A major part of why the Tampa Bay Lightning have played so well this season is their continuously improving defense. Heading into the 2017-18 season, the Lightning appeared to have a very average defensive corps, sans Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman and defensive stalwart Anton Stralman. While the Lightning could easily lean on those two players for 25 minutes a night, the drop off after them was precipitous. Between newbies like Slater Koekkoek, Jake Dotchin and Mikhail Sergachev along with Brayden Coburn and Dan Girardi, who were presumably over the hill, there was little excitement for the Lighting’s defense.
By the halfway point in the season, though, the Lightning’s defense looked solid in all aspects of their game. As a unit, the Lightning had one of the top scoring defenses in the NHL, producing close to 100 points in 40 games. Besides showing their scoring potential, the Lightning are giving up only 2.5 goals a game due in no small part to their improved defensive play. While at full strength, the Lightning featured a defensive corps that was deep and talented enough to keep up with the best in the league.
Injuries Strike the Lightning
Since the 40 game mark, though, the Lightning defense has had some truly bad luck. Between Girardi blocking a puck with his neck to Hedman suffering a knee injury, the Lightning’s defense suddenly looks shaky again. While losing an All-Star player like Hedman for any length of time is bad for a team, Hedman’s absence poses potential disaster for the Lightning.
The reason why the Lightning’s defense is so solid this season is due to them having balance along each pairing. Even though Dotchin is a bit over his head on the top unit, with a teammate like Hedman backing him up, his mistakes are often covered up. For Sergachev, getting the opportunity to learn the ropes of the NHL with an always cool and collected Stralman presented a best case scenario for transitioning a young player into the league. For Coburn and Girardi, playing a niche role with the team allowed them to make the most out of their limited time on the ice.
Shuffling Defense Shows Lightning’s Weakness
No matter how good your team is, there is no easy replacement for Hedman. In the short term, his minutes will have to be broken up between Sergachev, Koekkoek and Coburn to try and find a good balance. The issue is, none of those players are ready for top-line minutes. While the pairing of Sergachev and Stralman has the potential to eat minutes, it also raises the likelihood of Sergachev getting exposed as a rookie.
Increasing the playtime of Coburn and Girardi also puts those players in roles they aren’t fit to play anymore. Both Coburn and Girardi play a limited, defensive zone game that is more about suppressing their opponents than pressing the offense. While they act fine as a third-pairing, they struggle as their ice-time reaches higher than 15 to 17 minutes a night. This also risks wearing out the veteran defensemen before the playoffs even start, something the Lightning want to avoid if possible.
The one player who has the most to gain from Hedman’s injury is Koekkoek. After spending the first half of the season in and out of the press box as a healthy scratch, Koekkoek has a chance to prove to the Lightning that he deserves to be a part of their future plans. Given that Koekkoek was a first-round pick in the 2012 draft for the Lightning, the team has had high expectations for him that he has yet to reach. If Koekkoek is unable to meet those expectations, he may very well be apart of the deal that brings his replacement to Tampa Bay.
Play for the Now or Prepare for the Future?
It is important to remember that knee injuries often spell disaster for men of Hedman’s size and stature. Even if the injury is the best case scenario for the Lightning, serious thought will have to go into when Hedman could return to the ice. Knee injuries can be career threatening, and even if the Lightning are supposed to be chasing a cup this year, the long-term health of their franchise defenseman matters more than a risking him for a championship.
The Lightning can survive without Hedman for up to six weeks. It some ways, it may be good for the team to face this kind of adversity long before the playoffs so they can be better prepared for them. Knowing exactly what they have heading into the playoff gauntlet will make the Lightning a better team overall.