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Which defenseman should the Lightning sit in the playoffs?

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Who’s going to be the odd man out?

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

All statistics used are from Evolving-Hockey.com and NaturalStatTrick.com

As the 2018-2019 NHL regular season enters its final quarter, one big question looms for the Tampa Bay Lightning; who is going to sit during the postseason? Since Eric Cernak was promoted to the big club, the Lightning have taken a rotational approach to their defensive corps. Only Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh have been omitted from the rotation with the other five defenders all taking turns being healthy scratches. The Lightning coaching staff has stated that by playoff time, they’ll have their set six.

So, what does that mean for the rest of us? Rampant speculation on who the odd man out will be, obviously.


Metrics

Hedman, McDonagh, Cernak, and Mikhail Sergachev are the obvious choices to be in the lineup during the postseason. If either of Sergachev or Cernak sit, then there are going to be a litany of questions as to why. Additionally, these four defenders have been amongst the best on the team in most statistical categories.

Sergachev leads the team in CF% (54%), being one of the best play drivers on the back-end alongside Hedman (53%). Cernak is also doing well in this regard at 51%. McDonagh lags a bit in this department at 49%, but we’ll get to why later on. Once Evolving-Hockey’s GAR (Goals Above Replacement) statistic is taken into account, it becomes even clearer.

Goals Above Replacement: Defensemen 2018-2019
Evolving-Hockey.com/@EvolvingWild

Those are the top 30 defensemen in the NHL per GAR. Notice where Cernak (11th), Hedman (14th), and McDonagh (16th) are. That’s unbelievably good. Here’s the Tampa Bay Lightning as a whole.

Goals Above Replacement: Tampa Bay Lightning 2018-2019
Evolving-Hockey/@EvolvingWild

Interesting to see Sergachev’s power-play GAR be his biggest negative per this metric, but he’s had a rough season offensively, so, that probably isn’t as bad as we think. It is interesting to see Anton Stralman near the bottom of the list though. It’s been known that he has regressed the past three seasons, but for him to be below Dan Girardi (and for Girardi to have a respectable 2.8 even strength GAR) is peculiar.

We shouldn’t focus solely on GAR though. As mentioned earlier, Sergachev is still one of the best play drivers on the team, but to get a more clear picture zone starts should be taken into account.

Tampa Bay Lightning: On-Ice 5v5 Statistics
Natural Stat Trick, www.naturalstattrick.com

Cernak, again, stands out with 40% offensive zone starts and a 51% CF%. Other tidbits to take from this; Sergachev getting favorable starts helps his CF%, but also shows how good he is at keeping it there—same with Hedman. Coburn is a pleasant surprise given his zone start percentage and his CF% of 53%. McDonagh and Stralman both seeing low offensive zone starts and being low in CF% is worrying, but is that indicative given how great McDonagh looks everywhere else?

This circles back to Stralman. He lags behind in just about every statistical category compared to the rest of the defensive corps However, he’s only played 40 games this season. Only Cernak has played less and he’s busted the wall down so hard that there’s no way they can not play him moving forward. Stralman has also benefitted from a 103 PDO, as has McDonagh and Cernak, but it seems to be coming from the offensive side for Stralman with his 10.6 shooting percentage. If Stralman is already not driving play as well as other defenders on the team and still having one of the highest GF% on the team with an unsustainable PDO, that is cause for some mild concern.

Here’s another visualization that should illustrate more info.

Goals Above Average: EVO vs EVD, TB 2018-2019 EV
Evolving-Hockey.com/@EvolvingWild

Again, Stralman is the lowest defender on this chart, but also take note where Girardi and Sergachev are. If Stralman had better underlying numbers to go along with the offensive production that occurs when he is on the ice, there would be more optimism in regards to him. To avoid this becoming an advocacy for sitting Stralman let’s take a look at the numbers after the new year.

Since January 1st, these are the CF% for Tampa Bay’s defensive corps:

  • Cernak 52.97%
  • Hedman 51.39%
  • McDonagh 50.08%
  • Girardi 49.90%
  • Sergachev 48.82%
  • Stralman 46.80%
  • Coburn 45.38%

Overall, not the prettiest picture, especially considering their overall numbers, but Coburn’s descent is far higher than expected. He’s still solid defensively, but his huge surge in driving offensive play for the first half of the season has taken a serious dive. Coburn’s GF% is at an absurd 64% with an even more outrageous 15% shooting percentage, but he’s also rocking a massive 109 PDO.

There’s plenty more low play driving numbers being bolstered by high GF% though. Every Lightning defender except Dan Girardi is over 55% GF%, and four (including Coburn) are at or above a 103 PDO:

Stralman, 108 PDO with a 12% shooting percentage and a .956 save percentage
Hedman, 103 PDO with an 8% shooting percentage and a .948 save percentage,
Sergachev, 103 PDO with an 11% shooting percentage and a .916 save percentage

This is obviously bolstered by the offensive firepower the Lightning has in their forward corps, and the resurgent play of Andrei Vasilevskiy, but it does inflate their numbers a bit. At some point, this will regress for the defense. Hopefully, their ability to drive play will push back at the same time their offensive production while on the ice slows down, but these kinds of things have their own peculiar ways of working out.


