Early on in Jon Cooper’s career as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, he became known as a coach that was willing to utilize an eleven forward, seven defenseman alignment. In taking such an approach, it allows the coach to protect younger or less skilled defensemen. You could have your bottom three rotating with your top two defensemen. In addition, you have the benefit of double shifting your best forwards with your fourth line to give them more ice time.
In 2013-14, Cooper was handed a defensive core that was anchored by Victor Hedman, Matt Carle, Eric Brewer and Sami Salo. The team also had Mathias Ohlund and Brian Lee. Adding those two in would have made for an experienced and formidable defensive group at the time. Unfortunately, Ohlund and Lee were both finished with knee injuries and would never play professional hockey again.
Throughout the year, the Lightning would also use Radko Gudas, Mark Barberio, Jean-Philippe Cote, Mike Kostka, Keith Aulie, Matt Taormina, and Dimitry Korobov.
The top four of Hedman, Carle, Brewer, and Salo going into the 2013-14 season combined for 2,472 career NHL games. The rest? 239 games. Gudas had contributed 22 games to the Lightning in 2012-13. Barberio and Sustr and gotten a taste of the NHL with two games each during the 2012-13 season. Korobov made his NHL debut with the Lightning. Aulie was the most experienced with 121 NHL games to his name.
That was an extremely inexperienced group for the bottom end of the defense. That led to Cooper playing an extra defenseman in 41 of the 82 games in the season. Gudas was the most consistent of the young guys with 73 games. Barberio and Sustr had 49 and 43 games respectively. The rest of the group had less than 20 games each.
While Gudas showed very well in his rookie season, the rest were either young and inexperienced and still finding their way in the NHL or just depth defensemen that were filling in. By going with the seven defensemen alignment, Cooper could better hide the inadequacies of the bottom end of his defensive corps.
For the 2014-15 season though, Cooper had a complete 180 degree turn around on the seven defensemen line up. He didn’t use it a single time during the regular season. While the team still used 12 different defensemen, there were some new faces and some old ones were gone.
Sami Salo never played again after the 2013-14 season. Eric Brewer lost a step or two and really slowed down leading to him being traded away after playing in 17 games for the Lightning. Gudas played 31 games to start the season but hurt his knee and missed the rest of the season and was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers at the deadline for Braydon Coburn.
The two big additions to the line up were Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison. That coupled with more experience for Barberio and Sustr, as well as more confidence from Cooper in their ability to play, meant that Cooper was capable of having just six defensemen in the line up every night. Stralman had a breakout offensive year. Hedman was Hedman. And even Carle had a pretty good year along with Garrison.
The postseason in 2014-15 proved to be different though as Cooper went with seven defensemen for 14 games in the playoffs out of the 26 games played. Injuries certainly played a part in Cooper’s decisions here, but it showed he wasn’t afraid to go back to it when the season was on the line.
2015-16 saw something of a return of the seven defenseman alignment for Cooper. He utilized the line-up for 25 of the 82 game season. Coburn, Garrison, Hedman, Stralman, and Sustr all played more than 70 games in the season. Carle contributed 64 games and Nesterov had 57 games. Three other defensemen combined for 16 games.
2016-17 also saw Cooper go back to seven defensemen in 23 games. However, there was an added twist later in the year. With the Lightning’s forward health looking grim, Cooper started dressing Luke Witkowski to have him play forward instead of defense. Of the 23 games with seven defensemen, five to ten of those games had Witkowski playing forward.
Going into the 2017-18 season, the Lightning are looking at the possibility of having three young defensemen on the roster. The addition of Dan Girardi brings a lot of experience to the group to replace the experience lost with Jason Garrison’s departure to the Vegas Golden Knights.
It seems unlikely for Cooper to sit three of the five experienced defensemen to play three youngsters that, including playoffs, have a combined 90 games of NHL experience. At this point, you have to write Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, and Dan Girardi into the line-up every night that they are healthy. I know a lot of fans scream about Girardi and his advanced statistics certainly don’t measure up. The team hasn’t given any indication that Girardi is here to hang out in the press box.
That leaves two spots for the youngsters, Slater Koekkoek, Jake Dotchin, and Mikhail Sergachev, plus Andrej Sustr. Of course this is predicated on Sergachev making the Lightning out of training camp and sticking with the team. I fully believe that he will be capable of doing so.
The other option would be to play with seven defensemen. Doing so would bump guys like J.T. Brown and Gabriel Dumont from the line-up at forward. In exchange, you would get lower ice time for Dotchin, Koekkoek, and Sergachev and can sneak in another minute or two of time for Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Tyler Johnson.
With a seven defenseman line-up, the pairings tend to be a lot less set. You’ll mostly get combinations that are left and right handed, but it’s unlikely that a pairing will stay the same throughout most of the game.
Here is an example of how the pairings could potentially go from shift-to-shift. In parentheses will be the number of shifts taken in the sequence.
Hedman (1) - Stralman (1)
Coburn (1) - Girardi (1)
Hedman (2) - Dotchin (1)
Sergachev (1) - Stralman (2)
Coburn (2) - Girardi (2)
Hedman (3) - Stralman (3)
Koekkoek (1) - Dotchin (2)
Sergachev (2) - Girardi (3)
Hedman (4) - Stralman (4)
Coburn (3) - Dotchin (3)
Hedman (5) - Girardi (4)
Koekkoek (2) - Stralman (5)
Sergachev (3) - Coburn (4)
Hedman (6) - Girardi (5)
Koekkoek (3) - Stralman (6)
Coburn (5) - Dotchin (5)
By the end of this sequence, Hedman and Stralman have 6 shifts each, Girardi, Dotchin, and Coburn have 5 shifts each, and Koekkoek and Sergachev have 3 shifts each. The top of the line-up is still getting the most shifts as they are coming out every 2nd or 3rd shift. Meanwhile, Sergachev and Koekkoek could sometimes be rotated in faster, and sometimes can rotate slower to control the number of shifts they take. This is also assuming everything at even strength and unbroken by penalties. Playing on the power play and the penalty kill will naturally boost Hedman, Stralman, Coburn, and Girardi to higher ice time.
Commercial breaks also help to skip rotations a few times a period. Hedman and Stralman could wrap up a shift together before a time out, go to the bench, rest, and then come right back out after the timeout and play another full shift.
Cooper has shown he isn’t afraid to run with seven defenseman. It seems like 2017-18’s situation with the blue line is another good opportunity for him and associate head coach Rick Bowness to take another shot at it.