The Lightning saw Eric Brewer’s best and worst

Count me as one of the fans that is disappointed to see Eric Brewer be shipped out of Tampa to Anaheim.

I liked the leadership he offered and what seemed to be a steady influence, at the same time there was always the feeling that there could be more. Now, he’s in the Bygone Bolts category joining Nate Thompson on the Ducks.

Once Jon Cooper came in and managed with minutes in tandem with associate coach Rick Bowness, Brewer’s game was more in control and seemed fresher. Those mistakes that would creep up, especially under Guy Boucher, were minimized.

Somehow this season, it went off the rails. When a veteran player like Brewer gets scratched he either can play worse because of his attitude or motivated to do better. I would want to believe that the more you play Brewer the better he would be this year but he’s only played six fewer games than Garrison, Carle and and Stralman this year.

His regular stat sheet appeared pretty good for this year compared to previous years but the advanced statistics show he was a train wreck this year.

Coaching staff and the front office told Tampa area media that Brewer said he wanted to play but he was controlled in how he was being scratched. Between the salary constraints and his horrible stats for this year, it was justified to move him now.

If his performance was better than what we’ll see below, then it would have been an attitude problem. Here’s a snippet of how Barry Trotz explained how well defenseman Jack Hillen was handling his 19 games being a healthy scratch this season and what happens if he wasn’t a good teammate:

“What happens if you don’t have the good attitude is you start bringing other players down,” Trotz had said, “and when you start bringing other players down around you, it’s time to move that player out, because there’s nothing good that can happen.”

Speaking of the Caps, Brooks Orpik is a lot like a now more expensive Eric Brewer—both heralded for intangibles, but in advanced stats, they aren’t all that great. Orpik’s tradeoff that keeps him going is his jarring hits and physical play. Brewer lacked that grit and jabs after the whistle that could have elevated his game and value that made have played in his favor to hang around.

Horribly advanced

Brewer’s Fenwick, which accounts for all shots directed to the net that weren’t blocked, was the worse in his career topping the year he was traded from the Blues to the Bolts. He gave up about 12 more shots than he directed, according to stats by War On Ice. For five-on-five play, his offensive zone starts were about even this season, at 2 percent, a total swing from the -4 percent last season, meaning he had more defensive zone starts.

Revisiting that 2011-12 season, Brewer’s offensive zone starts percentage was a whopping -20 percent, explaining why that year was so atrocious (and why Boucher screwed himself).

Play with the charts on War on Ice and you’ll see a lot of red for Brewer buried with this year at the bottom of the charts.

Here’s just one of them that shows he was doing pretty well last season and then fell off a cliff.

This chart shows how many shots he was either giving up or getting on net compared to the time on ice of his competition. Basically, he was giving up a lot more in a shorter time up against his competition. Just play around with the charts on War On Ice and none of them look great, but comparatively, he was a lot better last season than this. Somehow getting bumped down on the depth chart is affecting him more than what it should. If anything it ought to have a positive effect on his stats, similar to how Mike Green, an offensive defenseman, is doing better this year seeing weaker competition.

Courtesy of War On Ice

Courtesy of War On Ice

Traditional stat pack

Measuring other areas of his game, the Bolts also saw Brewer’s best.

During Brewer’s St. Louis days, he played on a lean team and if you look at his stat sheet, it looked horrible for a defenseman if you take a peek  at plus/minus. Folks, during his days in Tampa, he enjoyed the most number of plus seasons with any franchise he played for. Out of the parts of five seasons he spent with the Bolts, only one season, 2011-12, he was a minus player.

Look at that roster and you understand why. Brett Clark was a minus-26 and the rest of the cast was spare parts from Breden Mikkleson, Mike Commodore, Brian Lee and Bruno Gervais to Pavel Kubina, Matt Gilroy and Marc-Andre Bergeron who had 24 points in 43 games, enough to lead the defense corps in scoring in an 82-game season. That should tell you how bad that year was.

When Brewer left Tampa this year, he was plus-5 and had four assists in 17 games. That’s better than the minus players Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio (minus-2 each) and the goal and assist Gudas put up. Barberio is scoreless in his seven games.

Brewer was also averaging 22.7 shifts per game and 17:50 in ice time this season, about 20 seconds above his average last season with one fewer shift. Both of those numbers are way down from the 20 minutes and 27 shifts he averaged in the lockout shortened 2012-13—also the final season of Boucher.

