Heading into the 2016-17 season, it looked like the Tampa Bay Lightning had assembled the best stable of defensemen for the franchise in the last decade. The team that had struggled defensively for years had a mixture of youth, veteran experience, and high-end talent highlighted by a blooming Victor Hedman who was signed to a long-term contract. Each defenseman had an obvious role to fill and looked to slot in perfectly with the team’s needs.
Not the Perfect Outcome
By the midway point of the season, it was clear that this viewpoint was more optimism than reality. Game after game, the Lightning gave up a multitude of prime scoring chances that led to game breaking goals. There was a myriad of reasons why the defense struggled, but the usual suspects, age and injury, played a potent role in the defensive failures. Second and third pairing defensemen were shouldering far more ice time than they could handle each night, causing outmatched players to be consistently out of position.
It took an unexpected surge from Jake Dotchin after a midseason call-up to help bring some stability to the lines. After Dotchin took over the top pairing with Victor Hedman, it allowed for overextended defensemen like Andrej Sustr to be fall back into his proper third-line role.
This improved the defense temporarily, but it was far from sustainable. While Dotchin could continue to impress next season, if he regresses at all the Lightning will be in as bad of a position as before.
Working to Fix the Problems
Heading into this offseason, it was clear to everyone that Steve Yzerman had to address these issues on defense. It started by trading for Mikhail Sergachev to fill a massive need for the organization. The Lightning needed a young, top-end prospect who is as close to a sure thing as you can get for a defenseman. Next, the Lightning had Jason Garrison picked by the Vegas Golden Knights over younger talents like Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek and then they signed Dan Girardi in free agency.
These moves were an important step for the Lightning. They brought some much-needed turnover to a team that had largely stagnated on defense. The problem is, this turnover hasn’t really addressed the team’s issues.
New Player, Same Problems
When Yzerman sent Nikita Gusev, a second and a fourth-round draft pick to the Golden Knights in order to shed Garrison’s contract, it was assumed this was done so the team could get younger and faster. By signing Girardi, the Lightning brought in a player with a lot of the same tendencies as Garrison. Both players are a mid-tier defenseman who bring veteran leadership to mentor young players like Koekkoek, Dotchin and Sergachev. Both are also aging, slowing and have had injury concerns over the last year.
It seems likely that the Lightning had originally shed Garrison’s contract in order to compete for Kevin Shattenkirk, whom Yzerman had shown interest in the past. Girardi was a fall-back plan to keep from having to start too many young and untested defensemen, but this will also limit those players chances on the ice.
Seven Chairs for Eight Players
This highlights a strange, self-inflicted wound for the Lightning. Currently, the Lightning have eight defensemen on their roster. Even if they run seven defensemen to start the year, which John Cooper is known to do, they still have an extra player to deal with. Given that the Lightning gave up decent resources to keep both Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek away from Vegas, it seems unlikely for either player to be waived by the start of the season. The Lightning could have solved this issue by letting Andrej Sustr walk this offseason, but they brought him back on a one-year deal instead. If this resigning was made to keep a seasoned defenseman on the roster, it begs the question, why have both Sustr and Girardi on the roster?
The immediate answer is Sustr could be waived before the start of the season. Unlike a player like Dotchin or Koekkoek, Sustr wouldn’t be a big loss for the organization if he were claimed by a team needing a starting defenseman. Given that he only received a one-year contract, it seems like the Lightning are preparing to move on from him by the end of the year anyways, with players like Mikhail Sergachev looking for ice time.
Speaking of Sergachev, the young defenseman is the biggest question for the Lightning organization. While early impressions are positive, it is still unknown if he will make the starting roster this year. Given the terms of the trade (the Lightning would receive a 2nd from Montreal and send them a 6th if Sergachev plays less than 40 games with them this year) and Sergachev’s age, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Yzerman send him back to juniors to continue development. Even if this isn’t ideal, it would maximize the value of the trade and clear up roster space.
Only Time Will Tell
In a perfect world, the moves Yzerman made this offseason will have an immediate positive effect on the Lightning’s mundane defensive play from the year prior. Even a small impact could be enough to take the Lightning from a good team outside of the playoffs to a great team back in the thick of it. While the signings and trades will be scrutinized heavily, they could provide the right balance for a team that heavily relied on their All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman last season. Barring injury, Hedman will look to continue his push for a Norris Trophy in 2017-2018. Everyone else in Tampa will be hoping that the revamped defense will keep up with his talents.
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.