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An early look at the Lightning defensive pairings

Have they figured out who plays with who (whom? whomst?)

Tampa Bay Lightning v Los Angeles Kings Photo by Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images

Because making four straight trips to the Stanley Cup final wasn’t going to be hard enough even if they returned the same line-up they had last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning went out and mixed things up on defense. They lost Jan Rutta to free agency, traded Ryan McDonagh for salary cap reasons, and Zach Bogosian is on injured reserve for at least another few weeks. That’s half of the defense out of the door before the puck was dropped on the season. Philippe Myers, Ian Cole, and Haydn Fleury were brought in and Cal Foote was expected to see an increased role as they looked to plug those holes. So, after eight games, how have things gone?

Before we answer that question this entire column should have a giant “CAUTION - SMALL SAMPLE SIZE!!!” warning plastered all over it. We are talking about eight games, and one of those was played with an 11/7 line-up. No season has been won or lost based on the play of eight games, especially ones that took place in October. Still we need a frame of reference, right? We can’t see how much they improved at the end of the season if we don’t know where they started. With that out of the way, back to the question. How are things going?

Things could be better. They are currently 25th in goals against at 5v5, averaging 2.95 against per 60 minutes. Their expected goals against is 2.62 per 60, which places them at 17th in the league so which is better, but still in the bottom half of the league, a territory in which they are not familiar.

Last season they were a top 10 team in both categories with 2.28 GA/60 and 2.36 xGA/60. Overall during the three seasons that have led to the Stanley Cup Finals they are at 2.25 GA/60 and 2.2 xGA. So, there is room for improvement.

Coach Cooper will be the first to tell you that preventing goals a team effort, not necessarily a defense-only problem. It takes everyone playing on the same page to keep the puck out of the net, so these numbers aren’t all on the defense. Yet, some of it has to be. After all it’s in their job description - defense. So we’ll look at the numbers and see how they are doing.

The head coach will also likely tell you that it’s just not numbers that dictate on how players succeed or fail together. There is a little bit of voodoo involved. No one thought Rutta would be the one to vibe with Hedman and parlay it into a nice free agent deal. They found that out through trial and error, a process that is going on right now with the new group.

There are some things you do kind of want to avoid. Having two offensive-minded blueliners together can lead to some problems if they both pinch in too much and get caught up the ice. The same goes for a couple of below-average skaters. That is a general belief and there are often exceptions to the rule.

Consistency goes a long way in helping defenders play together. They start to know the tendencies and foibles of their playing partners, when they want to pinch in and when they want to hang back. The offseason upheaval affected all three pairings and a limited preseason didn’t exactly help things out in regards to allowing the players to get a feel for each other at game speed.

Even after the season started things have been jumbled up. Ian Cole was suspended for the first few games and Erik Cernak missed a game due to injury. Haydn Fleury started a few games and then was healthy scratched. The same goes for Cal Foote. Throw in a somewhat unexpected early Nick Perbix promotion and the blue line has already seen eight different players suit up for a game.

Thus the only constant has been change as Coach Jon Cooper and his staff look to find the best mix to prevent goals and help kickstart the offense. According to Natural Stat Trick, there have been at least nine pairings that have garnered at least 12 minutes of ice time together through the first 5 games at 5v5.

Those pairings and ice times:

Victor Hedman / Erik Cernak (53:13)

Victor Hedman / Cal Foote (50:30)

Mikhail Sergachev / Nick Perbix (49:40)

Mikhail Sergachev / Erik Cernak (48:03)

Haydn Fleury / Philippe Myers (26:07)

Ian Cole / Philippe Myers (19:18)

Mikhail Sergachev / Cal Foote (16:30)

Ian Cole / Cal Foote (16:04)

Victor Hedman / Philippe Myers (12:30)

As you can see the pairings from the beginning of the season have pretty much gone by the wayside. The Lightning opened the season with Hedman and Foote on the top pair and Sergachev with Cernak as the second pair. Those combinations have disappeared for the most part.

