One of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Bolt Nation’s biggest question marks for the upcoming 2013-2014 season is its defense. The Lightning are coming off of a disappointing, albeit shortened, season which saw them ranked 26th overall in goals against (147) and 16th overall in plus/minus (-1) while still gaining an Art Ross Trophy from Marty St. Louis’ efforts on offense. There is no doubt work to be done to become a division leader in the new Atlantic Division, and to get back in to Cup contention.
Breaking Down the Lightning Defense
Last season the Lightning had a decent transitional game, but found themselves bogged down in their own end far too often, which led to tired players on the ice, and too many scoring chances for the opposition (as displayed in the above NHL.com video). This season will be a real test for the core quartet of returning veteran defensemen: Victor Hedman, Eric Brewer, Matt Carle, and Sami Salo, all who have proven they can step up and be top tier defensemen if called upon. These four will share the majority of the playing time on the ice, but will need to improve upon their in-zone play from last season to make sure their team stands a fighting chance come playoff time.
Victor Hedman Needs to Show Unwavering Consistency Both Ways
Victor Hedman will be a main focus of the coaches and fans, as he is coming close to the 300 NHL game plateau which usually marks when NHL defensemen find their true scoring and/or defensive touch. Bolt Nation will hope to see both of these aspects in Hedman’s game throughout this season. Hedman was a standout all-star in juniors, and even went up against (and shut down a few times) now NHL superstar John Tavares at the 2009 World Juniors. He was used to making plays on the fly, rushing the puck up the ice, finding open lanes, getting back to play solid defense, and even crashing the opposing team’s net. However since he has bulked up to be a more physical force on the blue line in the NHL, he has been a more quiet contributor to Tampa’s scoring, averaging just over 25 points a season.
This needs to be the year he truly gets back to playing two way hockey like only he can so the Lightning can feed off of him, and climb the conference ranks. Finally, Victor Hedman needs to stay out of the penalty box. He has a total of 245 penalty minutes in just 4 seasons in the NHL, and he is simply too valuable to be sitting in the box that often. If he can get all of this together, look for him to be at the very least considered for the Norris Trophy.
Tampa Bay’s Defensive Pool
The rest of the primary defensive core will need to rely on stay-at-home, protect the net style defense in order to find success throughout this season. They will need to make sure their goaltenders are able to see every puck, and they will need to clear out all opposing players so that rebounds are not an issue as they have been in years past. This will require a lot of discipline from Eric Brewer, and Keith Aulie who at times find themselves buried in the corner, or up at the point chasing pucks. If the Tampa Bay Lightning can find a way to keep the shots from the outside, and not allow opportunities and rebounds in high scoring areas they will be a dominant force to compete with, however that is much easier said than done.
Bolt Nation may have to wait a few years for the defense to gain league-wide recognition, but there is hope on the horizon. Last season saw a barrage of different young defensemen come through the club which should help their cause this season, but to what extent will we see that reflected on the scoreboard is the true question. The are a couple of things certain for the 2013-2014 season, we will see more of Gudas and Barberio patrolling the blue line as they continue to develop into regular stalwarts on Tampa’s defense.
Mark Barberio and Radko Gudas
Both of these defensemen are expected to make more of an impact this season, and contribute while they are on the ice. Mark Barberio just extended his contract with the Bolts recently, adding another year onto his two-way contract, but don’t expect him to stay in Syracuse for long. He plays an offensive style of defense that will complement the Lightning nicely, and should significantly help the lack of a breakout problem the team had last season. He will need to show the on ice confidence he has in the past to crack the roster regularly, but look for him to make plays and gain a lot more experience throughout this season.
Radko Gudas is certainly not the only answer to the defensive questions Bolt Nation has, but he is one of them. Last season he showed that he can be a regular player on the ice, and contribute to secondary scoring at times. He has shown that his 204 pound frame can handle the opposing team’s abuse in front of the net, but he has also shown his inexperience at times. The good news is: the more games he gets, the more consistent he will be, and the better he will be in front of his own net. His career through juniors has shown that he helps his team win (including his junior and pro career his plus/minus is a 110!), something that will be demanded of him this season and beyond.
Will Defense be the Lightning’s Curse in 2013-2014?
In one word, no. This team is poised to have an excellent 2013-2014 campaign on paper, but we all know that everything changes once that puck hits the ice. Early on Tampa may find themselves fighting from the bottom of the new Atlantic division given the stiff competition they face, but expect them to make a run for a playoff spot in the second half.
All of that hinges on the leadership (on and off the ice) of Tampa’s key defensemen in Brewer, Hedman, Salo, and even Aulie. If these guys can stay focused the entire year, support their goaltenders night in and night out, stay healthy, and play their roles effectively, expect young guns such as Barberio and Gudas to step up and fill the gaps very well, and expect the Tampa Bay Lightning to be among the league’s best in goals against.
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Mike has covered the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning in depth for The Hockey Writers since 2013. He is also a contributing writer for KSDK News Channel 5, the St. Louis area NBC affiliate, and has been a credentialed media member of the Blues since 2014. Follow him on Twitter @pep30.