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.
Writing about Anton Stralman used to be one of my favorite parts of blogging about the Lightning. That is not the case anymore. Over the last two seasons, I’ve had little opportunity to offer praise and spent many words wondering if this is the beginning of age related decline for a player who was such a huge part of the team’s success in his first few years in Tampa.
Stralman only played in 47 games this year. This was due mostly to injuries, but was also due to the Lightning’s rotation through seven defenders. That’s the least amount of games he’s played in a season since his final year in Toronto in 2008-2009. Not even with Columbus or New York, where he struggled to find consistent minutes, did he ever play so few games.
Because of that, grading his results this year is tough. He never got a chance to get into the flow of the season the way he typically would. He also didn’t have a consistent partner. He played the most minutes with Ryan McDonagh, but also played quite a bit with Victor Hedman and Braydon Coburn.
Even considering all of that, his results weren’t good. The following card shows how he performed in some high level stats, and it also shows his grades from the Raw Charge community. Wins Above Replacement and the expected goal impacts come from Evolving Hockey. The xG impacts include all situations.
If you’re wondering which of the writers gave him a “D,” that would be me. I can’t look at the numbers he posted and come to the conclusion that he was average. He wasn’t that. He was barely even replacement level.
I entered this year hoping Stralman would improve on - or at least sustain - his bounce back last season after a down year in 16-17. Instead, he went back the other direction. I’m not writing him off yet, as this season could have been an anomaly due to injuries and the unusual distribution of ice time. But that position is getting harder to defend.
In his prime, Stralman was one of the best blue liners in the league. His defensive impacts were outstanding and he had enough vision and skill with the puck to get the breakout started. He was a prototypical defensive player for this era. But I think the time has come to officially put an end to that era of his career. Nothing he’s done over the last couple seasons suggests that a return to that peak form is possible.
The question for him is what the last few years of his career will be.
If you’d asked me that a couple years ago, I’d have said that he has the type of game that should age gracefully. He’s not overly physical. His impacts depend largely on his smart play and his efficiency. Those things should deteriorate less quickly than other skill sets.
I also would have said that Stralman would be the most likely defender to be re-signed for next season this summer. He seemed like a better bet than both Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn to be a positive impact player into his mid 30s. But after the last two seasons, I’m not nearly as confident in those opinions. I think I would still lean in favor of him, but the decision isn’t easy.
If we dig into his numbers a little more, we can find some suggestion that he still might be the better option looking forward. In his minutes with his most common partner, Ryan McDonagh, the pair was underwater. We can safely say Stralman is no longer capable of handling the heavy defensive minutes, but, honestly, he shouldn’t be expected to fill that role anymore. Those minutes will go to Erik Cernak, who showed he can carry that load.
What the Lightning need next year is someone to play the cushy minutes with either Victor Hedman on the top pair or with Mikhail Sergachev on the bottom pair. The Lightning have settled into a routine of playing their weakest defender with Hedman. Last year, it was Dan Girardi and, before that, Jake Dotchin. While that player doesn’t play as many minutes as Hedman, they get the benefit of the bump of playing with the team’s top defender.
Last season, Stralman was slightly better than Girardi in those minutes. While that isn’t overly encouraging, it does suggest maybe Stralman is the better option if the plan is to play him in limited minutes on the top pairing with Hedman. By contrast, his numbers with Mikhail Sergachev were significantly worse than those Coburn posted with the young Russian. If the plan is for a returning veteran to play with Sergachev, maybe Stralman isn’t the best option.
Whatever the Lightning decide, Stralman certainly isn’t done in the NHL. He has several years left where he can be valuable to a team. But his role is going to have to shift. He can’t play the difficult minutes anymore. Wherever he lands next season, he’ll need limited ice time both to get the best results and to (hopefully) stay healthy.
As a fan, I hope the Lightning re-sign him and play him with Hedman. I think that pairing can still be effective with the Norris winner taking shifts with other players throughout the game to keep Stralman’s minutes down where they need to be. But I wouldn’t put up too much of a fight if we’ve seen the last of Stralman in Tampa. He’s been one of my favorite players to watch in the Cooper era but his game has started to slide over the last two seasons.
If this is the end, it will be a disappointing one. He deserves better than to go out the way this team went out and not even be able to help due to injury. It would also be disappointing for him to miss the Global Series games in Sweden next season. But sports rarely give players the ending they deserve. Stralman would be far from the first to see an excellent tenure with a team end in this fashion.
Even so, as we approach free agency, I’ll be hoping he comes back for at least one more year.