Why Ben Bishop Will Make or Break the Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning are on the cusp of sustained success, as long as Ben Bishop can sustain his previous play.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have been considered a legitimate threat to the New York Rangers as the best team in the Eastern Conference. An increase in offensive production, an improved defense and one of the best farm systems have put the Bolts in an enviable spot for at least this season. But oddly enough, an unknown commodity during the 2013-14 season could be the reason Tampa Bay falters in 2014-15.

The Tampa Bay Lightning acquired Ben Bishop from the Ottawa Senators for forward Cory Conacher and a draft pick as the 2012-13 season ended. (The trade deadline was a bit later that season because of the lockout.) A large contingency of hockey analysts and fans were surprised to see Tampa give up a promising young rookie in the midst of an impressive campaign for a goalie with limited NHL experience. Conacher scored 29 points between the Lightning and Senators in 2012-13, and has scored 29 since with Ottawa, the New York Islanders and the Buffalo Sabres. Conacher is now with the Vancouver Canucks, playing for their AHL affiliate in Utica.

Meanwhile, Ben Bishop's 2013-14 season made him a Vezina Trophy candidate for best netminder in the NHL.

Needless to say, Tampa has won that deal with flying colors. Bishop’s addition paired with a stud scorer in Steven Stamkos and a productive youth movement means Stanley Cup or bust, right? Well, yes -- and our power rankings give them the fourth-best chance to win it this year -- as long as the former does his part.

This season has been average -- not great -- for Bishop. Being a great goalie is more than just wins and goals against averages. Which saves is Bishop making? Which is he not making? Have his teammates prevented easy or difficult shots from getting to him?

Below are some of the Lightning’s advanced statistics at even strength in close situations (0-1 goal differential) from the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, as well as Ben Bishop’s numbers, courtesy of War-On-Ice.com, over the same period of time.

TBL (13-14)55.751.752.27.7
TBL (14-15)

(Fenwick For Percentage, or FF% accounts for shot attempts, missed and on goal, excluding blocked shots)

Bishop (13-14)93.6494.2828.3398.0194.5785.93
Bishop (14-15)92.0093.0625.6497.7492.5383.49

Tampa Bay’s offense and defense are both getting better while Bishop is trending downward, albeit slightly, in the prime of his athletic abilities. Bishop is stopping fewer shots across the board –- low percentage, medium percentage, high percentage -– and making more work for the team in front of him.

That has to change or else the team’s improvements could be for naught. The old hockey adage is true: your goaltender is only as good as the players in front of you.

To further accentuate concerns over Bishop’s play, Pat Holden of Russian Machine Never Breaks wrote a great piece in mid-March for Hockey Prospectus detailing the goaltending play of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams. It's now outdated because Ottawa has recently surpassed Boston for the final wild card spot, but it showed an alarming number regarding Bishop: he's the worst goalie among playoff teams. Please read the entire piece from Holden, and all of his work with RMNB.

Being the bearer of bad news is never fun, but a deep playoff run can fall on the shoulders of the goalie. There is no better time than now for Ben Bishop to show that his Vezina-worthy season in 2013-14 is more of the norm than an aberration.