Even if the Tampa Bay Lightning do not sign pending unrestricted free agent Jan Rutta to a new contract, the team has six defensemen under contract with four of them being right handed. Jan Rutta is also a right-handed defenseman. That’s left a definite hole on the left side of the third pairing, unless the team does something like having Zach Bogosian play on his off side. Jon Cooper though has repeatedly shown that he does not like playing defensemen on their weaker side unless it’s absolutely necessary, so you have to think that the Lightning are looking for a left-handed defenseman to fill in that spot.
There’s a lot of possible solutions out there, and one potential would be to trade Cal Foote for a similarly aged and experienced lefft-handed blueliner to fill in that spot. The Lightning will need to keep in mind the coming salary crunch for next year though, and that makes filling that spot with a player on a multi-year contract and with a higher cap hit a tricky proposition.
So what I want to focus on are some potential one-year fixes, and specifically players that are further along in their career and would be more willing to sign a one or two-year contract for $1 million or less to fill that spot and chase a Stanley Cup with the Lightning, just as Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare did as forward last summer.
Jordie Benn is one of the ones that’s lower on my list, as at this point he’s best suited more at a 7th defenseman that is only occasionally playing. He’s only played around half of his teams games the past three seasons and hasn’t played a full season since 2018-19 when he was with the Montreal Canadiens. He’s got decent size at 6’2” and 199 pounds, and does play a bit of a physical game. The Lightning like their size on the blue line after all.
I’m not sure this is the best fit for a spot that the Lightning need a player to play 70+ games over the season, but at the same time, I would consider if for the 7th defenseman if the Lightning made some other shuffling moves with the current defensive group.
Russel doesn’t bring a whole lot of offense to the table, but has had good defensive metrics over the past three seasons and is at least adequate on the penalty kill, though more as a second PK pairing guy rather than the first. Between Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev, our third left defenseman probably wouldn’t be asked to do a ton of heavy lifting on the penalty kill, but Russell could still provide a solid option there when Hedman or Sergachev are serving a stint in the penalty box.
Honestly, this was the guy I looked at the most and intrigues me the most for this position. Staal used to be a top of the rotation defender for the New York Rangers until age started to catch up with him. He accepted a trade to the Detroit Red Wings for the last year of his long-term contract and then re-signed with the Red Wings for another season, serving as a veteran leader for some of the young defensemen like Moritz Seider that the Red Wings had in the line up.
Staal’s defense is questionable at this point in time, but he’s still shown some ability to bring offensive production from the blue line even with a lesser Red Wings team. And no, he wasn’t playing on a pairing with Seider to pump up his numbers last season. Staal has been averaging around 17-18 minutes a night with the Red Wings the past couple of seasons and the Lightning could give him similar, or slightly less, TOI on the third pair to further protect him as he continues to age (he turns 36 in the middle of next season).
I’m only really putting Yandle here because he is a name that came up in my search, but it’s not one I’m sold on. He’s always been known as an offense first defenseman with very little defensive skill. But even his offense has started to dry up here at the end of his career and a lot of his puck possession statistics have cratered as a result.
Still, if you wanted to look for a defenseman that has had some offensive skill in the past, and one that could step into the power play in the event that Hedman or Sergachev was unavailable, then this is one of the few options out there that I’m seeing that make sense and fit into this category of older, depth defenseman that could sign a short, cheap contract.
But I’m not sold on this being a solution.
You may remember that in the last game of the regular season, the Lightning played against Zdeno Chara and the New York Islanders. After the game, most of the Lightning players went over to him to give him handshakes, with many people expecting that to be his last NHL game.
But what if it wasn’t? He hasn’t officially retired. But what if he decided to take a vacation down south to Tampa for a year? It’s pretty clear that he’s slowed way down and is now 45 years old, which is generally a decade past when most NHLers hang up their skates. But it is clear that the Islanders perhaps overused him, playing him 18:44 a night. He’s really not capable of keeping up with that many minutes in a game, but what if the Lightning could bring him down to 14 or 15 minutes a night to keep him fresher?
Sure, he’s not as fast (not that he ever was fast to begin with) as he was when he was younger, but he’s one of the smartest hockey players in the NHL. He’s an avid learner that would probably make a great front office executive or coach one day before long. Could the Lightning figure out a way to keep him effective as a third pairing defenseman with a little bit of penalty killing time? That would be the question. Though it’s a question that could be moot anyways if Chara decides to retire, but it’s at least a bit fun to think about the idea, even if it’s not the best idea I’ve ever had.
Realistically, there’s probably a lot more options out there for filling in this spot. There’s going to be some younger options (we’ll explore those tomorrow). There’s going to be some trade options. There’s a lot of ways that Julien BriseBois could go to fill this need. We’ll see here soon as free agency opens up.