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Lightning in-game entertainment needs to help fans be louder

Despite having the Minnesota Wild in Amalie Arena, it was still a Saturday. And it was still a little too silent.

Save for a quick burst of all three goals scored in the second period and the flurry of saves made by Ben Bishop in the waning seconds of the game, Lighting fans were too quiet, myself included. Players might say they don’t pay attention to how many people show up for a game (OK, only Panthers players say this and lie) but they certainly feed off of a crowd’s energy.

What the issue is that the in-game entertainment lacks call to action. In between all the charity spotlights, ticket promotions and  kiss cams, the things that get the crowd going en masse aren’t there.

Instead of being led by the giant screen to chant “Let’s Go Bolts” or “Let’s Go Tampa” the crowd is simply told to “Make Some Noise.” Over and over and over again.

The Sticks Of Fire gang do their part in the upper bowl of the arena, but it doesn’t carry though in most instances and because of the complexity of the chants (or maybe length) they take some getting used to. (That and even when they shouted I still couldn’t make out everything they were saying across the way in Section 313.) The group is getting a lot of media attention, but it’s activation in arena hasn’t followed as much as it should and same goes for Facebook where the group has only 921 fans out of a Lightning fan base of tens of thousands. Shit, Sam The Horn guy—a man who solely blows a vuvuzela at the Verizon Center to elicit “Let’s Go Caps” has 3,292 followers on Twitter.

ESPN The Magazine praised the electrifying arena, but folks, there’s another level to get to. It needs to be much louder for longer and at points, deafening. I’m a little biased here being in plenty of games at the Verizon Center and my ears would ring.

Let’s talk solutions, shall we?

•Just get back to basics and start small. Lead us. Give us something to say. We need direction in a game with a lot going on. Go Bolts Go or Let’s Go Lightning. Something. What’s not working is overusing “Be The Thunder” as a rallying cry because it only works for the beginning of the game. Any other time, the call to action loses momentum. It’s not exactly something you can chant either because the fans are supposed to be the thunder. Yelling it doesn’t make any sense.

•Coming out of a commercial break, play some sort of short montage video to start a rally cry and get somebody well-loved from Tampa Bay and shout “Let’s Go Boooooooollllts.” Dick Vitale doesn’t have the energy in his video and just don’t get any politicians or bureaucrat in the video and we’ll be fine.

•Embrace the Sticks Of Fire chants. Feature them in the game, especially during if the game is scoreless or the Bolts are trailing, to get the energy up in the building. This can almost be like the “Unleash the Fury” moment that worked so well in the Verizon Center. (Certainly PA announcer Wes Johnson does his part when his head explodes each game.)

Start simple. Do “I believe that we will win” in the third period, with the camera on them to lead the way and have the words up on the screen. We all know you have the real estate to work with on that jumbotron. And then go from there. The Caps have set it up with both Sam and another guy called Goat, who has a strong set of chords where he will scream “Let’s Go Caps” and the entire arena can hear him and join in. The cameras typically show him once a game to get the crowd going now.

That should give the Lightning and fans a starting point. The team and fans are making strides to make it a hostile place for visiting teams, but there’s more to do. I can at least be thankful that we’ve moved away from a fiddler doing “Cotton Eyed Joe” every game.

Lightning top league standings, have more work to do

The Lightning are settling in to where those offseason expectations put them in—atop the NHL standings. At least for the night.

Scoring, goaltending and for the most part, solid team defense is clicking. It looks like the second period needs some cleaning up, especially when it comes to penalties and killing them successfully.

Here’s a look at team stats for the Lightning in order of worst to first:

  • Penalty Kill Percentage: 76.1 percent—25th in league
  • Power Play Goals Allowed: 11—24th in league (tied with four other teams)
  • Shots per game: 30.1—16th in league
  • Goals against per game: 2.67—14th in league
  • Face-off winning percentage: 50.6 percent—13th place
  • Leading after second period win percentage: 88.9 percent—12th place
  • Winning percentage when outshooting opponent: 70 percent—9th place
  • Leading after first period win percentage: 83.3 percent—7th place
  • Shots against per game: 27.4—6th in league
  • Scoring first winning percentage: 80 percent—5th place
  • 5v5 goals for/against ratio: 1.38—4th in league
  • Trailing winning percentage: 60 percent—4th place
  • Power Play Percentage: 26.4 percent—3rd in league
  • Goals per game: 3.80—2nd in league
  • Power Play Goals: 14—Tied for 2nd in league
  • Winning percentage when being outshot: 75 percent—1st place

The takeaway for me is that the Bolts need to close the door a bit more, especially late in the second and into the third. They allowed Detroit to creep back in but as the stats show, they were able to overcome that deficit and win.

