement to give the team their best shot at repeating. The Lightning, BriseBois said, are giving up too many odd-man rushes and too many quality scoring chances off of those odd-man rushes. And the number of penalties taken, an area BriseBois identified as concerning coming into last season and was rectified as that championship season played out, has again become an issue for the Lightning.
"We are providing the other team with too many power-play opportunities," BriseBois said. "Hopefully, that's something we can rein in the second half of the season and make life a little easier on ourselves. The flip side of that is there's one area where we significantly improved and it goes to us battling physically harder and that's in the trenches in front of both nets. In the defensive zone, we're doing a much better job boxing out and in the offensive zone, we're doing a much better job getting to the front of the net, screening shots, tipping pucks, so that's a positive trend for our group."
The roster of Lightning players that have taken the ice through the first 25 games of 2020-21 is likely the one that will finish the season too. While BriseBois said he is always looking for ways of improving the team to give themselves the best opportunity to win the Stanley Cup, the simple reality is the Lightning don't have the cap space to make any major moves at the trade deadline, set for April 12, like they did last year when they traded for forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow and added free agent defenseman Zach Bogosian. Every dollar of cap space that comes in on a deal would also have to go out because of the Lightning's cap situation.
"We are doing our due diligence trying to find opportunities to improve our team, whether that's at forward, at D," BriseBois said. "If there is an opportunity for us to add a player that will make our team better and we can find a way to make it work cap-wise, we're going to do it. But at the same time, I do want to manage expectations because we literally have zero dollars of cap space and that's going to be the biggest challenge to us doing anything trade-wise between now and the deadline.
"The good news is the team we have right now as assembled has a reasonable reason to believe that it can chase down another Stanley Cup. It's got a roster filled with players that have proven they can win a championship."
The Lightning will also get the best addition any other NHL team could possibly hope to acquire at the trade deadline with the return of Nikita Kucherov from offseason hip surgery. BriseBois said Kucherov started skating this week and is right on track for a return during the playoffs, should the Lightning qualify as their current spot in the standings would suggest.
"He's following the schedule very methodically and following the protocol and working hard with our therapist to get his range of motion back, get his strength back," BriseBois said. "Now he's skating, so it's getting those muscles to start firing up again. It is a process. It's a long rehab. It's a significant injury. But, many hockey players have gone through it, including some of our players in years past, Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde to mention two of them. As of now, everything indicates that he is right on track and he will make a full recovery. When I see him every now and then, his spirits are high and he's itching to get back playing again and ramping up what he's allowed to do."
BriseBois said he's looking forward to watching the 2020 Stanley Cup championship banner raised to the AMALIE Arena rafters Saturday when the Lightning host the Nashville Predators. And doing so in front of a significant number of fans - a maximum of 3,800 - for the first time this season.
From his thoughts at the midpoint of the 2020-21 season, it appears the GM thinks there's a good opportunity to raise another at the end of next season too.
Other quotes of interest from BriseBois' media session Friday
On the progression of rookie defenseman Cal Foote, whether his development mirrors that of Mikhail Sergachev from a couple seasons ago and whether he thinks his team as currently constructed has enough blue-line depth to win another Stanley Cup:
"Cal has really come along. I've been impressed with his progression. He's more and more assertive in his play with the puck and his physical play when he's defending. And that's really key for him. He put a lot of time during the pause in getting stronger and working on his foot speed. The foot speed's coming along. The strength is coming along. There's still untapped potential on both fronts for him. He's still a very young player still developing. But I like how I can see his confidence grow from game to game, and he just needs to keep doing that. He's obviously a completely different player than Mikhail Sergachev, but they're both good young players who I see playing for us for many years to come, so that's exciting. Especially him being a right-shot D. We already have the murderer's row on the left side with Hedman, McDonagh and Sergachev, so it's nice to know that we have someone who's going to be eating minutes for us on the right side. With regards to our D and our depth, I'm comfortable with what we have now. Borgman played the other game and looked fine, especially considering how little he's played in the last year and in the last few months. He can skate. He can move the puck. He was poised. He didn't look overwhelmed. We were playing a very good Chicago team, so that gives us eight right now around the team that we feel we can throw out there and they can handle the minutes."
On NHL commissioner Gary Bettman saying Wednesday the salary cap will remain flat for this season and the next three and how much that hurts BriseBois in his pursuit of keeping this team together in the near future:
"It's a challenge. And it's a significant challenge in terms of being able to keep all of our good players together. That was going to be a challenge even under the best of circumstances when we expected the cap this current 2020-21 season to be at $84 million. And now we're at $81.5 (million) and it's going to remain so for the foreseeable future. Obviously, it's a challenge. I think today, it's a challenge for tomorrow. Right now, we're focused on what kind of decisions can we make, what kind of moves can we make to increase the odds of today's team having a magical run this season and making the most of this season."
On signing D Daniel Walcott to a two-year contract extension earlier this week and what makes him a fit within the Tampa Bay organization and with its AHL affiliate in Syracuse:
"Well, a few things, the one thing to be completely candid is his veteran status with the AHL was something that's going to come into play based on how many games he ends up playing this season, so we had a conversation with him. We didn't want to put him in a situation where we would be somewhat handcuffing his ability to maximize his income next year because he had become a veteran player, especially in a season this year where there really are no standings, there's no playoffs, there's no Cup that we're chasing, there are no fans in the building. And in the course of those conversations, and again, those conversations were actually between (assistant GM) Stacy Roest and Wally, I wasn't privy to them directly, it came up that we'd love to keep him. He's a good player. He's a hard player to play against. He works hard. But he's also a phenomenal human being, a great leader, in the mold of others we've had over the years, Mike Angelidis. They're different, but Mike Angelidis was a phenomenal leader and helped us establish that culture of winning in Syracuse when we came in in 2012. And then Luke Witkowski's been a contributor to continuing that culture of winning and doing things the right way. And Daniel Walcott is another player that believes in our program and is an amplifier for our coaches' message. That's worth a lot to us. And that's why ultimately we decided to approach him about locking him up now and making sure that our interests are all aligned going forward."
On the status of Boo Nieves, who was brought into training camp on a PTO and earned a contract but hasn't played this season for Syracuse due to injury:
"Unfortunately, he is injured. He is rehabbing. It has proven to be a pretty lengthy rehab to this point, and, unfortunately we don't have a timeline for when Boo will come back. He did practice early on prior to getting hurt, and we were counting on him to be an important player on that team, especially down the middle. Unfortunately, at this time with the type of injury he has, we don't know exactly when he'll come back or if he'll come back. But we're still working with him. He's showing up to the rink every day. He's seen some specialists, and hopefully we can get him back healthy as soon as possible."