When a trade or a free agent signing happens, there’s often not much time to digest the news and think through everything before putting some thoughts to computer screen. I did just that Friday evening when news came down that the Tampa Bay Lightning had traded Slater Koekkoek for Jan Rutta from the Chicago Blackhawks. Now, having had more than a few minutes to look over stats, the roster, the salary cap, and just to theory through some of the possibilities, I’ve got some more thoughts about the trade.
Rutta was a guy I wanted before
I never ended up writing about Rutta last season, but I did have discussions with my fellow writers here at RawCharge about some players I was interested in trading for. Obviously the big names out there were Erik Karlsson and then Ryan McDonagh, who the Lightning eventually acquired from the New York Rangers. But Rutta was a lower cost reinforcement that I was interested in as a fall back if the Lightning couldn’t land one of the two big fish.
For me, he was an intriguing candidate for a trade. He was an expiring UFA and was having a good rookie season for the Blackhawks. Last season, among defensemen with at least 700 minutes TOI (174 total players), he was 36th in CF60, but 135th in CA60. He was also 60th in xGF60, but 151st in xGA60. He certainly had his defensive deficiencies, but he provided good offensive upside when he was on the ice. At the time, I thought him being paired with Braydon Coburn might make for a nice match in a similar way that Mikhail Sergachev has been a good match with Coburn combining Coburn’s defensive acumen with the other’s offensive upside.
Also looking at those numbers, I thought his possession numbers could be enhanced by playing on a better and deeper team. Especially if he ended up sheltered more than he was with the Blackhawks. Also promising for me was that he wasn’t getting a ton of points on the power play. Out of his 20 points, just four came on the power play. He only played in 57 games, which put his 16 even strength points at a scoring pace of 23 points over an 82 game schedule, which isn’t bad for a depth defenseman.
The trade for Ryan McDonagh made it all a moot point and the Blackhawks re-signed Rutta to a one-year contract extension a little over a week after the trade deadline. This season, he has taken a step backward and ended up in the AHL because of that. Even considering that, his six even strength points in 23 games is a 21 point scoring pace over 82 games.
Rutta could still be in the mix next year
I’ve seen a good bit of commentary on Twitter asking why make this trade when Koekkoek should have been in the mix for more playing time next season with Coburn, Anton Stralman, and Dan Girardi all being free agents. Koekkoek will be a restricted free agent this summer while Rutta will be an unrestricted free agent.
At this time, the Lightning only have four defensemen under contract guaranteed to be on the NHL roster next season: Victor Hedman, McDonagh, Sergachev, and Erik Cernak. That’s three left-handers and one right-hander, though Sergachev’s switch to the right side may be permanent at this point with Hedman and McDonagh ahead of him on the left side.
Internally, Cal Foote in the AHL is the only real challenger to making the team out of camp. His development has been coming along in the AHL, but our AHL writers Justin and Alex have doubts that he’ll be ready for the NHL come next training camp. The last half of this AHL season will be important for Foote to continue to progress and make his way to the NHL.
Dominik Masin is also a long shot to the make team as his development seems to have stalled after having a good sophomore campaign. He could end up being a 7th defenseman, but there are serious questions that he can manage to make the NHL at this point unless he has a huge second half this season.
The common thought out there has been that the Lightning could certainly look to re-sign one of their unrestricted free agents. Stralman and Coburn seem the most likely candidates. The sentimental side of me kind of wants to see Girardi re-signed since he would likely reach 1,000 games played next season and receive his Silver Stick. But Coburn is looking like the most likely. I think that he would be a little cheaper to re-sign than Stralman and is having a solid season playing with Sergachev.
But the Lightning will have an opportunity to watch Rutta in the AHL for the rest of the season and get to know him. I think at some point, we could also see him in Tampa this season as the rest rotation continues and with the ever present threat of an injury. Since he has cleared waivers, he can be recalled and spend up to 30 cumulative days or 10 NHL games played, whichever comes first, before requiring waivers again. As we come down the stretch, if the Lightning are still comfortably in their playoff position, we could easily see Rutta come up and play a handful of games in the last couple weeks of the season even if there are no injuries.
If the Lightning re-signed Coburn and Rutta, then the blue line could look something like this:
Victor Hedman - Mikhail Sergachev
Ryan McDonagh - Erik Cernak
Braydon Coburn - Jan Rutta
This is obviously dependent on the Lightning seeing enough from Rutta to think he can be a useful third pair defenseman and if they feel Foote needs more development. It could even just be a one-year contract to not have any long term commitment to Rutta. He could even be the 7th defenseman with Foote filling out the third pair with Coburn. It would give the Lightning four left handers and three right handers, with four players that can play the left side and five players that can play the right side if the pairs need to be mixed because of injuries.
The Most Important thing is Depth
I’ve written about this a few times already, but I want to reiterate it here. In 2013-14, the Lightning ran through a metric *BLEEP* ton of defensemen. The team had to lean on 31-year old and 28-year old AHL veterans J.P. Cote and Mike Kostka for 19 games each late in the season due to injuries. Jon Cooper also had to use seven defensemen more often than not to limit the exposure of his lower end defensemen for much of the season.
This came back to hurt them in the playoffs as the team went with seven defensemen in two of their four games and played nine different defensemen with only Hedman, Matt Carle, and Eric Brewer playing in all four games. I think at that point that Steve Yzerman and his right-hand man Julien BriseBois learned the importance of having depth on the blue line.
In 2014-15, they traded an injured Radko Gudas who was out for the year and acquired Braydon Coburn. This was after having acquired Stralman and Jason Garrison in the offseason. Over 26 playoff games in 2015, the team used eight defensemen and went with seven defensemen in about half of the games. However, in this situation, Hedman, Stralman, Coburn, and Sustr played every game while Carle only missed one game and Garrison missed three games.Nikita Nesterov played in 17 games usually as the 7th defenseman and Mark Barberio played in one game.
In 2015-16, the Lightning were much healthier on the blue line. They did use AHL veteran Matt Taormina in three of their 17 playoff games, partly because Stralman was injured and only played six games in the playoffs. Follow that up with 2017-18 when the Lightning acquired Mikhail Sergachev prior to the season and acquired McDonagh at the trade deadline.
All of these moves point towards a tendency for the Lightning front office to ensure they have appropriate depth at defense since experiencing those issues in 2013-14. This was a case where the front office were afraid someone would claim Koekkoek if they tried to put him through waivers. The risk there was that the Lightning would cut their depth on top of getting nothing back in return.
So the Lightning turned to the trade market to look for a player that was in the AHL and didn’t need the risk of waivers but could still serve as quality depth. Rutta is exactly that. His 26 points over 80 games in the NHL is pretty good. He’s certainly better than Cameron Gaunce, the Lightning’s other depth option in the AHL. He’s also produced more offensively in his NHL time, and gotten bigger minutes, than Koekkoek. In some ways, Rutta is an upgrade and in some ways he’s a downgrade from Koekkoek. Overall, it’s pretty much a sideways move.
The most important thing here is that he provides quality depth that the team needs and provides the team with the roster spot they needed for J.T. Miller to come off of injured reserve. Danick Martel’s status on the roster has been a big question mark for a while. However, after Thursday night’s game, we learned that he was told to get an apartment which is a sign he will remain with the team for the rest of the season after spending the past four months living out of a hotel room.
I don’t think anyone can look at this trade and call it a slam dunk. It’s not flashy. It’s not sexy. But it was exactly the trade that the Lightning needed at this time. It was an astute trade for the front office that cost them two years of control on Koekkoek and swapping a 5th round pick for a 7th round pick. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor deal, but not a bad deal.