The Tampa Bay Lightning took a shot on Philippe Myers, acquiring the big defenseman from the Nashville Predators as a part of the Ryan McDonagh trade over the summer. The Lightning didn’t get much in return from the Predators for McDonagh, mostly due to his age and remaining contract. For all intents and purposes, it was a salary cap dump, with just Myers and Grant Mismash coming back to the Lightning in the deal.
The Lightning looked at Myers and saw something in his game that they liked and thought that they could build his confidence back up. They wanted to make him look more like the player that the Philadelphia Flyers signed to his current three-year deal and the Predators saw when trading Ryan Ellis to the Flyers in a three-team trade that also included the Vegas Golden Knights.
With Myers in the mix, and Zach Bogosian on the shelf due to offseason shoulder surgery, that gave the Lightning Erik Cernak, Cal Foote, and Myers on the right side of the defense to open the season. With Bogosian out, it gave Myers and Foote an opportunity to challenge each other for playing time after Bogosian became available, and perhaps even make the case to the coaches that both of them deserved to stay in the line-up over Bogosian.
The coaching staff mixed it up just a handful of games into the season with the recall of Nick Perbix from Syracuse. Perbix is a late bloomer, having been an overage draft pick by the Lightning in the 6th round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. He spent a year in the USHL and then four years in NCAA hockey before signing his entry level contract at the end of last season. Oh, and also played in the Olympics for Team USA. Can’t forget that nod of respect he got from Hockey USA.
He got off to a stellar start with the Syracuse Crunch at the end of last season and was one of the last players returned to the Crunch at the end of the Lightning’s training camp. It was obvious that he’d be in line for a call-up in the event of injuries, but I suspected he might not get much opportunity this year since the Lightning had four NHL right-handed defensemen once Bogosian returns. You can never rule out the possibility of two right-handed defenseman being injured though, especially with how often Erik Cernak gets dinged up by blocking shots.
The Bolts had other ideas. The team called up Perbix and played him in the fourth game of the season, having him make his debut at home against the Philadelphia Flyers. While a look under the hood at the possession stats says that Perbix’ start to his NHL career has been rocky, the coaching staff saw something that made them want to keep him in the line-up and continue to progress. I’m not ready to make grand, sweeping proclamations about Perbix after just nine games in his NHL career (and just 27 pro games overall including the AHL playoffs last year), and I have to admit that I’ve been higher on him as a prospect since he was drafted than pretty much anyone else.
What I’ve seen, especially in the past three or four games, is that he’s getting more comfortable. He’s making better reads and is positioning himself better. He was rewarded after making the correct read to get into position at the top of the slot in Saturday night’s game against the Buffalo Sabres. Nikita Kucherov saw him coming and slid the puck his way for Perbix to bomb the puck at the net and score his first NHL goal and the game winner.
What speaks volumes to me about Perbix, and the way the coaching staff views him, is his usage. He’s getting protected a bit by mostly playing with Mikhail Sergachev, who himself has had his rocky games, but I feel like is coming more into his own. But more so, it’s in terms of the coaches decisions for who is in and who is out.
Since Perbix made his debut, Myers has only played in three and Foote has played in six of nine games. In two of Myers’ games, he took Foote’s spot, and the third he was replacing Erik Cernak who was out for a game with an injury. The third of those nine games that Foote was out of the line-up, Foote was replaced by Haydn Fleury. Fleury got a chance to get back into the line-up because Victor Hedman missed two games, but when Hedman returned, instead of Fleury being scratched, he got Foote’s spot on the playing roster. Meanwhile, Perbix has played in nine straight games and has yet to draw out of the line-up since making his debut.
That’s telling to me.
Foote and Myers both have significantly more NHL and pro experience than Perbix. Yet, Perbix is sticking in the line-up while those two are battling each other, and apparently Haydn Fleury, for playing time. What makes the last game even more damning for Myers and Foote is that Jon Cooper is loathe to put two defenseman on a pair that are the same handedness.
Cooper generally refused to play Braydon Coburn, a left-hander, on the right side even though he had several years experience doing just that with the Flyers earlier in his career. He does make an exception for putting Hedman and Sergachev together for shifts, but that’s not a regular pairing throughout a whole game, but just a situational as needed pairing. Yet, he paired up Fleury and Ian Cole, two left-handers, on the third pairing on Saturday.
When I compare the three players raw possession stats, I would rank the players Myers, Perbix, then Foote. By Evolving-Hockey.com GAR, it comes up the same way, with Myers and Perbix actually looking better than the rest of the Lightning blue line. Perbix so far has had strong even strength offensive impacts, but has been a bit of a negative defensively, though his EVO value more than offsets his EVD negatives. Perbix has also been doing a better job of not taking penalties, though Foote has been good in that area, as well as being slightly better in drawing penalties.
Foote has also benefited from really strong goaltending behind him, with some of the highest save percentages when he’s on the ice of any of the defense. It’s covered up that he has the worst xGF% on the team, despite having the best GF%. This has also been a turnaround from Foote’s contributions last year as he was putting up good offensive impacts and average defensive impacts. He was much more sheltered last year though, and was given an opportunity to play next to Hedman. However, I don’t think that pairing really meshed very well.
That style mismatch of Hedman and Foote may also be part of what’s leading to the pairings that Cooper and his staff have settled on. By allowing Sergachev to pair up with Perbix regularly, it’s given the coaches the ability to move Cernak up with Hedman and allow that pair to take tougher assignments, something that Hedman normally hasn’t had to do with McDonagh in the mix to take on the tough opposition.
Now, to the title of the article... why do I think Myers could be headed to Syracuse soon? Especially since it doesn’t seem like Bogosian is quite ready to return to the line-up and it may be another month or so until he does.
It’s pretty simple. While Julien BriseBois at the time said it was for salary cap management reasons, the Lightning put Philippe Myers on waivers and initially assigned him to the Syracuse Crunch for opening night after he went unclaimed. Not a surprise he went unclaimed with his history, salary cap hit, and the fact the Lightning signed him to a one-year extension, though for a lesser cap hit, but on a one-way deal.
Since Myers passed through waivers unclaimed, he remains exempt from waivers until he has spent 30 days on the NHL roster or played in ten games. He’s sitting at six games, so he’s not really in danger of getting to ten games until at least a week or more from now. But he is coming up on 30 calendar days as he was re-added to the roster on October 11th. We’re just days away from that 30 calendar day limit.
Seeing as how Myers hasn’t been beating out Foote for a roster spot very often, and certainly hasn’t beaten out Perbix for one, it only makes sense for the Lightning to re-assign him to the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch before his waiver exemption expires. That will allow the team more time to make a decision on Foote and his future, as well as Bogosian. If at any point, the team decides that Foote and Bogosian, along with Cernak, are the three right-handed defensemen they want on the roster, then Perbix can go back to Syracuse as well as he is waiver exempt for the rest of this season.
But if Perbix were to continue to beat out Foote or Bogosian for a roster spot? Well, you can never have too much depth, especially on the blue line. But if Foote can’t beat out Perbix, that could also be a sign that his days with the organization are limited as well.
Time will tell on how this all shakes out. If Perbix continues to round his game into form at the NHL level, and continue to show the kind of hockey IQ that has gotten him this far despite being a 6th round draft pick, then that’s great for the team, and great for Perbix. But probably not so great for Cal Foote. Or Philippe Myers.