Heading into the 2018-19 season, the Tampa Bay Lightning featured one of the deepest defensive corps in team history. With Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman in his prime, along with a mixture of experienced veterans and young talent behind him, the unit was primed to become one of the Lightning’s biggest assets.
For most of the season, this was the case. When Hedman went down with an injury, Ryan McDonagh stepped up in his place, taking over the role of top-pairing defenseman while building his own case for a Norris nomination. When the Lightning needed help on the blue line, they called upon rookie Erik Cernak, who spent most of the season on the second defensive pairing.
Once Tampa Bay hit the playoffs, though, the unit unraveled. With both Hedman and Stralman struggling with injuries, the unit bled high-percentage scoring chances to the Columbus Blue Jackets, contributing to the Lightning getting swept by the eighth-seeded team.
Now, first-year general manager Julien BriseBois has some serious choices to make along his blue line. With long-time defenders like Anton Stralman, Brayden Coburn and Dan Girardi becoming unrestricted free agents this offseason, the Lightning’s defense could see some major turnover after staying largely the same for the last few seasons.
Who Stays With the Lightning?
When you look at the list of Stralman, Girardi
Next is Stralman, who would be the easy choice to keep after his excellent play for Tampa Bay over the last five seasons. Given his recent injury struggles, though, it seems unlikely that he will ever return to his prior form. So, unless if he can be signed at a deep discount, it would be a bit of a risk for the Lightning to bring him back next season.
This just leaves Coburn, who had, by all accounts, a solid 2018-19 season. He looked good in a third-pairing role alongside Mikhail Sergachev, and if he could be re-signed at a reduced rate, it would be worth keeping him around the franchise.
However, with a cap crunch incoming, shedding
Who Replaces Vets on Lightning Blue Line?
Losing these players, however, would decimate a large portion of the Lightning’s blue line depth. Even with Jan Rutta
Their first option is Sergachev, who looks ready to take on a bigger role with the franchise. While moving him to the right side would likely be difficult at first, this transition could fill the Lightning’s biggest need; a long-term partner for Hedman.
If Sergachev is unable to make the transition, then there are a number of free agents on the market this offseason the Lightning could look into who could fill this role. Given their cap situation, it is unlikely that they could pull in an Erik Karlsson or Tyler Myers, but it isn’t necessarily impossible. With some shrewd moves, BriseBois could land that perfect free agent to fill in their biggest need on defense.
Can Lightning Trust Their Prospects?
If all else fails, the Lightning could always lean on their defensive prospects and hope that they are ready for prime time. Cernak, for example, could become Hedman’s partner on the top-line, even if it meant breaking up one of the team’s best defensive pairings from the regular season.
Tampa Bay also has Cal Foote waiting in the wings, who could find himself fighting for a spot on the starting roster as soon as this training camp. While he didn’t
Besides these options, the Lightning still have players like Dominik Masin and Ben Thomas playing in Syracuse. While neither player has looked NHL ready, both have the toolkit to become a bottom-pairing defender. If they have a strong training camp, either could find themselves on the Lightning’s opening night roster.
Major Defensive Changes Coming to Lightning
If handled properly, this could be the offseason that sets up the Lightning’s defensive corps to be one of the best in the league for years to come. If handled improperly, it could rush players into roles that they simply aren’t ready for, slowing their development while setting the team back years.
No matter what BriseBois decides to do, there is one certainty: the Lightning’s blue line will look different to start off the 2018-19 season. It could be as minor as a few prospects getting their chance to start in the NHL, or as major as a brand new top-pairing defender alongside Hedman.
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.