For the Tampa Bay Lightning, building a defensive corps that could compete with the best in the NHL has been a long and arduous process. Before Steve Yzerman took over as general manager back in 2010, the franchise had little to no depth on the blue line beside a potential superstar in Victor Hedman.
Through a mixture of veteran signings, deft trades and even a little bit of luck, the Lightning slowly cobbled together a defensive unit that can be considered elite. With Hedman and Ryan McDonagh leading the charge, Jan Rutta and Erik Cernak have found surprising success in the top four. Kevin Shattenkirk along with Mikhail Sergachev add offensive upside — the unit has a little bit of everything.
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That is, of course, before injury struck. Starting in early February, the Lightning lost both McDonagh and Rutta to long-term injury. While they should both be back for the playoffs, they could miss close to two months each depending on how their recovery process goes.
Now, due to these injuries, how has the Lightning’s defensive depth been tested?
What Changed for the Lightning?
With two of their top-four defensemen out for the better part of six weeks, the Lightning had to shuffle around their starting pairings to find the best lineup. After trying a number of options, Cernak ended up alongside Hedman on the top pairing, with Shattenkirk and Sergachev taking over second-pairing duties.
Given the situation, that’s not a bad unit to roll out. On paper, it still offers top-end talent, some defensive upside and a good bit of scoring prowess.
The bottom pairing is where things fall apart. Many of the Lightning’s depth defensemen are aging veterans, including Zach Bogosian, Brayden Coburn, and Luke Schenn. As a seventh defenseman, any of these players are serviceable, but when they are on the ice together as a third-pairing, it creates many issues.
Most noticeable, those three players are slow, routinely getting burned by speedy forwards. Simply put, if the Lightning enter the playoffs having to rely on Schenn, Coburn or Bogosian for meaningful ice time, it will only negatively affect the team.
Increasing Ice-Time Wearing Down Lightning Defenders
Another outcome of these injuries is the increased ice time for Lightning defensemen across the board. For example, McDonagh not only eats 20-plus minutes each night, but he also takes on as much as two to three minutes on the penalty kill.
With him out of the lineup, players like Hedman and Sergachev have seen an uptick in ice time, adding a handful of minutes each night. While it’s just a small change on the surface, those minutes quickly add up, wearing down even top players.
During the Lightning’s rough stretch at the end of February through early March, one contributing factor was the relatively poor play of these overworked defensemen. Tampa Bay’s defense looked a step behind in many cases, being out of position while allowing prime scoring opportunities for the opposition.
Lightning Have Help on the Way
The only good news for the Lightning is that McDonagh should be back by the middle of March, with Rutta not far behind. If they slot back into the line-up similar to before their injuries, things should settle down on the blue line once again.
However, if they can’t return to full form before April, the Lightning may be in trouble. Right now, their defense isn’t good enough to compete against the best in the NHL, as they have been getting torn apart over the last five games.
So, no matter how good their goaltending or offense may be, without their defense playing at top form, the Lightning won’t get far in the 2020 playoffs.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.