Last week, we ran two pieces (part 1, part 2) in which I examined the numbers for the forwards who contributed most on the Lightning roster this season. I recommend looking over those articles if you missed them for a little bit of context on what to expect.
This piece will focus on the Lightning defenders. Six defenders meet the time on ice requirements to be included here. Slater Koekkoek barely misses but will be included at the end because his development is one of the biggest questions heading into next season. Luke Witkowski is not included. Because he played both forward and defender in the same game for most of the season, I don’t how to meaningfully compare him to a peer group.
Like with the previous article, most metrics are relative to team performance. They show how the team performs in that metric when the player is on the ice compared to what they are not. For example, relative shots per 60 minutes is shots per 60 when the player is on the ice minus shots per 60 when the player is off the ice. All data is 5v5 only and adjusted for score, venue, and zone starts via Corsica. Numbers are presented as percentiles comparing each player to others at the same positions. For defenders, this includes the top 210 defenders in ice time in 2016-2017.
Game Score (GS): Dom Luszczyszyn’s stat that assesses player performance on an individual game basis.
(P1/60): Goals and primary assists per 60 minutes of ice time
Rel.ShF/60: Relative shots for per 60 minutes of ice time
Rel.xSh%: Relative expected shooting percentage. This is a measure of shot danger.
Rel.xGF/60: Relative expected goals for per 60 minutes of ice time
Rel.ShA/60: Relative shots against per 60 minutes of ice time
Rel.xSv%: Relative expected save percentage. This is a measure of shot danger.
Rel.xGA/60: Relative expected goals against per 60 minutes of ice time
Rel.Sh.Share: Relative shot share
Rel.xG.Share: Relative expected goal share
With all of that out of the way, let’s get into the evaluations.
Player Evaluations: Qualified Defenders
Victor Hedman received his first nomination for the Norris Trophy this season and deservedly so. He and Nikita Kucherov were the players most responsible for making the Lightning a competitive team. Hedman’s game score and primary scoring put him at the top of the league. He also drove play relatively well.
The only real down side for him this year was that he sacrificed some of his defensive effectiveness in order to pick up more of scoring load this season. Part of that drop in defensive results is also likely due to not playing with Anton Stralman as much as he has the past two years. Stralman has been an elite player in terms of defensive impact and that security allowed Hedman to freelance more in the offensive zone. This year, he didn’t have that freedom and spent most of the end of the season carrying a weaker partner in Jake Dotchin.
Next season, look for Hedman’s defensive impact to improve. A healthy forward group will take some of the pressure to score away from him. A more stable defensive pairing will also allow him to settle into a better rhythm where he understands how aggressive he can be and when he needs to prioritize his defensive responsibilities.
Anton Stralman had a down year by his standards. He graded out as a bottom end first pairing defender, which is a drop from his spot as possibly the best defensive blue liner in the league over the last few seasons. He missed nine games early in the year and never seemed to get back to the level he has set for himself.
While he’s never been much of a scorer, to see him in the bottom third of the league among defenders is unusual. Traditionally, his biggest impacts have been defensive and that trend also changed this season.
As discussed above, Stralman and Hedman did not play together as much. While Hedman worked with Jake Dotchin, Stralman eventually settled into a second pairing role with Jason Garrison. As we’ll see shortly, playing with Garrison was a rough spot to be this year and that is likely a big reason for Stralman’s drop in performance.
Assuming he has a better partner next year, I expect Stralman’s numbers to climb back up next year. But he is over 30 and players his age do tend to see their performance start to slip. I think the drop this year was more due to contextual factors than age, but I also wouldn’t expect to see the numbers we saw in 14-15 and 15-16 again.
Braydon Coburn doesn’t get enough credit. He has been good all year despite being asked to play with several different partners including being on his off-side with rookie Slater Koekkoek. And no matter the situation, he performed. For all the excitement about Dotchin and Koekkoek, Coburn was clearly the third best defender in Tampa and an argument could be made that just for this one season, he outperformed Stralman.
He doesn’t show a weakness in any particular area statistically. He drove play well. He scored at a second pairing pace. He had solid impacts both offensively and defensively. I have nothing negative to say about his play this season. If he can do that for one more year, his much-maligned extension will turn out to be well worth its value. Players who can be successful no matter the context are valuable and Lightning fans should should show Coburn some appreciation for what he did this year.
