When your favorite team has been playing as well as the Tampa Bay Lightning have in the first half of the 2020-21 season, it is easy to forget how competitive the NHL really is. After earning at least one point in their last nine games, the Lightning fell to the Detroit Red Wings who are currently sitting at the bottom of the Central Division standings.
While many fans were quick to throw the brunt of the blame on Curtis McElhinney and Jan Rutta for the loss at Little Caesars Arena, some of that ire may be undeserved. Although Rutta did post a minus-3 in 10:41 of time on ice (TOI) — his lowest TOI recorded this season — he has been way more valuable than Lightning fans give him credit for.
One Bang-Bang Play, One Lost Battle, One Bad Turnover
To say that all three goals against that Rutta were on the ice for were his fault, is to not completely understand the game of hockey. Plays are happening so fast and one is constantly trying to be in the right position based on where the puck is at the exact same time they are trying to be in the right position based on where the puck is likely to be. A player has to be able to understand their role in the current situation while also being able to read and anticipate how that role shifts into the next situation — all while also having to be prepared to adapt in case something else completely different happens.
All this to set up the first goal against Rutta was on the ice for Thursday night. A neutral zone turnover by Alex Killorn leads to a soft dump-in along the half wall on Victor Hedman’s side. Since Hedman had jumped into the rush and was backchecking, Rutta was caught between going to play the puck and staying in front with his man and isn’t able to commit until he can read what Hedman is doing.
Rutta sees Hedman attack the puck and immediately checks over both shoulders for his man and as he looks back to the corner Filip Hronek fires the puck to the slot that Dylan Larkin one-touches on the net. It happens in a split second and while Rutta just barely misses it with his stick, he is able to get a partial block with his skate, although the puck still trickles past McElhinney.
On the Anthony Mantha goal, Hedman tries to nonchalantly pass the puck over to Rutta off a broken faceoff win and Mantha makes a great play with his stick to deflect it down the ice. In a foot race, Jan Rutta — 6-foot-3, 204 pounds — not only lost to the speed of Mantha — 6-foot-5, 234 pounds — but also was outmuscled by him. Mantha’s position and strength were enough to overpower Rutta and send him sliding into McElhinney. In Rutta’s defense, if McElhinney had stayed out on the top of his crease to make the save, Rutta and Mantha’s momentum would have never carried the puck over the goal line.
Rutta does deserve some blame for his third minus since it was his unforced turnover that kept the puck deep in the Lightning’s zone. After unsuccessfully trying to force a pass out of the zone, Rutta races back to the net where he awkwardly goes down to block the pass and causes a scramble in front of the net. Although McElhinney is out of position in that situation, the onus is on him to not give up a goal on a shot from below the goal line.
Steady Right-Handed Defenseman
The Lightning is absolutely stacked on the left side of their defense. Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, and Ryan McDonagh are as good as any three defensemen in the league. On the right side, however, the trio of Erik Cernak, rookie Cal Foote, and Rutta are more known for their defensive-first mentality and being stay-at-home defensemen, instead of putting numbers on the scoresheet.
While he might not be impressing anyone with his point production — six assists in 23 games played — Rutta has been as steady as anyone during even-strength play. Heading into Thursday’s game against the Red Wings, Rutta was leading the team in plus/minus — a stat that compares the times a player was on the ice for a goal for his team against the times a player was on the ice for a goal against his team during 5-on-5 play — as the only player with a plus in the double digits (plus-12).
For comparison, Luke Schenn has played in 16 games and has a minus-3 while averaging 10:00 of ice time per game played (TOI/GP) while Rutta is averaging 15:39 TOI/GP and still has a plus-9 over 23 games played. Although this only gives a snapshot of performance on the season, it is easy to see that without Rutta the Lightning’s right side would be even worse off.
At 30 years old Rutta is able to bring experience and maturity to the right side of the Lightning back end at a very low hit to an already tight salary cap. While the Lightning may choose to add some insurance at the deadline in case of an injury, Tampa fans should have no problem trusting Rutta on the ice when the game is on the line.
Born and raised in Michigan, Kyle Knopp started playing hockey when he was 3 years old. Knopp has played, coached, or worked at every level of ice hockey — including three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League and two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings where he was part of the Stanley Cup Championship team in 2008. He covers the Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings for The Hockey Writers and is the editor of THW’s Morning Skate newsletter. You can follow him on Twitter @THW_Knopp.