The Tampa Bay Lightning season is over. With a long summer ahead of us, we’re going to hand out grades to each player on the roster. You did your part submitting your grades via the reader survey, and they are presented along with our writers’ grades. All told, about 360 of you submitted grades, which is less than last season, but that’s understandable considering how the season went. Follow along with the series through the month of May and share your thoughts in the comments.
Jan Rutta joined the Lightning in early January via trade from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for former 10th overall pick Slater Koekkoek. For Lightning fans, that trade was much more about Koekkoek than Rutta. We’d waited years for Koekkoek to finally breakout and show that he would fulfill the promise he showed earlier in his career, but that moment never came. Ultimately, Rutta represented to the end of the waiting.
The trade was a practical one. The Lightning had a glut of left handed defenders and Rutta is a righty. If you accept that Koekkoek is never going to progress beyond a third pairing option, the trade makes perfect sense.
Rutta was in the AHL at the time of the trade, which was also valuable to the Lightning. That meant he could go directly to Syracuse, which he did, and was immediately an impact player for the Crunch. He’s a legitimate top pairing player at that level, and he was an asset to a young team.
Injuries late in the season forced his call up to Tampa and he remained with the Bolts all the way through the playoffs, playing every night due to injuries to Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman. The coaches seemed to prefer him even to Braydon Coburn as he drew in the lineup ahead of the veteran in the playoffs.
In our survey, he got some of the lowest grades from the community of any player. The following card shows that as well as how he performed in some high level stats. Wins Above Replacement and the expected goal impacts come from Evolving Hockey. The xG impacts include all situations.
He got a fairly high share of C- and D grades from readers and writers. That’s perhaps a little harsh but understandable, considering the circumstances. He enjoyed none of the Lightning’s success from earlier in the year and was only part of the crushing failure at the end of the season. That certainly impacted perceptions of his play.
But if we look bigger picture, his numbers are average. These numbers include his time in Chicago and Tampa. His defensive impacts are slightly better than his offensive ones but, overall, he was a positive contributor.
From this perspective, he looks like a more than capable third pairing defender in the NHL. As a righty, that means he has value. Teams are constantly searching for players to play on that side—as the Lightning were earlier in the year—and he can fill that role.
With so much in flux on the Lightning blue line, he’s another one of the moving parts. Along with Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, and Braydon Coburn, Rutta will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. The difference is that he’ll obviously be less expensive. With the Lightning needing to add at least two defenders this offseason, don’t be surprised if he’s an option to be re-signed.
The blue line for next season includes Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak, and Mikhail Sergachev. After that, it’s a crap shoot. Maybe Cal Foote is ready. Maybe Dominik Masin is ready. But even in the best case scenario, the team won’t be able to fill all of their vacant roster spots internally.
Bringing back one of the three veteran defenders and Rutta would be a cost effective way to address that need. He can fill the 6/7 role depending on the readiness of the prospects. A scenario where he starts the season in the lineup before eventually being replaced by Foote when the youngster is ready is easy to imagine.
During the playoffs, Rutta became one the scapegoats Lightning fans targeted with their frustration. He made some poor plays so some of that was justified. But in aggregate, he filled his role in the organization well.
He was a good player in Syracuse. Any AHL team would be thrilled to have him. When he got the call to Tampa, he stepped in and played competently. He’s not going to wow anyone but no third pairing defender will.
At this point in his career, he’s the definition of a tweener. That means he’ll have lots of different options to consider. He’ll get one way contract offers from NHL teams, meaning that even if he gets demoted to the AHL, he’ll still get paid NHL money. He’ll also have options overseas where he would have the luxury of staying with one team and not worrying about demotions. The Lightning will almost certainly be among the teams making him an offer. Whether it ends up being the one he prefers remains to be seen.
For a third pairing defender, the Lightning could do much worse than Rutta. He fills a position of need on the right side and he has the ability to help at multiple levels of the organization. He’s not the most exciting player to follow this summer, but if he ends up somewhere other than Tampa, that will create another hole on the roster than needs to be filled.