How the Lightning Built an Elite Defensive Corps

For most of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s history, defense was a bit of an afterthought. Even from their first season, the franchise had more of an offensive flair to their playstyle, as they featured a 40-goal scoring forward in year one and consistently had elite scoring talent in their lineup. While the Lightning have had plenty of great individual defensemen, the overall unit often had massive holes that could easily be exploited by opponents.

Over the last five years, however, things have changed. What was once a weakness of the franchise has become a strength, as the Lightning have assembled one of the best defensive units in all of the NHL.

Related: The NHL’s Top 5 Defenses

What often gets lost in this discussion, however, is how this group of elite talent was built. The Lightning’s approach to assembling their defense is very different from how they built a top-flight offense, and it is something that is worth taking a deeper look at to further understand some of the decisions Tampa Bay has made in recent years.

Lightning Found Mild Success at the Draft and Free Agency

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Lightning’s defensive corps is the fact that so little of it was found in the draft or through free agency. Despite spending numerous draft picks and signing free agents that went on to play short but meaningful roles for the team, currently, there are only two drafted players and one free agent signing in their top seven.

One of these players is, of course, Victor Hedman, which is like having a cheat code when assembling a defensive roster. Since being selected second overall back in 2009, Hedman has been the perfect defenseman and player for the franchise, as he grew his game year after year until he was a truly dominant force on the blue line.

Gary Bettman Conn Smythe Trophy Victor Hedman Tampa Bay Lightning
Without Victor Hedman, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s defense corps would be virtually unrecognizable as he has reshaped the franchise around his incredible play. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Cal Foote, the other Lightning-made draft pick in the defensive corps, is still early in his career after being selected 14th overall back in 2017. While Foote will start 2021-22 on injury reserve, this season could be a bit of a proving ground for him, as he can show if he will be more than just a third-pairing player or if he will eventually work his way up to play next to Hedman.

Now when it comes to free agency, the Lightning haven’t relied on finding prime talent through the open market in recent years. The only free-agent signing on defense right now is Zach Bogosian, who actually signed with the team a second time in 2021. However, when you look back at the last two Stanley Cup rosters, the only other free agent defensemen were Kevin Shattenkirk, Luke Schenn, and the aforementioned Bogosain back in 2020.

So, while drafting and playing free agency properly is important, it hasn’t been nearly as impactful for building the Lightning’s defensive corpse as one may expect.

Lightning Built an Elite Defense Through the Trade Market

Where the Lightning assembled most of their defensive corps was through the trade market. Four of their current seven starters found their way to Tampa Bay via trade, showing that when either general manager Steve Yzerman or Julien BriseBois wanted a defenseman, they did what it took to get the right man for the job.

Both Jan Rutta and Erik Cernak joined the Lightning in what seemed to be small trades at the time. Rutta was part of a player swap with the Chicago Blackhawks for Slater Koekkoek where Cernak was a bit of an afterthought in the deal that sent Ben Bishop to the L.A. Kings at the 2017 trade deadline. While neither of these players joined the team with much fanfare, they both found their roles in the line-up, eventually taking over top-four ice-time.

Jan Rutta Tampa Bay Lightning
While he may get overlooked, Jan Rutta has far exceeded expectations for the Lightning, as he has routinely started on their top defensive pairing despite being acquired in a relatively small player for player swap back in 2019. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Mikhail Sergachev and Ryan McDonagh, on the other hand, were acquired in blockbuster trades. For Sergachev, the Lightning sent embattled winger Jonathan Drouin to the Montreal Canadiens in a one-for-one swap, where McDonagh was the featured player in a massive seven-piece deal back at the 2018 trade deadline. Both of these deals shook the hockey landscape, as they were signs that the Lightning understood that they could get a lot more out of their defensive unit.

Most importantly, these trades paid off for Tampa Bay in the end, similar to how they added David Savard at the 2021 trade deadline and then went on to win their second straight Stanley Cup. While all of these deals were risky, they showed a willingness by the Lightning to commit prime assets to go out and get the right players for the job.

Defense Will Be Key to Lightning’s Continued Success

Arguably, the most important part of the Lightning’s defensive corps has been retaining players that fit with the team. Over the years, they could have let key players walk in free agency and overpay the next big name on the market, but instead, they found a way to re-sign their core to new, smart contracts.

This has allowed the franchise to keep their defensive unit together, and with this consistency, both the Lightning and their defensemen have thrived. So, while the franchise is experiencing turnover in their forward corps, Tampa Bay’s defense will become their new go-to feature.

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