With Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak on the roster, the Tampa Bay Lightning have five defensemen that are clearly capable of playing in the top four for an NHL team. Each one has had their own struggles during the season. Some offensive, some defensive, some with consistency. But there’s no denying their talent levels and it’s great having all five on the roster.
The last three defensemen on the roster though have been much more of a question mark. Braydon Coburn, Jan Rutta, and Luke Schenn have all shared in the sixth and sometimes seventh defensemen role so far this season. Jon Cooper went with seven defensemen for a little stretch to spark the team and it worked for a bit. When it stopped working, Cooper went back to just six defensemen so that the forward lines could have a little more consistency.
Stats from Evolving-Hockey.com and ranks are among the eight defensemen that have played for the Lightning this season, each of which have played at least 150 minutes. These numbers don’t include last night’s game against the Panther when Rutta played well in 16 minutes of ice time.
Coburn is out week-to-week with a lower body injury and it will be a question of how effective he can be when he returns to the lineup. Even when he is healthy again, he hasn’t had the best start to the season. His lone point in 17 games comes from a single goal. Coburn has the lowest scoring rate among the defense, but has actually shot the puck pretty often being third in shot rate. His expected goal share though has been 7th on the team. He has been the beneficiary of some luck though as his goal share is second on the team.
Rutta is a bit more of a two-way player and has more offense in his game than Coburn or Schenn as he has picked up three assists in his 11 games. He doesn’t shoot the puck very often though with the 7th best shot rate with only McDonagh coming in worse than him. He’s in the middle of the pack for goal share and expected goal share at 5th in both stats. His other shot possession stats have also had him towards the middle of the pack as well. Rutta has seen some high event rates in goals when he is on the ice too, both for and against, with 3.56 GF60 and 3.65 GA60 which rank him 1st and 7th respectively. The team is way outperforming his xGF60 and way underperforming his xGA60.
Schenn is a completely different defenseman from the other two. He plays a very physical brand of hockey often laying hard hits on the opponent. He has only picked up a single assist in his 13 games. He also has seen a very large number of goals going in the wrong way when he is on the ice with 4.66 GA60 which has contributed to his 26.96% goal share, both of which are the worst on the team by a large margin. He ranks at or near the bottom in almost every puck possession stat.
Another area that all three players aren’t great in his penalties. Coburn and Rutta have yet to draw a penalty, but have taken two and three respectively. Schenn has been able to draw two penalties, but has also taken four, and also had a fight. If we look at penalties in terms or rates (er 60 minutes), Schenn and Rutta are the two worst on the team in penalties taken, while Coburn is actually second. On the other hand, Schenn has been the best at drawing penalties from a rate perspective, but that is also partly a result of small sample size.
It’s clear that all three of these defensemen have had their struggles. Some have not been as bad as some of the other defensemen in certain areas, but they are struggles nonetheless. And those struggles are amplified by the three being less talented than the rest of the defensive corps. That lower talent level leads me to feel less comfortable with them being able to work their way out of it like McDonagh and Cernak.
Because of that, I think it’s time to give Cal Foote a shot on the blue line. Foote was the Lightning’s first round pick, 14th overall in 2017. He’s got the kind of size the Lightning love in their defensemen at 6’4” and 220 pounds. He’s not as physical as his size might lead you to believe he would be, but he uses his body well in shielding the puck and battling on the boards.
Foote had a slow start to this season, but has started to turn is back on. He put up 10 goals and 31 points in 76 games last season as a professional rookie for the Syracuse Crunch. His pace is slightly down in part due to the slow start, but not by much as he has a goal and nine points which puts him on pace for 28.5 points over 76 games. He’s also reduced his penalty taken so far this season with just 10 PIM in 24 games compared to 53 PIM in 76 games last season.
The biggest knock on him out of the draft was that he needed to work on his skating. It still needs some more work but he’s made strides in improving it since becoming a professional. He’s not going to wow you with his speed or sweeping across the ice like Victor Hedman, but he’s got enough going for him that I think he can keep up in the NHL now.
I also think his style of game would be a nice fit for Sergachev on the third pairing. Foote has enough skill to make the first pass out of the zone and get the puck moving up the ice in transition. He can also stay back a bit when Sergachev is getting fancy in the offensive zone and help cover up for him when he makes a mistake. He’s also got the hockey IQ to know where to be on the ice.
Foote grew up around hockey and in NHL locker rooms. Foote’s dad Adam played 1,154 games on defense in the NHL. He also wore a letter for fourteen seasons, including five as a Captain. The younger Foote also showed some of this leadership ability in juniors serving as the Captain of the Kelowna Rockets in his last WHL season. His little brother Nolan was also a first round draft pick by the Lightning and looks to be headed to the World Junior Championships for Team Canada. This is a family that eats, breaths, and lives hockey.
It’s time. We just saw the Lightning give Mitchell Stephens and Cory Conacher a spot on the playing roster over Mathieu Joseph on Monday night. Why can’t we do the same for Foote? With the Lightning continuing to struggle with defensive break downs and attention to detail, what can it hurt to see what they’ve got? Maybe he’s the spark to solidify the blue line and get them moving in the right direction, because Schenn and Rutta don’t seem to be that for this team right now.