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Recent injuries stretch Lightning defense thin

Jan Rutta and Erik Cernak have both missed games in the past week.

Carolina Hurricanes v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Lightning got a little scare earlier this week when defenseman Erik Cernak left a game early after blocking a shot off his foot. We feared he might miss some time after that, but he returned in the next game. He was scratched again for Thursday night’s game in Chicago because of an upper body injury sustained against the Dallas Stars. Cernak returned for Friday's game, but fellow right-side defenseman Jan Rutta missed the game with a lower-body injury.

Without a doubt, Cernak is the best right handed defenseman the Lightning have in the organization, especially after the departure of Kevin Shattenkirk this offseason. Mikhail Sergachev has been logging more time on the right side next to both Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. This is a good thing for the Lightning to experiment with right now because Sergachev is so good it’s hard to keep him behind Hedman and McDonagh on the left side. Finding out if Sergachev on the right side is viable also opens up the options or the Lightning if they do suffer a long term injury, like if Cernak is out long term with this upper body injury.

Jan Rutta has been more effective than fans give credit for, but he does have a bit of inconsistency in his performance which is what has truly kept him from being a great top four defenseman. Instead, he’s more of a fringe 4/5 type where you can lean on him in the right situations, but he’s not going to carry a pairing with a weaker partner either. He’s played well next to Victor Hedman, but that’s usually not very hard to do over the past few seasons. Still, losing him for any length of time puts a lot of pressure on the remaining players.

The Lightning also have veteran Luke Schenn and rookie Cal Foote on the right side. From the first puck drop of the season, the Lightning have brought Foote along slowly. They have protected him by mostly having him spend time with Hedman and Sergachev. They’ve been careful with his deployments against high end opponents. His advanced analytics are a mixed bag. He seems to have been the beneficiary of a lot of luck with the Lightning scoring a lot when he’s on, but rarely being scored against.

This doesn’t match up with his xGF% and the rest of his possession stats. It also doesn’t really match up with his style of game, production, or reputation and history in the minors. Despite having the 2nd highest GF60 among the Lightning’s defensemen, Foote has only recorded one goal and no assists. That suggests he’s not getting that involved in the offense and is benefitting from his teammates’ performance.

Schenn on the other hand, has been on the other end of that luck scale. His advanced analytics actually don’t look that bad, especially in terms for xGF60 and xGA60. but the team has failed to put the puck in the net at the same rate when Schenn is on the ice as they have for the rest of the defensive corps. Conversely, they’ve dug the puck out of the back of the net a lot more with Schenn on the ice. It’s hard to say how much of that is Schenn’s own doing and just bad luck. I know that what I’m saying here contradicts the way I approached Foote. For both players, you could explain away what’s happening as luck. But Schenn also has a lot more history in the NHL to draw upon that points towards his results as being because of the player he is on the ice.

One of the wild cards is Andreas Borgman. Signed as a free agent in the offseason, Borgman has been with the Taxi Squad all season but didn’t crack the line-up until Sunday. He is a left hander though and because of the Lightning’s left side dominance, he’s probably not going to see regular playing due to the depth on that side of the ice. Although in my opinion, I think he’d have a better game than Schenn. If Sergachev was to move to the right side on a more permanent basis, that would open up the opportunity to bring Borgman into the line-up more often. Head coach Jon Cooper recently said in a press conference that he had no reservations about playing Borgman. It just seems that opportunity hasn’t come up yet.

I’d really like to see Borgman get a chance. Shuffle Schenn back to the Taxi Squad. Play Sergachev with McDonagh and Rutta with Hedman. Give Borgman and Foote limited minutes in the 12-14 minute range while the big horses eat up the rest of the ice time. Borgman played 48 games in 2017-18 for the Toronto Maple Leafs and recorded three goals and 11 points. That’s third pair kind of production. He started this season playing in Liiga in Finland and recorded 3 goals and 13 points in 19 games. He has some offense and some two-way play in his game that I think he can bring to the blue line paired with Cal Foote. That pairing would still need to be protected, but I think they have a chance to be successful playing mostly with the top two lines against lesser competition.

If the Lightning decide that the Sergachev on the right side experiment is a failure, and I don’t believe that will be the case judging by the results so far, the team could also look to the trade market. With the Lightning using Long Term Injured Reserve, their options are quite limited. Adding a player also can make the options for swapping around the forwards and the defense trickier or even impossible outside of injuries.

It would also make it so that Cal Foote and Luke Schenn wouldn’t see the ice again for the rest of the season unless there was an injury. I think the team wants to continue developing Foote at the NHL level. That combined with the cap issues makes me think it’s unlikely that the Lightning will enter the trade market.

If Julien BriseBois decides to poke around, the team could potentially add a player with a cap hit in the $1.5 to $1.75 million range. Potentially even up to $2 million depending on how all of the math works out, but it does get complicated especially since the Lightning have to consider the impacts of Mitchell Stephens returning to the roster from LTIR before the end of the regular season. I was messing with the math a little bit a couple of weeks, and I believe for the Lightning to add more than $1.25 million in salary cap hit, they would need to at a minimum trade Alexander Volkov or another forward with a higher cap hit (which would increase the cap hit they could add) and run with just 12 forwards and 6 defensemen on the roster.

Brandon Montour of the Buffalo Sabres has been one of the more popular names out there for a right handed defenseman. He was good with the Anaheim Ducks, but has not played as well for Buffalo. Of course, no one has really played well for Buffalo so take that with a grain of salt. He’s a UFA at the end of the season and has a $3.85 million cap hit. If Buffalo was to retain 50% of his remaining salary, that would bring his cap hit down to $1.925 million and I believe the Lightning could squeeze that in to the cap. He’s a physical defenseman that plays a similar game to Erik Cernak. The question will be what kind of cost does he carry. The Lightning are without their 2nd round pick for the 2021 and 2022 drafts. The prospects the Lightning have to offer are not very attractive, and the ones that do have value are pieces that are going to be needed to fill in some roster holes next season.

There’s some other right handed options out there on losing teams, but really... none of them look attractive to me. They would be complained about just as much as fans complain about Luke Schenn. Or Andrej Sustr. Or Matt Carle. I just don’t think they’re the solution. The left side may be a different story because there are a lot more cheap left-handers out there. But if the Lightning are willing to go that way, they should at least give Borgman a chance first.