At the start of the decade, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s defense had only one certainty: Victor Hedman. After he was selected second overall at the 2009 draft, the Lightning went all-in on what they believed was a true defensive star in the making.
Even with their future star on the ice, Tampa Bay’s defensive corps was relatively weak at the time. Hedman was a raw talent who was being asked to take on NHL ice time throughout the 2009-10 season, which he struggled with at times. Many of his teammates were journeymen veterans that were simply a band-aid to hold together the Lightning’s ranks.
Knowing this key weakness, when then-general manager Steve Yzerman took over his duties in the 2010 offseason, he made building defensive depth an organizational priority. Through a mixture of drafting, trading and free-agent signings, he assembled a defensive core that could compete with the best in the NHL in 2019-20.
Due to this focus on defense, the Lightning have actually seen a number of great defensemen take the ice over the last ten years. So, who were the most notable defensemen to play for Tampa Bay since the start of the decade?
Seventh Defenseman: Matt Carle
It’s impossible to look back at the Lightning’s defensemen of the 2010s and not think about Matt Carle. The Bolts massive free-agent signing of the 2012 offseason, Carle was, without a doubt, one of Yzerman’s biggest misses during his time as general manager.
While Carle wasn’t the worse defender to play for the Lightning, he was highly overpaid for his mediocre to bad production on the ice. At a cap hit of $5.5 million per year for six seasons, it’s no surprise that he was bought out of the final two years of his contract.
So, while Carle doesn’t make this list due to his play on the ice, he does deserve a mention as he helped shape the Lightning’s defense core this decade, for better or for worse.
Third Pairing: Mikhail Sergachev – Jason Garrison
The Lightning’s third pairing is a bit of a mixture of talents, bringing together the more offensively focused Mikhail Sergachev with the more defensively focused Jason Garrison. Interestingly, both Sergachev and Garrison were brought to Tampa Bay in the offseason by trade, as Yzerman continued to deepen the franchise’s defensive depth.
The reason why Sergachev makes the all-decade team is due to his incredible rookie season in 2017-18. That season, he registered 40 points, which set a Lightning scoring record for a rookie defenseman.
While his sophomore campaign wasn’t as explosive offensively, Sergachev has been steadily developing a complete game. Given his offensive upside alone, he has easily been one of the best defensemen for the Lightning in recent memory.
Garrison, on the other hand, would act as a foil to Sergachev’s offensively focused gameplan. While his scoring totals were never impressive, he brought a needed defensive game to the Lightning’s second pairing throughout their playoff runs in 2015 and 2016.
When Garrison was out of the Lightning’s lineup due to injury, the team was notably worse. They struggled early in their series against the Detroit Red Wings in 2015 before he returned to the lineup and helped settle-down Tampa Bay’s top-four.
While his time with the Lightning was relatively brief, Garrison was still an invaluable member of the Bolts’ defensive core while he was with the franchise. Without his play in the 2015 and 2016 playoffs, the team may have never found so much postseason success in back-to-back seasons.
Second Pairing: Ryan McDonagh – Eric Brewer
The Lightning’s second-pairing for their all-decade team are two defensemen Yzerman acquired at the trade deadline. Both players represented the team going in for a playoff push, something that the franchise hadn’t done in the years after their Stanley Cup victory.
First is Eric Brewer, the former St. Louis Blues captain whom the Lightning acquired at the 2011 trade deadline. Brewer represented a key addition for the franchise as he was a proven, veteran defenseman with leadership qualities that could help keep things calm in the locker room during a tough playoff series.
Brewer’s play was one important factor for the Lightning throughout the playoffs, as he helped lockdown their top-four as they fought their way to the 2011 Eastern Conference Final. After that run, he signed a four-year deal to stay in Tampa Bay, showing that the franchise could once again attract a veteran free agent.
Six-years after the Brewer deal, the Lightning found themselves in need of a top-four defenseman, so Yzerman went big game hunting once again. This time, he acquired Ryan McDonagh, the New York Rangers captain, for a bevy of picks and prospects.
Since his acquisition, McDonagh has been one of the Lightning’s more consistent defensemen, playing over 21 minutes each night in an important top-four role. McDonagh’s 2018-19 season alone was one of the best of the decade for the Lightning, as he registered 58 points, went plus-38 and made a strong case for a Norris Trophy of his own.
While Brewer and McDonagh wouldn’t necessarily be perfect, if they were playing at their peak together, they would be a truly dominate second pairing.
First Pairing: Victor Hedman – Anton Stralman
While the Lightning saw some highly talented defensemen start for them over the last decade, the top-pairing was a relatively simple one to justify. Hedman, of course, was the team’s best defender of the 2010s, starting in over 700 games, scoring close to 450 points, and winning the 2018 Norris Trophy.
His partner would be none other than fellow Swede Anton Stralman, who was one of Headman’s linemates during his five-year career with the Lightning. Throughout his 355 regular-season games with the franchise, Stralman registered 130 points and a massive plus-80, which was second-best for the franchise over the decade.
When he was at his peak, Stralman was, without a doubt, one of the best defensive-focused defensemen to ever play for the Lightning. His stout game gave Hedman room to flourish, allowing him to play his brand of offensive hockey.
So, this pairing was not only a dream when they were playing together, but it is also the best pairing for the Lightning throughout the 2010s.
Lightning Defense Improved in the 2010s
While it wasn’t always perfect, the Lightning’s defensive corps has improved over the last decade. A number of highly talented defenders graced Tampa Bay, and it was their play that helped bring the team back to NHL relevance.
For a franchise that has struggled on defense for years, that is a massive positive change. Hopefully, this remains the case as the Lightning ready itself for the 2020s and beyond.
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.