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A brief and all-too-early look at the free agent forwards for the Tampa Bay Lightning

Sep 26, 2023; Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Conor Sheary (73) celebrates his goal against the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period at PNC Arena. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

It was one of the busier offseasons for the Tampa Bay Lightning as general manager Julien BriseBois looked to retool their defensive mindset, add a little speed to the bottom-six, and make the team a bit harder to play against. Through four games the results have been, well, less than optimal. While they did lose 3-2 in overtime to Buffalo on Tuesday night to run their winless streak to three games, it was one of their better performances, “a step forward” in the words of head coach Jon Cooper.

Defensively, the early numbers haven’t been pretty as they are tied with Carolina with the fourth-highest goals against at 4.25 per game. The 142 shots allowed trails only Chicago while their .893 SV% sits 22nd overall in the league. That being said, some of the underlying numbers indicate that their defense isn’t in quite as bad of a spot as it looks. 

According to Natural Stat Trick, at 5v5 their high-danger chances against is 15th in the league at 11.18. Scoring chances against is a little bit higher as they rank fifth at 30.34. So yes, they haven’t had the puck much, but they are at least limiting much of the danger to the perimeter. 

If you believe that PDO is an indicator of luck, then they have been a bit unlucky as they’ve posted a .973 number (1.000 is considered neutral, anything above can be considered lucky, below that unlucky). As a season moves along, luck does tend to even out unless a team is abnormally good at shooting the puck (high shooting percentage) or has an elite goaltender (high save percentage).

One of the issues, especially of late, is that the Bolts just haven’t been generating a lot of chances. Most of the offense that they have produced so far this season has come from the top two lines. Brandon Hagel is leading the way with 4 goals, while Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have two. Nick Paul, the third line center has two, but they both came on the power play. Anthony Cirelli and Tanner Jeannot have one a piece while Victor Hedman rounds out the scoring. 

Injuries do play a part in the offensive struggles as Steven Stamkos has missed the last two games with a lower-body injury while Tyler Motte has missed the last three with a hand injury. However, the Lightning have long prided themselves on a “next player up” mentality where they can have players step up in the absence of others. So far, that hasn’t quite been the case. 

While those new players were primarily brought in for their defensive prowess and to help shut other teams down, there was some hope that they could generate a least a little offense to offset the pressure on the top lines. So far, not only have the new players not scored a goal, they haven’t registered an assist. Let’s take a little bit deeper look at how the free agent forwards have performed through four games.

All stats are at 5v5 unless otherwise noted. Stats do not include Thursday’s game against Vancouver.

Austin Watson

2 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 shots, 6:32 TOI/G, iXG 0.08, iCF 1

Watson earned a one-year contract after entering camp on a PTO and after missing the first two games, has started the last two. He has spent the bulk of his time on the fourth line with Waltteri Merela and Luke Glendening. As a trio, in just over 11 minutes of playing time together they have yet to generate a shot on goal and have just four shot attempts. 

They have been decent at limiting the offense against them as well though. They’ve yet to allow a goal or scoring chance against. That’s not nothing. When Watson and his linemates are out there, nothing is a good thing. If they’re not generating chances, it’s good that they aren’t allowing them either.

Watson did have a nice fight against Zemgus Girgensons and that seemed to spark the team a little last game. That being said, if Steven Stamkos and Tyler Motte were healthy, there is a good chance Watson would be in the press box.

Luke Glendening

4 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 2 shots, 9:28 TOI/G, 0.04 iXG, 3 iCF

One of the reasons Glendening was added to the roster was his proficiency in the face-off dot and he has excelled in that department, winning 62.16% of the draws at 5v5. That is second on the team behind Anthony Cirelli’s 69.77% success rate. Much of what we mentioned about Watson (except for the fighting) we can also attribute to Glendening. He is a fourth-line center and he’s doing what the team wants him to do – win face-offs and don’t give up goals. 

Based on his career numbers, his goal song won’t likely be played a lot at Amalie Arena. He hasn’t posted a double-digit goal total at 5v5 in his career, and probably won’t do it this year either. Still, his shot production is a bit slow as he acclimates to his new team. He’s only generating 4.75 shot attempts per 60 minutes after averaging around 10 for the past few seasons. 

Waltteri Merela

4 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 shots, 8:39 TOI, 0 iXG, 1 iCF

Honestly, it was a bit surprising to see that Merela only has one shot attempt through four games this season as he has been slightly more noticeable on the ice than his linemates. After a strong training camp, the team’s only rookie on the roster, is taking a bit of time to acclimate to the North American game after spending most of his career in the Liiga. He did show 15-20 goal potential in that league and there is some hope that he can get around the 10-12 mark in the NHL.

To do so he’ll have to be a little more aggressive in the offensive zone and shoot the puck a little more. That will likely come with experience. He’s doing the little things to keep his spot in the line-up for now, so there is a good chance the coaching staff will give him a little runway to find his groove as opposed to shipping him down to Syracuse.

Conor Sheary

4 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 3 shots, 10:30 TOI, .52 iXG, 7 iCF

Of the summer signees, Sheary was the one that was most expected to chip in offensively. He’s scored over 20 goals once in his career and also has a 19-goal and 18-goal season on his resume. When he was signed, it looked like he would have a chance to fill Alex Killorn’s roster spot on the second line.

That hasn’t quite happened. While he has bounced up and down the line-up a bit, most of his time has been spent on the nominal third line with Nick Paul and a host of other wingers. It’s still early in the season, but his shot attempts per 60 minutes are down as are his scoring chances compared to his career marks. It’s possible that he just hasn’t figured out his role yet and once he settles in, things will pick up.

Tyler Motte

With less than a game played due to injury, Motte can be considered “incomplete” at this time. A late signing in the summer as the Lightning scrambled to fill the spot vacated when they agreed to terminate Josh Archibald’s contract, Motte had a strong training camp and earned a spot on the second line. Unfortunately, a hand injury suffered in the second period of the game against Nashville has knocked him out indefinitely.

In short, it appears there has been a bit of an adjustment period for the new Lightning forwards and while they have been solid defensively, it’s taking a hot minute to get their offensive games warmed up. The good news for the Lightning is that they should improve as time goes on and be able to provide some help so that the top two lines aren’t doing it all.