Tampa Triplets Are Tremendous Assets For The Lightning
AP Photo

Take a look back to the 2013-14 season. It’s a home game for the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Colorado Avalanche. Tyler Johnson, playing with linemates Martin St. Louis and Ondrej Palat, who has two goals thus far in the game. It’s his first full year in the league, just like Palat. At 16:55 of the third period, Victor Hedman lets a blast go from the point and Johnson is there to deflect it in. It’s a great night for Tyler Johnson.

Johnson and Palat will go on to be finalists for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the most outstanding rookie player. The two seem to do everything, and that’s no joke. They even scored their first NHL goals together in March of 2013 against the Carolina Hurricanes. But that’s only two players, and it takes three to make a line. St. Louis filled that role for sometime before being traded to the New York Rangers. The two then spent time apart or with a host of other players, even playing with Steven Stamkos for sometime. Enter Nikita Kucherov. His first taste of NHL action came against the Rangers in a game late in November of 2013. He gets onto the ice for his first shift. Teddy Purcell sends the puck out of the corner and Kucherov is there. He takes a slapshot and sends it behind Henrik Lundqvist. He scores in his first game, on his first shift, on his first shot. This is a feat only five players have accomplished. It was a game winner, but it wouldn’t be his last game winning goal against the Rangers.

Palat and Johnson certainly played well enough to stay in Tampa Bay for the 2014-15 NHL season, and there was little doubt Kucherov would too. He only put up 18 points but was great at what he did, especially in shootouts. The three started the season off on different lines. Palat and Johnson stayed together for the most part and then were joined by Kucherov in late October. It was one of the best line changes the Lightning as a team have ever had. Nobody is sure when exactly they were put together, although it was likely on their five game trip that took them through the four Western Canadian teams and Minnesota. The three proved to be pivotal and they clicked almost instantly. Kucherov scored his first hat trick a few games later against the Arizona Coyotes. It’s around this time that someone somewhere tweeted out that they were triplets. The name stuck quicker than the line.

Many people would think that Steven Stamkos would be on the top line for Tampa Bay and for formality purposes he is. But seeing as how he has not found a suitable line to play on since the departure of Martin St. Louis to the New York Rangers, the Triplets have taken over that role. With speculation being that Stamkos will have a great passer for his line next year in Jonathan Drouin and with Alex Killorn playing well with him throughout the playoffs, the Bolts may have their top goal scorer back to a 50 plus goal season next year. But the fact is that on opening night next year, everyone should expect to see Tyler Johnson taking the first faceoff with Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov on either side.

This past year the Triplets were the highest scoring line in the National Hockey League, with the three players combining for 74 goals and 126 assists for a total of 200 points between the three. On the line, Johnson and Kucherov tied for the lead in goals with 29 while Palat lead in assists with 47. Johnson had the most points of the three with 72, tying Stamkos for the team lead in points. What makes the Triplets even more potent is their durability, as all of the them played in 75 games or more. Their combined plus/minus ranking was plus-102, and they had 13 game-winning goals between them. Their success was beyond what anybody could’ve hoped and the three were the main reason that the Lightning were the most offensive team in the NHL.

Perhaps their best game was on December 31st against the Buffalo Sabres. Buffalo, an extremely outmatched opponent, actually gave the Bolts a challenge through the first 40 minutes. They played a close game, that is until the Triplets started working their magic. Kucherov scored a goal along with Palat on route to a 5-1 over a Sabres team who had frustrated the Lightning several times over the past few years. On that night, the Triplets put up three goals, 10 points and were a plus-four altogether.

