Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, Dan Girardi, Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning Defense Could Look Really Different Next Season

report this ad

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.

Columbus Blue Jackets Oliver Bjorkstrand Tampa Bay Lightning Andrei Vasilevskiy
With the loss of key defensive players like Victor Hedman, the Tampa Bay Lightning bled high-quality scoring chances in the 2019 playoffs. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Jay LaPrete)

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 and Coburn, you can assume that BriseBois will retain, at most, one of these veteran defenders. Out of the three, one can safely assume that Girardi is done in Tampa Bay. While he was a somewhat useful role player for the team, his time with the Lightning was underwhelming, especially given his $3 millioncap hit.

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.

Anton Stralman #6, Tampa Bay Lightning
Despite being a key defenseman over the last five seasons, the Lightning will likely move on from Anton Stralman in the 2019 offseason. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

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 these players’ combined $11.2 million is a bit of a blessing in disguise. It gives BriseBois a clear opening to cut and run from three aging players while attempting to sign his new core.

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 receiving an extension, Tampa Bay still needs to add at least one more starter before the 2019-20 season. This player would need to be a top-pairing defenseman whom Hedman can play alongside for the foreseeable future.

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 necessarily set the world on fire throughout his first season with the Syracuse Crunch, he had a solid season that could be enough to help him develop an NHL-caliber game.

Cal Foote
Cal Foote is one of the Lightning’s top prospects, and could be fighting for a spot on their blueline by the start of the 2019 season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

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.

Related: The Lightning’s Great Defenseman Exodus of 2019

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.

Articles You May Like

Hockey Insider Confirms Oilers’ Interest in Blue Jackets Players
Canucks acquire defenceman Zadorov from Flames for pair of picks
Grading Sabres Through the First Quarter of the Season
Chicago to terminate Corey Perry’s contract after what team calls unacceptable conduct
NHL Rumors: Canucks, Oilers, Flames, Maple Leafs

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *