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Lightning Year-End Review: Defenders

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A numbers-based look at the defenders for the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2015-2016 NHL season.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With the season officially over for the Lightning but the draft and free agency still several weeks in the distance, now seems the appropriate time to reflect on the past eight months and attempt to quantify the performance of each player on the roster. Over the last week or so, we posted a series of pieces highlighting some numbers for each Lightning player. This is the final piece in that series and it will focus on the defenders. The Lightning relied heavily on seven defenders throughout the season. They are Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, Jason Garrison, Andrej Sustr, Matt Carle and Nikita Nesterov. As a bonus, this piece also includes Slater Koekkoek. He didn't meet the minimum TOI requirements used for the rest of the players but given his performance in the playoffs, he should be an important part of the Lightning's plans for next season.

If you read the previous two pieces on the forwards, you'll recognize this first graph, which shows the primary scoring (x-axis) and possession impact (y-axis) of all defenders who played at least 300 minutes this season. The Lightning defenders are represented by the blue dots labeled with their numbers. The basic idea here is that the green areas are well above average, the red areas are well below average and the point where the axes cross is exactly average by both measures. For those who are interested, the dotted lines represent one standard deviation. Players who are far to the right on the x-axis score at a high rate and players high up on the y axis have a positive impact on their teammates possession statistics.

Two players stand out immediately on this graph for very different reasons.  Victor Hedman is one of the best defenders in the league using these two measures  while Matt Carle is at the opposite end of the spectrum.  This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who watched the Lightning all year.  Hedman is emerging into a Norris caliber player while Matt Carle is nearing the end of his professional career. While this is a nice way to get a quick idea of each player's performance, a wider variety of measures will give us a better idea of their performance this season.

In the following graphs,the numbers shown are the percentile ranks among forwards with at least 300 minutes TOI. Just as a refresher, 50th percentile would be average with lower percentiles being worse and higher percentiles being best. As a rough contextual tool, given that teams use four lines, top line forwards are likely to be in the 75th percentile or higher, second line forwards in the 50th percentile or higher, third line forwards in the 25th percentile or higher, and fourth line forwards below that. The definition of each statistic is provided at the bottom of this article.

Having Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman as a first pairing is such a luxury for the Lightning. Both players are among the top 10 to 15 defenders in the league. And aside from being great, they have a complimentary set of skills that makes them ideal partners. Victor Hedman is one of the best defenders at transitioning into offense and is dangerous either carrying the puck himself or trailing on the rush. Stralman is also an elite puck mover but his special skills are more related to positioning, anticipation and vision. He is almost always in the right place at that right time and that reliability allows Hedman to freelance in the offensive zone because he trusts Stralman to cover the back end. While Hedman does seem to give up a higher than expected amount of high danger scoring chances against, his contributions on offense far outweigh that risk. The third player in this set, Braydon Coburn, doesn't offer much offensively but has been solid in his own end. While offering him an extensions during the season was a bit of a curious move given how many star players the Lightning have to re-sign, he should be a serviceable second or third pairing defender for the next three years.

All three of the defenders in this group have interesting numbers. Jason Garrison is being paid a contract that indicates he should be leading the second pairing. His numbers look more like those of a borderline second or third pairing defender. He hasn't contributed offensively the way the team expected after his career year in Florida. Andrej Sustr remains a bit of a mystery. Sometimes he looks ready to emerge as a reliable second pairing defender. Sometimes he looks like he needs to go back to Syracuse. If he can erase some of the big mistakes and mental lapses in his own zone and reach that second pairing potential, that would be a huge development for the Lighting heading into next season. And finally, our own GeoFitz4 wrote a piece last week suggesting that this offseason is the time to buyout Matt Carle. Carle's numbers here support that idea. He's had a solid NHL career but that career is nearing its end and he certainly shouldn't be getting paid $5.5 million per year on a cap strapped team.

The last two defenders who made an impact for the Lightning this season are Nikita Nesterov and Slater Koekkoek. Nesterov's overall numbers are solid. He didn't offer much offensively, which is a little surprising given his puck moving and skating ability. More concerning was that he seemed to regress as the year progressed and while once a favorite of head coach Jon Copper, Nesterov seemed to fall out of favor toward the end of the year and in the playoffs. He has the talent to play in the NHL and he is a great candidate to bounce back and improve his play going into next year.

One of the players who took some of Nesterov's minutes in the playoffs is Slater Koekkoek. Koekkoek is a premiere defensive prospect in the Lighting organization and he showed why in the playoffs. He only played about 180 minutes at 5v5 this season so his numbers are somewhat limited in value due to the small sample size. But on the ice, he's the type of player who flashes when he gets into the game. He looks dynamic joining the rush and made some excellent plays to set up scoring chances during the playoffs. He also made some mistakes and needs minutes at the NHL level to adjust and recalibrate his play. One of the main storylines heading into next year will be how Cooper handles Koekkoek's usage. Hopefully, the Jonathan Drouin Situation taught everyone in the organization some important lessons about how to handle talented prospects as they transition to the NHL full time.  Koekkoek should be playing consistent minutes from game one next year and if that happens, he will likely be solidified in the second pairing as the team begins its playoff push in February and March. He is that good and he's ready now.

The Lighting do not have the same depth on defense that they have at forward. They have an elite top pairing followed by four middling defenders, a buyout candidate, and an exciting prospect. Developing Koekkoek is the key if the Lighting want to solidify their defensive corps for the future. If that happens, they should be strong enough on the back end to support their exceptionally talented forwards and make another run at the playoffs next season.

All data in this article comes from War-On-Ice.com and is 5v5 score adjusted. It includes all games including the playoffs through the conference finals.

P160 -€” Primary points per 60 minutes of TOI.  Primary points include first assists and goals, which are more indicative of talent than second assists.
CF60 -€” Cors for per 60 minutes of TOI.  CF60 measures the total number of shots (including missed and blocked shots) a team generates while the player is on the ice.
CA60 - Cors against per 60 minutes of TOI.  CA60 measures the total number of shots (including missed and blocked shots) a team allows while the player is on the ice.
CF% - Corsi for percentage.  CF% measures the percentage of total shots a team takes while the player is on the ice.
SCF60 -€” Scoring chances for per 60 minutes of TOI.  Scoring chances are shots from the home plate area.
SCA60 -€” Same logic as CA60
SCF% - Same logic as CF%
HDSCF60 -€” High danger scoring chances per 60 minutes of TOI.  High danger scoring chances are based on location and shot type as calculated by War-On-Ice.com.
HDSCA60 -€” same logic as CA60
HDSCF% - same logic as CHDSC%
RelCF%TM -€” Relative cors for percentage teammates.  This is the difference in how a player's teammates perform with him as opposed to without him.  It serves as one way of quantifying a player's impact on his teammates.