Whom To Take?

Since it’s been established that Hedman, McDonagh, Cernak, and Sergachev aren’t sitting. This leaves Coburn, Girardi, and Stralman. The overarching issue is going to stem from who plays with Hedman. Cernak is going to be stapled to McDonagh while Sergachev matching with Coburn has been a solid pairing this season. That leaves Girardi and Stralman battling for one spot. Below are the numbers for Stralman and Girardi’s partners this season (minimum of 100 minutes played at 5v5).

Stralman and Girardi Partners

Player 1 Player 2 GP TOI CF% GF% SCF% HDCF% HDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO OFZS NZS DFZS OFZS %
Player 1 Player 2 GP TOI CF% GF% SCF% HDCF% HDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO OFZS NZS DFZS OFZS %
Anton Stralman Ryan McDonagh 40 360.6333 48.31 56.25 50.72 53.08 54.55 9.73 92.55 1.023 84 146 121 40.98
Anton Stralman Victor Hedman 32 129.75 52.34 69.23 52.68 53.49 83.33 12.5 94.29 1.068 42 40 35 54.55
Anton Stralman Braydon Coburn 34 108.4333 45.28 58.33 44.74 41.03 50 14.29 93.24 1.075 26 27 34 43.33
Dan Girardi Victor Hedman 48 584.9167 52.31 52.94 53.42 56.14 48.28 8.71 92.08 1.008 220 202 214 50.69

From this, I think the answer is apparent—you sit Girardi. Yes, Girardi does have slightly better numbers than Stralman does, but Stralman’s at least been moved around and has seen some decent numbers with other partners. It might not always be pretty possession wise, but his GF% is still strong in other pairings and they still manage to out-chance the opposition—except for the Coburn combo (this has many extenuating factors as to why that’s the case).

Girardi, on the other hand, has seen no partner more than Hedman this season, and it’s not even close. The next closest player that Girardi partners with is Coburn at 75 minutes of 5v5 play. He’s pigeonholed with Hedman (which should also show you how absolutely fantastic Hedman is).

In the postseason, a coach can’t be handicapped by a defender who only puts up respectable numbers by being latched onto a great player. Yes, Stralman does get carried by Hedman as well, but he has at least seen some success with McDonagh and Coburn—that’s valuable. In a perfect situation, these are the pairings the Lightning should go with moving forward.

  • Hedman-Stralman
  • McDonagh-Cernak
  • Sergachev-Coburn

Here’s what those three combinations would look like in terms of metrics.

Lightning Defense Pairings

Player 1 Player 2 GP TOI CF% GF% SCF% HDCF% HDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO OFZS NZS DFZS OFZS %
Player 1 Player 2 GP TOI CF% GF% SCF% HDCF% HDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO OFZS NZS DFZS OFZS %
Victor Hedman Anton Stralman 32 129.75 52.34 69.23 52.68 53.49 83.33 12.5 94.29 1.068 42 40 35 54.55
Ryan McDonagh Erik Cernak 37 511.7 49.94 58.82 54 59.01 58.62 12.1 91.6 1.037 161 242 179 47.35
Mikhail Sergachev Braydon Coburn 50 590.25 54.62 58.82 55.18 55.24 54.55 9.09 92.13 1.012 203 214 178 53.28

Conclusion

This was my initial thought when I brainstormed the article, but upon researching it I was severely leaning toward Stralman being the odd man out. However, the deciding factor that pushes Stralman over Girardi, for me, is that Stralman can be moved around if need be. If Cernak or Sergachev struggle and need to have some minutes shaved off then Stralman has shown he can slide in and hold his own. It isn’t pretty in all aspects, but the fact that he provides options for the coaching staff is valuable.

This decision shouldn’t be overly difficult for the coaching staff to make. I’m sure they already know exactly what they’re going to do with far more data than what is publicly available. They made Ryan Callahan the 13th forward which tells me they know what they’re doing in regards to personnel moves.

However, I wouldn’t blame them if they chose Girardi over Stralman if their data lines up with what’s public. If one of Sergachev or Cernak sit, then I see that as a big issue given how great Cernak’s been (I highly doubt they sit Sergachev). Sitting Coburn is something I could get behind, but overall the Sergachev-Coburn pairing has been quite good. Since the new year they’ve struggled a bit, especially in their own end, but I see little reason why that pairing can’t bounce back (given that most of the defensive pairings haven’t looked especially sterling since the new year).

Let’s just be grateful that Cernak forced the organization’s hand in this situation. If Cernak was never called up, then the Lightning might very well be looking for a rental defensemen to supplement their top four for a playoff run. Instead, their whole outlook has changed to where they might not even make any moves.