Last night, Tampa Bay Lightning fans got a pretty big scare when Victor Hedman went into the boards awkwardly. He had just taken a shot and a Columbus Blue Jackets defender was sliding towards him and then popped up right underneath him to put him off balance. It looked bad. And I mean, reeeeaaaaalllllll bad. Hedman wasn’t putting any weight on his right leg as he went to the bench and down the tunnel to the locker room.
We all got a big surprise then when he returned later in the period. Missed in all of that anxiety, was that Jan Rutta had taken his last shift of the game just a minute before Hedman left the ice. I didn’t notice his absence until late in the second period and saw that Rutta had only taken two shifts in the second, his last ending 4:59 into the period. Not long after, word came out from the team that he was out for the rest of the game with a lower body injury.
The Lightning dodged a big bullet with Hedman not being seriously hurt. But with Rutta also out, the coaching staff had to lean more on the rookie Cal Foote, along with Luke Schenn and Andreas Borgman who have been in the line-up in place of the injured Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak the past few games. Foote finished the game with 22:46 in ice time. Schenn had 21:21. Borgman finished with 14:55.
Schenn’s previous season high was 15:30 early in the season. Most nights that he has been in the line up, he’s been around the 9-11 minute spot for ice time. In the two previous games filling in for Cernak’s injury, he only played 10:26 and 9:32. The 21:21 is the most he has played in a regular season game since the 2017-18 season when he logged 21:22 in the second to last game of the season for the Arizona Coyotes.
Borgman’s 14:55 was also a season high for him, though he did have a 14:13 game last week against the Dallas Stars. It’s not a career high for him, and this was mostly the TOI range he had in 2017-18 with the Toronto Maple Leafs when he average 13:41 for the year.
For Foote though, his 22:46 actually wasn’t a career high. He set that last Thursday against Dallas when he played 23:52. With Cernak out, Foote was already seeing significantly more time the past couple games also playing 19:02 on Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes. He’s had his ice time ramped up and I think he’s responded well to it. He’s been used to playing these kind of minutes the past couple years in the AHL, but the coaches were bringing him along slowly to acclimate him to the NHL instead of throwing him into the deep end right away.
The good news is that Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak both skated during practice this morning. Jon Cooper in his after practice media availability stated that McDonagh, as well as forward Mitchell Stephens, are close. Additionally, Cernak and Rutta are a bit behind McDonagh. So that does leave us with some hope that McDonagh will be good to go tomorrow night.
If McDonagh is ready, then the rest of this article is moot, but I want to outline what is likely to happen if McDonagh, along with Cernak and Rutta, are unable to play Thursday night.
For the last two games, the Lightning have iced a line up that has exceeded the salary cap. They have been allowed to do so under an exemption in the CBA that allows a team to exceed the salary cap during an emergency (i.e. injury) situation. However, for a team to qualify for that exemption, they must play down a skater for one game, unless the emergency exemption is for a goaltender. We already saw the Lightning have to do that last Thursday when they traded Alex Volkov and sent Ross Colton to the Taxi Squad to make room for Andreas Borgman and Luke Schenn. This allowed the Lightning to play six defensemen, but they had to run with 11 forwards. After doing that, they were able to get an exemption for Colton, re-add him to the roster and exceed the salary cap, and return to a full complement of skaters for the past two games.
The Lightning are back in that same situation now if McDonagh is unable to play. I would assume the coaches would once again want to run with 11 forwards and six defensemen since another injury on the blue line would have the team playing four defensemen for the rest of that game.
This means that the most likely scenario is that Ross Colton is sent to the Taxi Squad, and another defenseman is added to the roster in his place. The Lightning currently don’t have another defenseman on the Taxi Squad and would need to get a waiver from the NHL to allow the called up player to not need to quarantine before playing. Since the Lightning will need a right handed defenseman, their options are Alex Green, Dmitri Semykin, Luke Witkowski, and Ben Thomas.
Alex Green and Dmitri Semykin are unlikely to be the recall. They are both AHL rookies. Green was a 4th round pick of the Lightning in 2018 and is a little bit older of a prospect having already turned 22 after spending three seasons in NCAA hockey. He has one assist in 8 games for the Syracuse Crunch and a goal and an assist in five games in the ECHL for the Orlando Solar Bears.
Semykin was a surprise 3rd round selection by the Lightning in the 2018 draft and just turned 21 in February. Semykin is a big physical defenseman and has a goal in four games for the Crunch and no points in five games for the Solar Bears. He also had some controversy in one of his Solar Bears game when he was given a match penalty for a check to the head.
Witkowski is a player that I think would be the pick by a lot of fans. He was a big of a cult favorite at times because he is a big defenseman that plays rough and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves. Over the past four seasons he has split his time between playing defense and forward. He left the Lightning organization after the 2016-17 season and went to the Detroit Red Wings for two seasons. He returned to the Lightning last season with a two-year contract and began the 2019-20 season on the Lightning’s fourth line playing forward. This season with the Crunch, he’s had to play both defense and forward because of injuries and recalls by both the Lightning and the Florida Panthers. Witkowski isn’t a bad choice, but he’s also a player that is very much in the same vein as Luke Schenn. And fans are already complaining enough that Schenn is even in the line up.
Thomas is a long time farm hand for the Lightning now. He’s 24 and turns 25 in May and is in his 5th full time AHL season with the Syracuse Crunch. In 285 career AHL games, he has 14 goals and 87 points. Thomas is more of an offense first defenseman that has struggled with the defensive end of the ice. He’s not overly big or physical, but is a decent enough skater. He would play a similar style as Borgman on the ice at the NHL level. Thomas is my guess as the most likely player to be recalled.