Dan Girardi is a top pairing defender for the Tampa Bay Lightning. And frankly, I’m fine with it. Have I been drinking? Maybe. But that’s not what we’re here to discuss. What we’re here to discuss is how the coaching staff in Tampa is deploying their defenders and why Girardi being on the “top pair” is a misnomer that doesn’t tell the whole story.
First, let’s talk about what it means to be “top pair.” In the simplest sense, the top pairing is the one that goes first in line rushes. That’s traditionally how coaches communicate where a player ranks among their peers on the roster. Using that as a guide, the Lightning’s pairings are the following:
Victor Hedman - Dan Girardi
Ryan McDonagh - Anton Stralman
Braydon Coburn - Mikhail Sergachev
Using the simplest definition, Girardi is on the top pair. If we stop here, this is distressing. Girardi is clearly not one of the two best defenders on the team and probably isn’t even one of the four best since the trade for McDonagh and the emergence of Sergachev. TOP PAIR DAN GIRARDI is fodder for twitter yelling. TOP PAIR DAN GIRARDI is old-school. TOP PAIR DAN GIRARDI is anti-analytics. TOP PAIR DAN GIRARDI is heresy against the monolith of contemporary hockey enlightenment.
But what if...TOP PAIR DAN GIRARDI isn’t real? While line rushes are the simplest way to see how coaches define their pairings, they aren’t the most accurate. To me, the top pairing is the defensive pairing that plays the most minutes. In some cases, that can also mean the hardest minutes in terms of competition, score state, etc., but it doesn’t always. Teams sometimes have a more defensively oriented pairing they prefer to use in those situations.
To try to understand who the real top pairing (please stand up) is, let’s quickly check some numbers. All the data in this article is via the peerless Corsica.Hockey. The expected goal share data is adjusted to account for score, venue (home/away), and zone starts.
The first chart shows the time on ice by strength state for the six Lightning defenders who played in the series against the New Jersey Devils. The coaches’ plan is obvious. They feel they have a clear 1D, two players capable of playing heavy minutes, two players who need to be managed, and one rookie who needs to be micro managed.
The idea of Girardi as a top pairing defender disappears here. He is fourth in all situations minutes and fifth in 5v5 minutes. His spot on the top pair in line rushes is purely because he has to be somewhere. In reality, the Lightning’s top pair is Victor Hedman and whoever the coaches decide should get a shift with him. In some cases, that will be Girardi. In others, it will be Stralman, McDonagh, or even Sergachev.
The second chart also reflects this distinction. The top three sit in their own cluster in terms of minutes. Coburn and Girardi are both under 14 minutes per game and Sergachev is playing a pampered eight minutes per game.
The results are worth noting. Girardi is the only player below a 50% xG share. The big three are hovering in the 55% to 60% range, which is excellent. Coburn and Sergachev put up huge numbers against the bottom end of the Devils roster.
The coaches deserve some credit here. I’ve been harsh on them in the past for giving too much playing time to over-matched veteran defenders like Jason Garrison and Matt Carle. Their usage of Girardi has been more measured this year and his usage in the first round reflects a staff that realizes which players should carry the load and which should be in supporting roles.
My only critique is that I think Sergachev can handle more. He’s over 70% xG share in limited minutes. He’s running the second power play unit, which is great, but I think he has more to offer at 5v5. I’d like to see some him get more 5v5 shifts with either McDonagh or Hedman.
Playing him with Hedman is risky because both players like to freelance in the offensive zone and that creates opportunities for mistakes. But McDonagh seems like an ideal partner who has the two-way game to support Sergachev if the rookie gets out of position. More of McDonagh and Sergachev would also mean more of Hedman and Stralman, which is another positive. I’m not advocating for changing the pairings wholly here, just that Sergachev has earned more shifts further up in the lineup at 5v5.
The Lightning have three top defenders and three defenders with varying degrees of potential issues. The coaches seem aware of that and are arranging their blue line accordingly. That’s an encouraging sign. Expect this deployment to continue against the Bruins because if the Lightning are going to make a deep playoff run, their top three of Hedman, McDonagh, and Stralman will have to drive success on the blue line.