One quirk of the NHL salary cap era is that it’s impossible to have the perfect player at every position. Simply due to the rising cost of star players, building a playoff-caliber NHL roster requires a few low-cost options to fill out a 23-man roster.
For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the cap crunch is being felt strongly as a core of youth has now become veteran players, each demanding a higher yearly salary. As more and more players start their long-term extensions, the Lightning will have to be continually creative to keep a full roster intact.
One of those creative options was defenseman Luke Schenn, whom the Lightning signed to a one-year, $700,000 contract over the 2019 offseason. With that contract, he was clearly meant to be a veteran bottom-pairing defenseman who would play limited time in Tampa Bay. While he started his season with the Lightning’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, Schenn received a call-up when Victor Hedman was out due to injury towards the end of October.
Now, 13 games into his career with Tampa Bay, one can start drawing the conclusion that Schenn is not going to be a viable answer on the Lightning’s blue line.
Schenn Is a Defensive Liability
Throughout his career, Schenn has been a consistently average to bad defenseman. Even at his best, he has never mustered a Corsi or Fenwick for above 50 percent. He has also only posted a positive plus/minus twice in his decade-long career.
Currently, Schenn sits at a minus-7, tying him for the worst plus/minus on the Lightning. If he were a power-play specialist or an offensive-first defenseman, this would be excusable, but he has only one point in 13 games while receiving little special teams play.
So, for the roughly 13 minutes he is on the ice each night, Schenn is giving up opportunities to the opponents while contributing little elsewhere. If the Lightning were a rebuilding franchise, this may not be noticeable, but as a team in a win-now mode, he sticks out like a sore thumb.
Who Can Replace Schenn for the Remainder of the 2019-20 Season?
If the Lightning had no other options to replace Schenn, they would just have to limit his ice time and rely on their other defensemen to fill in the gaps. However, Tampa Bay already has a few options who could easily take on a full-time role as a number-six NHL defenseman.
First is Jan Rutta, whom the Lightning acquired in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks last season, then re-signed to a one-year, $1.3 million deal in 2019. While his play has been limited like Schenn’s, Rutta has at least looked solid, posting three points along with a Corsi and Fenwick For above 50 percent. Given his play, he would be a decent sixth defenseman as long as he isn’t given too much responsibility on the ice.
Another affordable defensive option would be Cal Foote, the Lightning’s 2017 first-round selection. Over the last two seasons, Foote has played in Syracuse, slowly growing into his game as a top-line defenseman. Now, he looks NHL ready, at least in a sheltered third-pairing role.
As best said by GeoFitz4 of Rawcharge.com:
With the Lightning continuing to struggle with defensive break downs and attention to detail, what can it hurt to see what they’ve got? Maybe he’s the spark to solidify the blue line and get them moving in the right direction.
Lightning Should Move on From Schenn
Perhaps if the Lightning were in a different situation as a franchise, having a defenseman like Schenn on their roster wouldn’t be such a noticeable negative. But, given their lofty expectations this season, having even one weak link could be enough to keep Tampa Bay from reaching their ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup.
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With this in mind, the Lightning need to limit Schenn’s play for the rest of the 2019-20 season, only calling him up from Syracuse to play limited minutes when injury strikes the blue line. Even if Ruuta or Foote struggle at times in an NHL role, their play should at least be more consistent for the Bolts.
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.