Anton Stralman: The Lightning’s Defensive Linchpin

On a team with superstar talents like Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, it can be easy for a great player like Anton Stralman to slip under the radar.  Yet, throughout his tenure with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Stralman has done just that. While his impact on the team over the last four years is well known throughout the Lightning fan base, his defensive first playing style is still easy to overlook on the roster.

With the 2019-20 season representing the end of the five-year, $22.5 million contract he signed back in the 2014 offseason, this is a good time to discuss the impact Stralman has had on the Lightning over the last four years while looking towards what the future could hold for the aging Swedish defender.

Stralman Was the Perfect Fit For Tampa Bay

During the 2014 offseason, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman brought in Jason Garrison and Stralman in order to revamp an otherwise middling defensive corps. These moves immediately paid dividends for Yzerman, with both players contributing major minutes throughout the franchise’s deep playoff runs over the next two seasons.

Stralman, in particular, reaped the benefits of an increased role in Tampa Bay. While his time playing for the New York Rangers was successful, he never reached the career highs he saw in the 2014-15 season. During that season he posted nine goals and 30 assists, both career highs, while averaging almost 22 minutes of ice time each night.

Anton Stralman
A contributing factor to Anton Stralman’s offensive outburst during the 2014-15 season was an increasing role on the Lightning’s power play, especially while Victor Hedman was out due to an injury. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Even with this offensive explosion, he still managed to be the best defensive defender in the Lightning’s nightly line-up, allowing Hedman to play a bigger role in the offensive zone. Needless to say, this was the exact kind of player Tampa Bay needed at the time. Without Stralman eating up these big game minutes, there’s no telling what could have become of the Lightning’s regular season, let alone if they would have reached the Stanley Cup Final that year.

Injuries Stifled Stralman’s Lightning Career

This strong play continued for Stralman throughout the 2015-16 season, until he suffered a major leg injury against the New York Islanders that cost him almost 10 regular-season games, and all but six playoff games that year. Even after returning during the playoffs, one could tell that something wasn’t right, with the usually stout defender appearing a step or two behind his normal excellent play.

During the 2016-17 season, Stralman suffered another injury that cost him nine regular-season games, while his nagging leg injury continued to reduce his nightly effectiveness. This caused his point totals to take a hit, dropping to 22 on the season despite his playing time increase with the team.

Lightning defender Ryan McDonagh
The acquisition of Ryan McDonagh at the 2018 trade deadline helped reduce some of Stralman’s nightly ice-time during the regular season. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

While he managed to stay healthy and play 80 games in the 2017-18 season, Stralman saw another decrease in overall offensive production, along with a slight dip in his ice time. This, though, was due in large part to rookie defender Mikhail Sergachev taking over almost all of his time on the team’s second powerplay unit. He also spent the majority of the season playing next to Sergachev on the second defensive pairing, acting as a mentor for the young defenseman.

Is Stralman Showing His Age?

There should be some concern for in Tampa Bay about the future of Stralman. By the end of 2018 playoffs, his play saw a notable decline in quality as he started to look slow and a bit tired on the ice. While the NHL playoffs are grueling, and every player shows wear and tear come late May, this drop in play may be a sign of where he is in his career.

Simply put, even though he isn’t necessarily old at age 32, Stralman may have been showing his age during the Eastern Conference Finals. It is difficult for any defenseman to shoulder 22-plus minutes a night, especially against an incredibly talented team like the Washington Capitals. Three or four years ago he may have been up to the task, but in his current state, this may no longer be a realistic expectation.

For example, the two defensemen older than Stralman on the Lightning’s roster, Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn, both played closer to 17-minutes a night throughout the regular and postseason. While this is still a significant chunk of nightly playing time, it is a noticeable amount less than what Stralman is expected to play. This means that next season, he may need to see reduced ice time in the regular season to help preserve some of his best minutes for the playoffs.

Despite Concerns, Stralman Is Still a Top Player

Yes, he may not be the same dominant player that he was when the Lightning signed him back in 2014, but Stralman is still an integral part of the team’s defensive structure. Even with new talent like Sergachev and McDonagh joining the roster, there is reason to believe that he may be able to see a reduced, but still significant, role with the team on a nightly basis.

As long as he can stay healthy during the final year of his contract, there is a good chance Yzerman will work to bring back Stralman for another few years this offseason. This would allow him to transition into the role of the elder statesman of the franchise, mentoring the newest crop of defensive prospects breaking into the league for the first time.

Evgeni Malkin Anton Stralman
If he can stay healthy this season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Yzerman attempt to re-sign Stralman to become the elder statesman of the Lightning’s blueline. (Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Even if he leaves the team in the 2019 offseason, Stralman has made a permanent mark in Tampa Bay. His tenure will be seen as one of the most successful in team history, with his play acting as a key component of the franchises’ recent successes.