When the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons, most of the credit went to clutch performances from Andrei Vasilevskiy and the stellar play of the forwards. There is no doubt that those aspects of the teams were crucial to crowning the Lightning as champions. The defense was pretty great too, though. Ryan McDonagh was an absolute beast with his sound defensive play, which is something that can often be underrated by fans. Mikhail Sergachev and Victor Hedman were firing on all cylinders. Even Jan Rutta looked like a new man in Tampa. What changed? What has transpired in the short time since those Stanley Cup runs that has resulted in such infuriating defensive play?
A New Assistant Coach
Derek LaLonde was hired by the Lightning in 2018 as an assistant coach, and he remained with the team until 2022 when he was hired by the Detroit Red Wings as their head coach. As much as the Lightning wanted to keep him, a role as an assistant is never going to beat out the chance to be a head coach. LaLonde was responsible for creating the defensive scheme for the Lightning during his tenure and helped make them into a juggernaut. He understood the strengths and weaknesses, not only of the defensive core but also of Vasilevskiy and the forwards, which allowed him to create a system where the team could properly play to its strengths. Everyone was involved, and the sum was greater than the parts.
For example, Vasilevskiy, for as good as he is, does struggle to see shots from the point. To counteract that, LaLonde ensured that Tampa’s forwards pressed and did not give space for the opposition to get those shots off. The defenseman would, meanwhile, be used to keep bodies away from the net. That gave the Lightning netminder more visibility and kept the chances of tipped shots down. That is the kind of insight that LaLonde gave to Tampa Bay. When he left, he was ironically replaced by Jeff Blashill, who was the previous head coach of the Red Wings and a friend of Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. It is not just that Tampa lost a very talented assistant in LaLonde, but also that their new hire was and remains someone who struggles with strategizing and building an impactful defense.
Blashill’s teams in Detroit were well known for their poor defensive play, which now plagues the Lightning. Last season, the drop in defensive quality was apparent, especially in Tampa’s playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. This season, it has somehow been even worse. While playing without Vasilevskiy has no doubt impacted the defensive scheme that the Lightning use, it is really inexcusable how poorly they are playing right now. The team has given up more goals than every team not named the San Jose Sharks. Even when looking at the expected goals against, Tampa only beat out San Jose and the Columbus Blue Jackets. That speaks for itself. Whether it’s letting shots get tipped by allowing the opposition to sit by Johansson, letting the defenseman get too involved in the offense and allowing an odd man to rush, or the defenseman not committing and pressuring the opposition, it feels like there is no strategy at all.
A Loss of Depth
Another problem for the Lightning is the salary cap. It is expected that there will be a reasonable rise in the salary cap this offseason and in the coming years. That means that the Lightning might be able to finally replenish depth through free agency, which is a luxury they have not had for years. Outside of cheap contracts, the Lightning have had to rely on their farm system and deadline deals to build their defensive core, as the stagnant salary cap has done them no favors. Tampa has been forced to part ways with many talented defensemen far sooner than they would have liked to simply because they had no choice.
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McDonagh is perhaps the most notable and painful departure, as the size of his contract forced a trade to the Nashville Predators, but there have certainly been others. Rutta did not have the best reputation when he joined the Lightning, but over time, he was able to become a great partner for Hedman. Having a defenseman on an affordable salary who can eat big minutes like that can be huge for a team. He was never flashy, but he was an underrated part of the roster.
David Savard and Luke Schenn added a veteran presence to the team, along with sound defensive play. Then there was Zach Bogosian, who certainly lost a step at the end there, but for a team, he was a really useful player to have around. The list goes on. The point is simply that there have been so many talented players to come and go over the past few seasons with this team, and in a sport with a salary cap, that is going to add up no matter how good your general manager is. That is not to say that Tampa cannot adjust and that they are doomed to remain on this downward trajectory, but at the present moment they lack the flexibility that they once had, and that reality is becoming rather apparent.
The loss of all of those talented players has put Tampa in a position where new players have been given a chance to make the team and where the remaining players have been forced to step up. There have been glimmers of what could be, but by and large, it has not worked out the way that Lightning management envisioned.
Nick Perbix and Darren Raddysh had a lot of Lightning fans excited last season. They took the opportunity to move up to the NHL level and ran with it. There were some hiccups, for sure, but for a couple of rookies that were never all that highly touted, it was a start that fans could be happy with. There was a lot of potential between the two of them, and there was a thought that, with some improvement, they could be mainstays on the Lightning roster. That would be especially helpful for the Lightning given the low cap hits of the two defensemen. So far, this season has not gone as planned for either of them. They have looked flat defensively and provided little offense either. How much of this is from poor coaching is hard to say, but either way, the adjustment to being more relied upon by the team has not been smooth sailing thus far.
The far more worrying development has been the play of Sergachev. This is not a knock on what he has accomplished at this point in his career. He is already a two-time Stanley Cup champion and has notched almost 250 points at the age of 25. He is extremely talented and has generally served the Lightning well. Unfortunately, he is not playing up to his ability this season. He has a massive contract, and as Hedman gets older, it is clear that Sergachev is expected to grow into the role of the leader of the Lightning defense. This season has been nothing short of a disaster for him, as he continues to miss his mark, produce sloppy passes, and make just about every mistake imaginable. He still has a bright future ahead of him, but this season has been one to forget. He needs to buckle down and focus.
There Needs to Be a Change
The Lightning need a new defensive scheme. They need to get back to the basics and get everyone to buy in. Even with the roster being decimated by the salary cap, there is still enough talent on this team to make the playoffs and be a fringe contender. Instead, they look like they have little motivation or direction. The coaching is not there, and the leadership on the ice is not either.
There are murmurs of what the Lightning can do to fix the situation in the offseason, and yes, there will be an opportunity for that, but this season is far from over. It is getting out of hand, but it is November, and most of the Atlantic Division is playing fairly mediocre hockey. The immediate fixes might not be as dramatic or effective as what can be accomplished over the summer, but there are absolutely enough quality players in that locker room right now to put together some solid defensive showings. As long as the Lightning have a chance to make the playoffs, they need to keep playing this season. They have not played up to their ability on defense up to this point, but there is no better time to start than right now.