It does seem that Coach Cooper has settled on some updated pairings over the last few games with Erik Cernak joining Victor Hedman on the top pair, Mikhail Sergachev and Nick Perbix on the second, and Ian Cole and Cal Foote or Phil Myers on the third pair. Is that the right move? The numbers suggest that it might be:

Stats via Natural Stat Trick, chart by Raw Charge

In the above chart we look at how the pairings did in the three typical shot attempt categories: CA (Corsi against - all types of shots), FA (Fenwick against - unblocked shot attempts), SA (Shots against - shots on goal). Since they all play different amounts of ice time we’re going with the per 60 minutes rate to equalize things.

One thing that the chart shows is that the Hedman/Foote pairing should probably never see the ice again. Usually you can pair Hedman with a hockey stick glues to a Roomba and things will be alright, but for some reason that pair struggled early in the season. They gave up roughly 61 shots per 60 minutes of ice time with 48 shots making it all the way to Andrei Vasilevskiy or Brian Elliott. While it’s highly entertaining to watch that many pucks flying around the ice and leads to some Vasilevskiy highlights, it’s not really sustainable so it’s probably great that they have gone away from having those two guys on the ice at the same time.

On the other hand, they have also gone away from the Fleury/ Myers combination that was productive early on. Now, this chart doesn’t take into effect the quality of competition against so it’s not exactly apples to apples. We’re keeping this a rather high level look at the pairings so lets not get crazy. Suffice it to say part of the reason is that the Fleury/Myers combo was getting sheltered minutes and playing fewer minutes as a third pair.

The numbers do indicate that the new Hedman/Cernak pairing is working. Which makes sense. If you put your best left-side defenseman and your best right-side defenseman together they should play well together. Solving that problem may lead to other ones, though. One of the glaring problems early on has been finding the right partner for Sergachev. The most recent solution seems to have helped a bit as Nick Perbix has become acclimated to the speed of the NHL game. Of the partners Sergy has played with they have the lowest Corsi against. It’s also been trending in the right direction over the last few games.

So, those are the shot numbers, what about the actual goals?

Stats via Natural Stat Trick, chart by Raw Charge

Here we have the actual goals against per 60 (GA/60) and expected goals against (xGA/60). First of all, congratulations to Cal Foote for being on two pairings to not allow a goal against (with Ian Cole and Mikhail Sergachev). Foote is actually on the three lowest goals against among the pairings. Expected goals tells a slightly different story as that Hedman/Foote pairing posted a whopping 6.09 xGA. That’s a lot.

Again we see the Sergachev pairings having the highest xGAs among the pairings so finding someone that can play with his unique set of skills could be key for the team to keep improving as the season continues.

While we’re focusing on the defensive side of these numbers a quick look at the overall numbers shows that Cernak is the only partner that Sergachev has posted a positive xGF% with (52.73%) meaning that there are more goals expected for the Lightning than their opponent when they’re on the ice.

What do all of these numbers mean? Well, mostly that, no matter what the pedigree or past success is for a team, rebuilding half of the defense will take time and patience. Things are pretty compacted in the Atlantic Division right now with just six points separating the first place Bruins and the last place Canadiens. So, the Bolts still have time to figure it out, and based on the recent pairings, they may just be doing that.

It will be imperative that they figure out the second pairing. One of the keys to their success over the last few years was that the McDonagh/Cernak pair could take on the other team’s best players and free up Victor Hedman to do Victor Hedman things. That hasn’t been the case this year and Hedman is already logging more ice time, on average, than he has since 2017-18.

Sergachev is unlikely to morph into a true shutdown player in the mold of McDonagh. That’s just not his game. What is likely to happen is you’ll see the Ian Cole pairing adopt more of that role at key times. It’s doubtful that he’ll be playing 20-23 minutes a night (he’s at 17:46 right now) but you might see him on the ice late in games in important situations. Interestingly enough, towards the end of the Anaheim game it was Sergachev and Cole on the ice right before Hedman and Cernak finished the game. Coach Cooper went with his four veteran defenders to close out the one-goal game.