After the Tampa Bay Lightning made Cal Foote the 14th pick of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the rest of the teams behind them went on a run of defensemen. Foote’s selection was followed by Erik Brannstrom (Vegas Golden Knights), Juuso Valimaki (Calgary Flames), Timothy Liljegren (Toronto Maple Leafs), and Urho Vaakanainen (Boston Bruins).
The instant reaction to Foote by a lot of fans is “Why not Liljegren?” And that’s a very good question to ask. Brannstrom, Valimaki, and Vaakanainen are left-handed defensemen. After the Lightning acquired Mikhail Sergachev in the Jonathan Drouin trade, they’ve set themselves up with a very good left handed prospect to slot in behind Victor Hedman in the future. Not to mention fellow left-handers Slater Koekkoek, Dominic Masin, and Libor Hajek who all have good upside on the left side.
The right-handed defensemen in the organization top out with Jake Dotchin. While Dotchin played very well with Victor Hedman, his abilities on his own are limited. He’s not the type of defenseman that could anchor a pairing and carry a lesser partner. Dotchin is more of a third defenseman that can occasionally play up in the line up with a very strong left handed partner.
Matt Spencer is also more of a third pairing defender. Professional rookie Ben Thomas is a defenseman in the vein of Marc Barberio and Nikita Nesterov as seventh defensemen that have some offensive upside and defensive deficiencies. Dylan Blujus and Jonathan MacLeod are the other right-handed prospects which both have big question marks on their futures in the NHL.
That meant that it came down to Foote versus Liljegren.
Foote versus Liljegren
Liljegren offers far more offensive skill than Foote. Liljegren is also an excellent skater. He has superior puck handling skills and offensive instincts that make him hard to defend against. He will be a power play quarterback in the NHL with his play making ability combined with an accurate one-timer and wrist shot.
The bigger question marks are Liljegren’s defensive and neutral zone play. He often tries to do too much on the breakout instead of taking the simple play and that leads to giving up turnovers as often as he sends a teammate on a break. He is also vulnerable to being pressured in the corners and behind the net forcing him into bad turnovers.
Foote, on the other hand, exhibits elite hockey IQ combined with above-average size. With Kelowna, he is often tasked with taking on the top forward lines of the opposition. He’s able to play a smart physical game that doesn’t take him out of position. He is more calculated with his hits than say a Radko Gudas or Jake Dotchin that have too much of a tendency to go for hits that leave them exposed defensively. Foote also possesses an excellent break-out pass. He can make the simple play as well as brilliant stretch passes. He’s also been a stalwart on the penalty kill for Kelowna.
Foote doesn’t drive play as well in the offensive zone. He has shown an ability to take advantage of lanes by moving around and taking advantage of his passing skills, but lacks the high end vision. He might not end up as an NHL power-play defenseman, but has the skills to contribute points at even strength. He is a pretty good skater, especially for a player of his size, but it will need some work before he makes it to the NHL.
In the end, the choice between these two players, if you believe them to be equals, is what the Tampa Bay Lightning prefer in defensemen. There has been a definite movement more towards defensemen that play well defensively first, and contribute offensively second.
Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman obviously are good examples of defensively sound players that also provide a lot of offense. Braydon Coburn is a player that plays very well defensively and has an adequate breakout pass though he doesn’t provide much in the offensive zone. Mikhail Sergachev is more in the mold of Hedman and Stralman in that he is defensively responsible and provides offense. Slater Koekkoek can be a similar type player.
The trade of Anthony DeAngelo to the Arizona Coyotes just two years after taking him in the 1st round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft is a sign of this shift. DeAngelo has all of the offensive skills to be an NHLer. Where he lacked was in the defensive zone. He couldn’t cut it there, even in the AHL, and the Lightning cut ties with him.
While we may end up regretting passing on Liljegren, Foote is a better match for what the Lightning are seeking. He has all of the skills and ability to anchor the Lightning’s second pairing in three or four years after Anton Stralman’s contract ends. Especially when you think about the possibility of combining his physical defense and break out ability with Sergachev’s all around play, that could be a very good second pair.