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Tampa Bay Lightning system depth facing a test on defense

Facing a possible long term injury to Victor Hedman and likely short-term loss of Nikita Nesterov by way of suspension, the Lightning's blue line depth could be facing a challenge.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

As a fan, last night's game against the Dallas Stars was incredibly frustrating to watch. A lot of posts, a lot of missed opportunities, an injury to Victor Hedman, and an ill-advised check from behind by Nikita Nesterov. Hopefully Hedman's injury won't be serious. If it is a concussion as has been speculated, it's hard to gauge how long he'll be out. As for Nesterov, he's probably looking at a two game suspension. The hit was bad and I can't see him getting away with just the five-minute major and game misconduct he received during the game.

With both players potentially out against the Sabres and the Predators, General Manager Steve Yzerman will be forced to bring a blue liner up from Syracuse and coach Jon Cooper will have to reshuffle the defensive pairings. Defenseman Andrej Sustr likely will get back into the lineup after spending the last two games as a healthy scratch.

As for recalls from the Syracuse Crunch, the selection would be Slater Koekkoek or Luke Witkowski. They were the last defensemen cut from the Tampa Bay preseason roster and are firmly atop the depth chart for left and right handed defensemen respectively. With Jason Garrison having ability to play the right side, it creates another option for the club of who they bring up and how they play them.

First, we'll look at Luke Witkowski who has more NHL experience having appeared in 16 games for the Bolts last season. Witkowski is a solid, physical presence and a stay-at-home defensemen with a right handed shot. He is at his best when he is keeping the game simple while keeping the puck and opposition in front of him. He has yet to record a point in the NHL and has only produced 20 points for Syracuse in 130 regular season games. Bringing Witkowski up though, means pushing Andej Sustr into more minutes as the 2nd pair right defenseman. It would mean moving Garrison back to the left side. That would make pairings look like this.

Jason Garrison Anton Stralman
Brayden Coburn Andrej Sustr
Matt Carle Luke Witkowski

This defensive corps still looks a little off. Garrison is certainly capable of playing the bigger minutes that would come from taking Hedman's spot on the top pair and would be able to slot into his spot at the point on the 2nd power play unit with his big booming shot. Coburn is the right kind of defensive partner you'd like to have with Sustr to help him cover up, but neither are particularly gifted offensively. Carle is at his best when he can open up his offensive game knowing that he's got a solid defensive partner to back him up on the other side. Witkowski may eventually be that guy, but I'm not sure he's quite there yet.

Now, Slater Koekkoek offers a different perspective from the other side. Koekkoek gives the team another left handed defenseman that would allow Garrison to stay on the right side and keep Sustr on the 3rd defensive pair with sheltered minutes. Koekkoek is also a distinctly different player from Witkowski, being much more similar to Hedman. He is a smooth skater with good speed that lets him get back to the puck and move it before forecheckers get in on him. He is a good passer and has a decent shot. He's shown a willingness to get physical. During his three game call up at the end of last season, he showed an almost fearless confidence to jump into the play and keep it going in the offensive zone while having the skating to recover much like we see from Hedman. I think it'd be interesting to see Koekkoek get paired with Stralman. The other left handers could rotate in with Stralman to keep Koekkoek's minutes down, but I think he is capable of handling 20 minutes. With Koekkoek in, the defensive pairings could look more like this.

Slater Koekkoek Anton Stralman
Matt Carle Jason Garrison
Brayden Coburn Andrej Sustr

In this situation, you're keeping Sustr more protected with 3rd pairing minutes and not forcing him into too big of a role. Garrison probably still slots into Hedman's spot on the 2nd power play unit. However, Koekkoek would be capable of providing a solid point presence there as well with his instincts and passing ability. Koekkoek had 5 goals and 22 assists in 75 games last season for Syracuse and did most of his damage at even strength as he did not see a lot of power play time throughout the year.

In all, I feel much more confident in using Slater Koekkoek if Nesterov and Hedman are both out of the lineup. Sustr needs to continue to be sheltered and even if you paired Koekkoek with Sustr, you would be providing a better lineup than forcing Sustr into top-4 minutes.