Heading into training camp this season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have high expectations upon them to be one of the top teams in the league. Their offense was one of the best ever last season, but what might get overlooked was just how good their defensemen were.
Of the eight defensemen to play at least 10 games last year, seven had at least 16 points or more, including three with 30 or more points. They were fifth in the league in goals-against with 221, more than 20 goals below the league average. They have options on the blue line, but there are different expectations for their pairings in 2019-20.
There’s no question that Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman Victor Hedman will anchor the left side on the top pair. According to Daily Faceoff, however, his partner is newly-acquired defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. This makes sense since he’s a right-handed shot, but many thought Mikhail Sergachev would see top-pair ice time to start the 2019-20 season.
With Hedman in the prime of his career, he can produce at least 50 points, especially with how strong the Lightning offense will be. The pressure will be on Shattenkirk as he is now on a prove-it contract with the Lightning to see if he can get back to his 40-point level. As always, the top pair has the highest expectations, but playing with Hedman should help Shattenkirk revive his career as long as he’s healthy.
However, if Shattenkirk is injured or is not producing, Sergachev should be brought up to play with Hedman. In his first two seasons in the NHL, he has had at least 32 points and his ice time went up about two and a half minutes from 2017-18 to last season. He has shown flashes of being a top-pair talent and if the opportunity presents itself, he should run with it. Whether it’s Hedman and Shattenkirk or Hedman and Sergachev, the top line should be one of the best in the NHL this season.
On the second line are Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak. This should be known as the Lightning’s shutdown line since neither McDonagh nor Cernak will light up the score sheet too often. McDonagh has been one of the best shutdown defensemen in the NHL in recent years, but after a terrible four playoff games against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he will be looking to bounce back this season.
Cernak was a mid-season call up last year and played his way to an everyday spot on the blue line. Averaging over 19 minutes per game, he was fifth on the Lightning in blocks (79) and second in hits (151). He exceeded expectations last season and playing alongside McDonagh will only make him better.
This will be arguably the most important pairing for the Lightning. McDonagh led the team in blocks and played all 82 games and Cernak can play more of a physical game, something the Lightning lacked at times last year. If McDonagh can repeat his play from the 2018-19 season and Cernak can continue to improve, their pairing will only help the Lightning be more successful.
According to Daily Faceoff, the third pair will consist of Braydon Coburn and the aforementioned Sergachev. In 74 games last year, Coburn had 23 points, was plus-34 and played just over 16 minutes a night. He’s a serviceable defenseman who can take some teams by surprise with how well he skates for his size.
Sergachev, on the other hand, is one of the youngest defensemen on the Lightning, but he also has arguably the most potential. He’s been on the third line for the last two years and, at times, has played beyond that level, but he’s still young. Keeping him on the third line to start the season is reasonable, but if he continues to excel in that role, he could see second- or first-line minutes.
The third line has fairly simple expectations from year to year — support the offense and play smart in the defensive zone. There’s a reason Coburn has played 14 seasons in the NHL — five of which with the Lightning — and Sergachev has been one of the Lightning’s top defensive prospects. They might not light the lamp too often, but they can play consistently good hockey, something any team would benefit from.
The Lightning have a few options as to who their seventh defenseman will be. They signed Luke Schenn to a one-year, $700,000 contract on July 1, and they also signed Luke Witkowski to a two-year, two-way contract for his second stint with the Bolts. However, they also have Jan Rutta, Cameron Gaunce and prospects Callan Foote and Dominik Masin knocking at the door.
What’s interesting about this group is that Witkowski can double as a forward, and that would leave just three spots open for the seventh defenseman. Schenn will likely start the season as the seventh man, but if someone gets injured, he can fill in another role and Rutta would be the next option. If Gaunce, Foote or Masin impress in training camp, they could get a chance with the Lightning this season.
The seventh man is usually a prospect or a role player, and given the Lightning have a few options, we shouldn’t expect them to put up any crazy numbers. Expect simple hockey — some chippy play and aggressive defense — rather than Hedman-like offense.