Throughout the course of their 25 years in the NHL, the Tampa Bay Lightning have never been a defensive first team. However, even with this distinction, they still have had their fair share of franchise defensemen over the last quarter century. With the end of the 2017-18 season marking the Bolts’ 25th year as an NHL franchise, it’s the perfect time to look back at the top defensemen to grace the ice in Tampa Bay.
Honorable Mention: Dan Boyle
In his six seasons with the Lightning, Dan Boyle was a true workhorse, stringing together some of the best seasons for a defenseman in their history. Not only did he post three of the top 10 highest scoring seasons from a defenseman, he is he also the only Bolts defender to break the 20-goal mark in a single season.
After a successful six years with the Lightning, Boyle was signed to a six-year contract extension in 2008, seemingly locking him into the future of the franchise. Instead, just a few months after inking this new contract, the Lightning decided to trade him to the San Jose Sharks due to new management taking over the franchise. After the trade, Boyle would go on to have a fruitful career in San Jose, becoming a key part of their defensive corpse throughout his six-year tenure with the team.
Even though he never got to play out that contract he signed with the Lightning, Boyle still is an important defenseman in the Lightning’s history. His play was a key factor to Tampa Bay bringing home the Cup, and he will be forever remembered by the franchise because of it.
#3: Roman Hamrlik
Roman Hamrlik will always have a place in the Lightning’s history books as the first draft selection by the franchise in 1992. However, it wasn’t his first overall selection that put him on this list. Throughout his six years with the Lightning, Hamrlik played some impressive hockey with a fledgling team that had little support around him.
In particular, his play throughout the 1995-96 season helped lead a bad defensive unit in Tampa Bay to their first playoff appearance in franchise history. During that season, he scored 65 points, setting a Lightning record that stood with the franchise for over 20 years.
While he only played six seasons with the Lightning, Hamrlik will always hold a special place with the team. He was more than just a first overall pick and great defenseman: He was the first true face of the franchise.
As Hamrlik said to Missy Zielinski in an interview for NHL.com back in 2014:
“As a kid coming from the Czech Republic and not speaking much English, Tampa was an entirely new world to me,” he said. “I remember seeing myself on a bunch of billboards throughout Tampa. I felt like a movie star.”
#2: Pavel Kubina
Pavel Kubina was never the most offensively productive defenseman for the Lightning. He was, however, a consistent, stable and gritty player for the franchise over the course of 10 years and two tenures. The best example of what he brought to the team was the fact that he averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time each night throughout his 10 years with the Lightning.
During the 2003-04 season, his most productive year in Tampa, he scored 17 goals and 35 points in route to an All-Star game nomination and the Stanley Cup. After that season, he continued playing a strong, physical game on the Lightning’s blue line until he left the franchise for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2006.
Four years later, he would return to Tampa Bay, adding a veteran defensive presence to the Bolt’s blue line and acting as a mentor to the young team. In many ways, his play helped to solidify the team’s defense, which eventually led the Lightning to the Eastern Conference Finals after years of inept play.
No, Kubina may not be a sexy pick for a list like this, but he brought more to the Lightning franchise than just points. He embraced Tampa, and the city loved him back for it. He still is a member of the Tampa community at large, choosing to live in the surrounding city throughout his career and into retirement and will forever have a place in the heart of the franchise.
#1: Victor Hedman
When the Lightning drafted Victor Hedman second overall in the 2009 draft, they did so with the belief that he would develop into one of the top defensemen in the NHL. Nine years after his selection, Hedman has done just that, securing his place as the top defenseman in Lightning history.
Hedman can do it all on the ice. In the 2016-17 season, he broke Hamrlik’s scoring by putting up 72 points in three fewer games. In the 2017-18 season, he had arguably his most complete year as a player, scoring 63 points and averaging 25.51 minutes a night all while posting a +32 on the year.
This climb to success for Hedman was not always smooth. It took years of patience, growth, and mentorship to turn him into the player that he is today. Now, though, the Lightning are reaping the rewards of this hard work, as Hedman has become an annual contender for the Norris Trophy and is seen as one of the elite defenders in the NHL.
In many ways, Hedman has turned into the absolute best case scenario for the Lightning. It’s not just that he developed into the top defenseman in the franchise’s history, though. As a team that struggled to establish and keep defensemen throughout the last 25 years, Hedman’s decision to forgo a potentially massive free agency in order to re-sign in Tampa meant something huge for the team.
It was the first time they drafted and retained a top defenseman, who then chose to be the cornerstone of their franchise for the entirety of his career, something that felt impossible early in the Lightning’s history.
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.