After a surprise recall in the spring, Jake Dotchin immediately settled into a first pairing role alongside Victor Hedman. That combination was good enough to allow Anton Stralman to slide the second pair with Jason Garrison, which was one of the keys to the Lightning’s improved play in the last few months of the season. That said, I’m not completely sold that Dotchin is the long term answer to the Lightning’s need for a right-handed defender.
He initially put up excellent shot numbers while receiving heavy offensive zone usage alongside Hedman. When that usage changed later in the year, his numbers dropped significantly. He doesn’t show particularly encouraging numbers in any area. He isn’t expected to be a scorer but his defensive impact doesn’t appear to be that of a shutdown player.
I expect the Lightning to continue to explore other options for righties to help secure the blue line. Unless they make a big name addition, the team will liekly head into camp with Dotchin expected to make the roster but not necessarily back on the first pairing. He showed that he’s a capable NHL defender but where he slots in the lineup long term is still to be determined.
Andrej Sustr’s start to the season was objectively brutal. He and Jason Garrison were one of the worst pairings in the league and their results were made even worse by the coaching staff who for some reason insisted on burying them in the defensive zone. During that time, Sustr became one of the go-to scapegoats for the Lighting’s disappointing season.
But a funny thing happened after he separated from Garrison. He suddenly looked competent again. Part of that is likely due to playing with Coburn who, as mentioned above, put up solid results all season. But in fairness to Sustr, that also means that he is capable of playing at an NHL level when he’s not with Garrison. He’s not going to carry another player. But he can be serviceable with a quality partner.
His contract status is one of the biggest things the Lightning have to get right this summer. He’s shown that he’s a third pairing defender. Any extension needs to reflect that. If the Lightning give him more than a couple of years at a low average annual value, they’ll be setting themselves up for failure. And the most prudent thing might be not re-sign him at all provided they can find a replacement who can fill his role.
Identifying the issue with the Lightning blue line isn’t hard. Jason Garrison has obviously hit the end of his career as a useful NHL player. He sits in the bottom ten percent of all defenders in several metrics including impact on shot share. Garrison has had a solid career and was a big contributor to the Lighting’s deep playoff runs. He’s been a team leader and a reliable player.
The reality this summer is that Garrison can’t be back in Tampa next year. The worst case scenario is that they have to buy him out just as they did with Matt Carle last year. A buyout would only save them about $1.5 million next year as opposed to his full $4.6 million cap hit.
Ideally, they need to find a trade partner but that’s going to be difficult. Getting another team to take his contract will likely require the Lightning to give up additional assets so a rebuilding team or the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights seem to be the only reasonable options. Whatever the case, a team with the cap challenges facing Tampa Bay can’t afford Garrison’s cap hit next season and how that situation resolves will be another key to General Manager Steve Yzerman’s summer.
Player Evaluations: Qualified Defenders
We’ve covered all of the Lightning defenders who meet the TOI requirements to be included in these assessments but Slater Koekkoek is an important part of the Lightning season so we’ll look at him as well. His percentile rankings are still relative to the top 210 defenders in TOI but he is not included in that 210.
Slater Koekkoek struggled during his time in Tampa this year. The pairing of Koekkoek and Coburn worked well but looking at these numbers, it seems likely that Coburn drove that success more than Koekkoek. Fans had high expectations for Koekkoek this season and were disappointed when the team sent him back to Syracuse for the majority of the season.
Based purely on results, arguing that Koekkoek deserved to be in Tampa is difficult. The argument for keeping him in the NHL is more about his future development. Before the emergence of Dotchin, Koekkoek was the only Lightning defensive prospect who seemed ready to make an NHL impact in the next two to three seasons. The Lightning are short on defensive depth and they need him to be an NHL player. In that sense, this season was a major setback for him.
He seems further from a permanent NHL role now than he was before the season and that’s a disappointment. While he didn’t play particularly well, part of the blame also has to go on the coaching staff for not getting more out of him and for keeping him in Syracuse during a lost season. Hopefully, next year sees him earn a spot in the NHL and much better results on the ice. Because if not, the Lightning’s thin blue line will get even thinner.
We’ve reached the end of our evaluations. The Lightning still have a bright future but they have lots of questions to answer this summer. Several key forwards need new contracts. They need to sort out their defense and find a way to create three pairs that are all capable of at least treading water.
All of that is doable, but it might require some creativity. The Yzerplan has been mostly successful thus far. This summer will be another tough test. The outcome won’t be perfect. But as long as he avoids any major missteps, Yzerman should have the Lightning back in position to contend in the Eastern Conference next season.