Editorial: Why the Lightning should not carry 8 defensemen all year

Jacob presents his opinion on a possible scenario for the Tampa Bay Lightning that, while unlikely, is fun to think about.

In recent history, the Tampa Bay Lightning organization has not really been known to be one that has a glut of defenseman on its NHL roster at its disposal. Going into the upcoming season, however, that notion could be challenged. Generally, the writers here at Raw Charge feel that Steve Yzerman might be cautious with Mikhail Sergachev, something Yzerman himself seems to also support, but it’s always fun to speculate and play around with ideas!

The Lightning have seven defensemen under one-way contracts this year. They also might have to seriously consider adding blue-chip prospect Mikhail Sergachev to their roster. Sergachev was acquired from the Montréal Canadiens on June 15 along with a 2018 conditional second round pick (via Washington in the Lars Eller trade) in exchange for forward Jonathan Drouin and a 2018 conditional sixth round pick. Sergachev is not AHL-eligible this upcoming season, so he can’t be sent to Syracuse.

Now, it’s good to specify that being on a one-way contract does not preclude a player from being sent to AHL Syracuse. It basically just means that player would earn the same amount of money if he was sent down. However, all of the Lightning’s defensive core will need to clear waivers (with the exception of Sergachev, of course). Koekkoek and Dotchin would almost assuredly be claimed off waivers, but Girardi or Sustr might not. Regardless, sending any of those players down seems unlikely.

For the sake of this argument, let’s assume that Sergachev makes the team, which I believe he has a legitimate shot of doing. He had a very strong showing at development camp in June, and I’m sure he’ll have a very strong training camp in September. To recap, the 8 defensemen that would be on the roster, in order of a probable Jon Cooper depth chart, would be:

Left side: Victor Hedman, Braydon Coburn, Mikhail Sergachev, Slater Koekkoek

Right side: Anton Stralman, Jake Dotchin, Dan Girardi, Andrej Sustr

Braydon Coburn has also fared well in played the right-hand side, despite being a lefty.

If Sergachev were to make the club and play at least 40 games this season, the aforementioned conditional picks would not be swapped. If that condition is not met, Tampa Bay would receive the Canadiens 2nd rounder next June, while sending the Habs their own 6th rounder in the same Draft. But, if Sergachev is ready, then play him. Don’t get caught up in the picks. Sure, a 2nd rounder is nice, but the Lightning are in dire need of a puck-moving defenseman.

Cooper has been known to put out a lineup of 11 forwards and 7 defensemen. Having 8 defensemen on the roster would require the Lightning to scratch, at minimum, one defensemen. However, the norm is to play with 12 forwards and 6 defensemen. In that case, 2 defensemen would be scratched every game.

That second scenario becomes especially problematic. Koekkoek, Dotchin, and Sergachev all need to play. They are not going to gain anything valuable from buttering popcorn in the press box. As previously mentioned, Yzerman would be playing with fire if he tried to waive either Dotchin or Koekkoek—both would likely be claimed, unfortunately.

Given Girardi’s contract terms, it looks like the Lightning will keep him in the lineup more often than not—as much as that pains me to write, it’s likely true. Having him in the lineup is one less minute of NHL experience of which Sergachev, Koekkoek, and Dotchin are all in dire need.

Koekkoek has not really had the chance to prove his worth, and hopefully, he gets that chance this year and runs with it. Dotchin was a great partner for Hedman in the second half of last season, and I really hope he plays over the likes of Sustr and Girardi.

Given today’s roster, the best-case scenario, in my opinion, would be:

Pairing 1: Hedman—Dotchin

Pairing 2: Koekkoek—Stralman

Pairing 3: Sergachev—Coburn

The above pairings are really not out of the realm of possibility, but knowing this coaching staff, I would be astonished to see it actually happen.

That brings me to my last point. What is the point of carrying 8 defensemen? Very few NHL clubs do so. Doing so basically only provides guaranteed insurance for two long-term injuries to a team’s defensemen, and that, in itself, is unlikely. In my opinion, a trade would be the most likely of ways to solve this logjam.

With some teams needing a right-handed defenseman to fill our their D corps, shouldn’t Yzerman explore the trade market by dangling Andrej Sustr? He’s on a cheap, one-year deal that pays him $1.95 million this year, and he will be an unrestricted free agent come next summer. I’m sure that Yzerman could use his Jedi mind tricks on a GM of his choosing. Doing so would alleviate some of the backlog of defensemen, while at the same time ridding the Lightning’s roster of its fifth-most experienced defenseman.

Sadly, I don’t think Yzerman will explore the trade market for him, unfortunately. However, if he were to do so, some teams that I could see calling might include Calgary, San Jose, and Washington. Those teams (and more) would surely be in the market for a third-pair righty, and I’m sure Yzerman could pull a few strings to make it happen.

In the end, I don’t think that it is in Tampa Bay’s best interest to carry 8 defensemen all season, considering it would likely mean that the development of either Sergachev, Koekkoek, or Dotchin (or a combination of two of the three) would be stalled. Even if if Sergachev does not make the team and is sent back to Windsor of the OHL, then the proposition of the Lightning carrying seven defensemen sits fine with me only under one condition. That condition is that Girardi does not get played over the inexperienced Koekkoek and Dotchin, thus stalling their respective development.

It will be very interesting to see what the Opening Night lineup looks like. That may tell the tale for what looks to be an interesting year on the backend.