Lightning’s Defense Not Living Up to Potential

The Tampa Bay Lightning, who currently sit at a 6-3-3 record on the season, have had their ups and downs this season, especially on the blue line. Whenever something seems like it’s going right, a player gets injured or suspended. For example, the Lightning defense was on fire during their third game win streak, but Mikhail Sergachev made an illegal hit to the Toronto Maple Leafs Mitchell Marner, resulting in a two-game suspension.

Zach Bogosian, who returned Saturday night against the Florida Panthers, was injured during the first game of the season against the Pittsburgh Penguins, keeping him out just over a month. Without him in the lineup, the struggles started for the Lightning’s defense, and there were gaps that needed to be filled while they not only dealt with Bogosian’s injury but also dealing with having AHL-level defenseman in an NHL position.

Andrej Sustr, who the Lightning picked up in free agency this offseason, had taken over for Bogosian as he recovered from his injury. Sustr had one goal in eight games before being reassigned to the Syracuse Crunch before Saturday’s game. During that one-month stint, the Lightning was showing their flaws on the blue line and tried to fix it with different lineups, different players being brought up, and testing out Sustr in different scenarios.

Related: Lightning Aren’t Getting Enough From Point to Start the 2021-22 Season

During Saturday night’s game, it was obvious the defense had improved, as the Lightning only allowed 28 shots on goal while they had 24, one of the closest games in terms of shots this season for the Lightning. Bogosian had a strong game with an assist and 18:01 time on ice and played very well for his first game back since his injury. While this could be because the Lightning played a struggling Florida Panthers team, it still shows that the defense was playing better after Bogosian’s return.

What’s Going Wrong, and How Can the Lightning Fix It?

There are a few things that have shown this season that it can’t be changed by just a player’s return. One of these things is penalties. Sergachev, one of the Lightning’s top defenseman, was suspended for two games after a dirty hit on Marner on Nov. 4. This hurt the Lightning’s defense, and it caused the Lightning to have a third pairing of Cal Foote and Sustr, both of which are usual AHL players.

Victor Hedman Tampa Bay Lightning Mathew Barzal New York Islanders
Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning and Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders, Eastern Conference Final of the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Another player who has had issues with penalties is Victor Hedman, who has struggled to both play consistent defense and stay out of the penalty box. Whenever things look hopeless, he’s tended to take penalties as a last-ditch resort, which happened against the Maple Leafs. John Tavares got ahead of Hedman to get a breakaway chance in overtime, and to try and slow him down, Hedman hooked him, leading to a penalty after Tavares missed the goal. A minute into the penalty, William Nylander scored the overtime winner, leaving fans upset at Hedman for taking a risky penalty.

Lines have been another issue for the Lightning defense, as the third line hasn’t seemed to work out the way the coaching staff imagined it would. One of the things that could work for the Lightning is to trade for a top-four defenseman with a year left on their contract if things don’t start to work out leading up to the trade deadline. It worked last season, as David Savard helped lead the Lightning to their second Stanley Cup in two years.

One last thing the Lightning could possibly do is send Foote down and bring back Sustr to play with Bogosian on the third line. Sustr has played better than expected so far this season and has overall played stronger than Foote. Give it a seven-game trial, keep an eye on how the defense improves, and make a decision based on how both Sustr plays, and how the defense plays overall.

With the way the Lightning’s defense has played so far this season, it’s obvious changes need to be made, but it’s also too quick to make any assumptions as to how they will perform later this season, and if any players will be moved. Saturday night’s game was a step in the right direction, and the Lightning might have found the perfect defensive lines and strategies to help the Lightning stop pucks from reaching Andrei Vasilevskiy and Brian Elliott as much as they had before.

Fans will be keeping an eye out for how these next few games pan out for the Lightning, especially their defense, as they have a tough week ahead of them, playing some of the better teams in the league. Depending on how these games go, fans could expect different moves to be made, or lines to be switched up even more. If things go well, then fans will be able to breathe a bit easier as the season rolls on.

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