Micah Blake McCurdy makes this point frequently: NHL teams make lots of decisions. Some of those decisions are bad. Some are good. Some are just fine. Some are horrendous. Some are great. But separate from that discussion is the impact of those decisions. Fans and analysts get mired in arguments about the usage of fourth-line forwards or bottom-pairing defenders when the real impact of these usage decisions is often minimal.
Analytically minded fans would rather see a play driver who can’t score on the fourth line than a physical grinder. And while that might be the optimal roster decision, the difference between the impact of those two players in eight minutes per night is probably going to be small except in the most extreme circumstances.
Trading Nikita Nesterov will likely not have a significant negative impact on the Lightning. The team has two top defenders in Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, a clear third in Braydon Coburn, and a handful of bottom pairing guys who are largely interchangeable. Instead, this decision fits a pattern of defender usage that has been detrimental to the team.
Andrej Sustr and Nesterov are essentially equally valuable players in terms of their on-ice contributions. I made this case at the start of the season and revisited it in a piece a few weeks ago. The most recent team report showed Nesterov to be outperforming Sustr this year. Given Nesterov’s age and his play this season, he is currently more valuable to the team than Sustr.
The team’s logic for the trade is that they did not want to carry eight defenders long-term, but are concerned about losing either Nesterov or Luke Witkowski on waivers. So instead of losing one on waivers, they traded Nesterov for whatever they could get. The team felt pressure to move one to avoid losing one for nothing on waivers, and the summer’s salary cap situation might have made the team think that bringing back both Sustr and Nesterov is unlikely. But there is a problem with this logic.
How does this line of thought end in trading Nesterov? Given that he and Sustr had similar impacts on the team, both should have been equally available for trade. And if that’s the case, the trade to make would be the one that yields the best return. What if other NHL teams value Sustr more highly than they do Nesterov? There might be a team that would pay a decent price for a 6’8” right-handed defender who has been playing (deserved or not) second-pairing minutes.
The Lightning obviously didn’t intentionally make a trade that would return less value. They clearly value Sustr over Nesterov. Playing time is all the evidence we need, and this trade just solidifies it.
The real crux of the problem is an inability to properly evaluate defenders. We saw it with Mark Barberio. We saw it with the trade of Radko Gudas, a first, and a third, for Braydon Coburn. We saw it with Matt Carle’s usage. We’re seeing it with Jason Garrison. We’re seeing it with Slater Koekkoek. The Anton Stralman contract stands alone as a brilliant signing on defense by this management team. Aside from that, the decisions have been largely questionable.
Part of the reason this is so confusing is because the Lightning have been one of the best teams in the league at scouting and drafting forward talent. They are ahead of the curve in drafting smaller skilled players who drive play. They correctly identified a market inefficiency and have been exploiting it. They have not been able to do the same for defenders despite similar logic applying. Teams still misvalue defenders based on their size. Players who look like Andrej Sustr are prized ahead of players who look like Nikita Nesterov.
The Lightning have not recognized this. If they did, they could have exploited the market in a similar way that they’ve done in stocking the organization with an embarrassment of riches at forward. Not recognizing this opportunity will hurt them again this summer when they re-sign Sustr to a much more expensive extension than Nesterov would have required.
The trade highlights one more potential problem area for the Lightning over the last couple of seasons. Their seeming inability to keep young players positive about their role and future on the team is concerning. The Jonathan Drouin saga was the biggest example. We’re seeing a similar path for Slater Koekkoek, who is still unjustifiably in the AHL despite being the best defensive prospect on a team desperate for defenders. While Nesterov is not the caliber of either of those players, he is another young player who seemed unhappy with his role and usage.
Regardless of what we feel about Nesterov’s value on the ice, part of the job of coaches and management is to manage expectations and help players understand their role and their path to achieving success in the organization. From the outside, the Lightning appear to struggle with this.
Losing Nesterov will not hurt the chances of the Lightning succeeding this year or in the future, but it might be further evidence that the team struggles to evaluate defenders as well as keep young players engaged and on a path to success.
To a certain extent, these are issues for most teams. The Lightning are still well-positioned for the future. But if the consensus is that the team needs to improve its blue line to return to making a deep playoff run next season, the struggles to evaluate defenders is an obvious impediment to achieving that goal.
The solution is a relatively simple one. The Lightning need to be open to new ways of evaluating and developing players. The league is constantly changing, and the best teams adapt along with it. Everyone in the organization is aware of the issues on defense, and it should drive them to investigate why they have those issues and where the evaluation and development processes need to improve to address them.
The next few months will be interesting. The team has opportunities at the trade deadline and will have more opportunities this summer. How they make use of those opportunities will be key in positioning this team for the next couple of seasons.