Not every team is going to be perfect and some of these stats offset the others, allowing a team to cover up for its mistakes and shortcomings. Take a look at the penalty kill. It needs huge improvement at 25th in the league, but I was surprised that the Lightning only managed to score one shorthanded goal with how aggressive the forwards are.

Brian Boyle popped in that shorty on Thursday night against the Flames where the Lightning earned several other short-handed opportunities and a couple breakaways thanks to the drop-pass used by the Flames breakout. However, after Boyle scored the shorty, they allowed a power play goal 20 seconds afterward. Buzzkill.

Short handed goals are a bonus when killing penalties and at this point, the unit needs to not be aggressive to the point where they’re looking to strip a puck and go the other way with it. Instead, they need to still limit space but focus on getting a stick on the puck enough to clear it and change.

The Lightning are taking 9.8 penalty minutes per game, which is the eighth lowest in the league, so it’s not like the team is on a parade to the box. That’s 66 penalties in 15 games. For comparison, Winnipeg has the most at 90, which includes three misconducts

Here is how the Lighting penalties per period break down after I went through each box score for the season (NHL doesn’t keep track):

  • 1st — 17
  • 2nd  — 36
  • 3rd  — 13
  • OT — 0

Remember that some penalties offset like roughing and the five fighting majors the Lightning have on record. Three of the fights occurred in the first period and two in the second period, according to HockeyFights.com. Maybe it’s the long change, but couple the a long change with a penalty kill and you can see where things can get hairy. Seven of the goals allowed on the PK also occurred in the second period by my check and then three in the third period and only one in the first.

If the Lightning want to be ultra stingy, it’s clear that second-period penalties need to be cut down along with snuffing out power plays in the second period. (Maybe no coincidence that the second period typically has more goals scored in the league.)

These numbers also bleed another way in that refs put their whistles away in the third period sometimes (and too many in overtime) and the first period seems to be standard.

At 15 games in, the Lightning are showing what they’re capable of and hopefully the team continues to do its homework for the rest of the season to become an elite first-place team and not a San Jose Sharks/Washington Capitals first-place team.

Bolts are beautifully in sync

I caught my first regular season game this year in Tampa Saturday, albeit I switched to my hometown allegiance for the night rooting for my Caps.

It was futile as Washington lost, but I didn’t grow frustrated at the Caps despite their losing skid as much as I’ve become more impressed with this Lighting squad.

Watching pre-season, scrimmages and games on TV this year only tells so much. The takeaway came during a first period power play when Kucherov, Palat and I believe Namestnikov were regrouping for the breakout. They each hit their mark right on the hashmarks skating back, turning in sync to the left to head back up ice. You script these regroups and breakouts on a board and they never go as plan. Try to draw it up in NHL 15 and it doesn’t look as good.

Sitting three rows from the glass, the behind-the-net fadeaway pass to Kucherov was just as heart melting. If this was any other night rooting for the Bolts I would have gone out of my mind. That is a difficult move to actually pull off and for the goalie to bite on the move. Braden Holtby went with the option that Johnson would walk around and pass from the strong side or jam the puck in.

Hotlby had a goalie blind spot playing the angle like he did, but the other option would be to try to see from the far post, then leaving the near side open for Johnson to tap in. None of the Caps had Kucherov covered. Not even a stick was nearby to knock it away.

At 8-3-1 and playing what seems to be a man down every night, the Lightning are on a special run now. The Caps are in an early season spiral that I know will turn around.

The Bolts might see a four-game losing streak sometime this season, but I don’t see them losing too many consecutive games nor being inconsistent where stretches will go win-loss-win-loss-shootout loss, win, OT loss type of scenario.

Enjoy the great play as long as it continues.