Just another night for the Triplets, an unorthodox grouping of players who found their way to the NHL on three different paths. Kucherov was a second round draft pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, but Palat didn’t go until the seventh round of that draft. He went 208th overall after being passed over the year before. He actually stopped watching the draft before being taken because he was so sure none of the teams wanted him. It’s safe to say Tyler Johnson likely felt the same way, he was never drafted. He signed with the Bolts as a free agent. Now, these once afterthoughts have become dominant players in the NHL, and not just in the offensive zone. The line started almost half their shifts in the defensive zone, which is saying something because the lower two lines had excellent defensive forwards like Brian Boyle and Cedric Paquette. Perhaps the greatest of the three at playing in their own zone is Ondrej Palat. Palat still managed a plus-24 and despite being the winger (typically a center is responsible for the getting back to defend), Palat showed his defensive skills time and time again.

During a year when the “top line” of Steven Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula and Alex Killorn (or Ryan Callahan depending on what part of the season you look at) failed to produce at levels that perhaps the Lightning coaching staff or management would’ve hoped, the Triplets came through. To show the difference, let’s break down the stats between the Stamkos line and the Triplets line. One must keep in mind, however, that the top line was a rotating door of sorts because of the different members of it. By this author’s count, five players were on the top line at some point during the season: Stamkos, Filppula, Killorn, Callahan and Drouin. But just to simplify it, Callahan Stamkos and Filppula will be considered for the table.

Stamkos Line "Top Line" Triplet Line
Points- 174 200

Goals-

79 74
Assists- 95 126
Powerplay Points 58 43
Plus/Minus -7 +102

Let’s take a closer look at this. The points were close but don’t necessarily tell the story of the Triplets. While the Stamkos line was good, they didn’t have that total awareness of where each other were and what play would work out the best way like the Triplets did. Goals were pretty tight, with the Stamkos line finishing with just a handful more. Having one of the best goal scorers in the league with Stamkos, the line was dangerously good in goal scoring. The line may have been able to score more had it existed in the 2013-14 season when Filppula really found his scoring touch. Callahan also may not be a top line winger on a team this deep but regardless, the goal scoring was significantly high. Assists were a larger gap. The Triplets passed far more. Stamkos, as stated above, is a goal scorer, while Callahan is not a big point producer. Filppula is the best passer of the line but his passing doesn’t match that of the Triplets who have an extreme hockey sense, enabling them to locate each other wherever they are on the ice. Power-play points is understandable because these two lines received most of the power-play time on the team (although that may switch next year after an average power-play scoring percentage this season). And then there’s plus/minus. Stamkos was a plus-two and Callahan a plus-nine, but Filppula was a team worst minus-14. The Triplets were far better, each having a plus/minus of over 30, with Kucherov being the best at plus-38, which was also tied for the best in the league.

In the playoffs, the Triplets, notably Johnson, played just as well. With Stamkos not scoring through a good amount of postseason games, Johnson took the team offense on his back. All three members of the line played every postseason game, and Kucherov and Johnson reaped the benefits, finishing first and third respectively in playoff scoring. Johnson led the NHL with 13 postseason goals, accumulating 23 points overall, tied with Patrick Kane for the postseason scoring lead. Kucherov finished with 22 points and had the Lightning won the Cup, these two would’ve been front runners to win the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. They had some of Tampa Bay’s biggest goals. Johnson had their game winner against Detroit in Game 4 and another one with just over a second left in regulation versus the Canadiens in Game 3. Ondrej Palat nearly delivered in Game 3 against the Rangers for the Bolts by scoring late in the third, but when the Rangers tied it,Kucherov won it in overtime.

It was a record setting season for the Tampa Bay Lightning. They had 50 wins, a franchise first, and made their second Stanley Cup Final appearance. Thanks to the Triplets, they may be in the same position next year, only then, they may be hoisting the Cup. The three will no doubt live up to their success this year and look to be the next group of talented Tampa forwards. In 2004 when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup, they had their three impressive forwards in Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards. Next time, they’ll have Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov at the helm. Look out NHL, the Triplets will soon be back on the loose, picking teams apart and taking Tampa Bay to an elite status among the best of the best in the National Hockey League.

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