2018-2019 Tampa Bay Lightning season preview: The defense

The defense is locked in for now but change is possible as the season progresses.

The Lightning’s defensive personnel was mostly set entering camp this season. Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman, Mikhail Sergachev, Dan Girardi, and Braydon Coburn were the locks for the roster. The more significant questions were whether Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek would be the 7/8 personnel on the roster moving forward and if either of those players could push Girardi or Coburn out of the lineup.

Thus, let’s take a quick look at the defensive personnel and what we could expect from them entering this season.

The top four defensive rotation seems set entering 2018-2019. Victor Hedman is a Norris Trophy defenseman, Ryan McDonagh is a top pairing defender. Anton Stralman is a strong second pairing defender, and Mikhail Sergachev should be given top-four minutes this season over Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn. Girardi and Coburn are on the tail ends of their careers and as good as they are in the locker room, they’ve both shown signs of decline over the last several seasons.

The Dotchin or Koekkoek question is now irrelevant due to the team terminating Dotchin’s contract. While his departure leaves the defensive depth thinner than before, Dotchin played so few minutes last season that the Lightning should be fine without him. This leaves Slater Koekkoek as the only viable defensive player who can overtake Girardi and Coburn entering the season. Some have speculated that Cal Foote, Eric Cernak, or Dominik Masin could break into the lineup. But from what I’ve seen, and what the coaching staff seems to be leaning towards, it’ll be Koekkoek battling the two veterans for the 5/6 spot.

Foote and Cernak are excellent defensive prospects, but they don’t need to be playing 10-11 minutes once a week during the season. They need reps, and the only place for them to effectively do that is Syracuse. Both of them would be the unquestioned top defenders on the Crunch and would play 20+ minutes a night. That’s what they need at this time.

Masin was viewed as a dark horse to make the roster, but after two preseason games, it’s looking apparent that he needs another year in Syracuse. Some might point to how Jon Cooper handled Sergachev last season as an example for one of these defenders, but Sergachev was on a different level than these three.

Sergachev’s offensive prowess and a surprisingly efficient defensive game made it possible to maximize his impact in sheltered usage. Foote, Cernak, and Masin aren’t that kind of player. Sending Sergachev to Syracuse also wasn’t an option because of his age and had it been, he likely would have started the year there.

With this defensive corps, Tampa Bay made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. This unit is stable enough to make it all the way; it’s just a matter of execution. Everyone remembers the onslaught that Washington enacted on Tampa Bay during the series, but they also forget how dominant the Lightning defense was at 5-on-5 versus the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins in the first two rounds. New Jersey could do nothing outside of Taylor Halls’ line. Boston was limited to power-play production and was shut out for three straight games at even strength. That was the defense’s doing.

Against New Jersey, Taylor Hall scored 6 of the Devils 27 points—that’s 24% of the scoring for his team. Tampa Bay scored 47 points over the five-game series, and Nikita Kucherov (10 points) accounted for 21.2% of the points Tampa Bay scored. Outside of the league MVP, the Lightning defense shut down the Devils.

Against Boston, the danger was solely on the top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak (the best line in hockey in many eyes). Over the five-game series, that line accounted for 23 of Boston’s 36 points (63% of their total points scored) and didn’t record an even-strength point after game two. Tampa Bay rendered one of the best offenses in the league to a one-line team and limited their impact at even-strength—that’s commendable for a team that isn’t known as a defensively stout unit.

This fell apart when the Washington Capitals series arrived. Tampa Bay struggled in all facets of the game, and there isn’t one definitive reason they lost that series. A combination of things that ultimately sunk the Lightning wit even strength scoring and penalty kill being the primary culprits.

The defensive unit Tampa Bay deployed last season wasn’t as bad as it seemed at times. League-best? No, not even close. But they were a respectable unit that, I believe, was hindered by a defensive system that was too passive and allowed defenders to make too many decisions that caused confusion in the defensive zone.

The defensive area that caused the most hair pulling was the penalty kill. We’ve talked about it extensively here, and it was the one black mark on the regular season for the Lightning. With former assistant coach Rick Bowness moving on and Todd Richards taking over the defense, it’ll be interesting to see what he does systematically to improve the Lightning defense and penalty kill.

The only player Lightning fans have a realistic chance of seeing more of this season is Koekkoek. Last season, he played in 35 games and averaged just over 11 minutes a night. He produced a decent amount offensively given his limited amount of ice time, but his underlying numbers weren’t flattering. Could this be something that’s alleviated with the coaching change and more ice time? Possibly, but at 24 years old, Koekkoek is past the point of being called a prospect. He’s either an NHLer or he’s not, and so far it’s leaning toward him being a replacement level defender with some offensive upside.

It’s possible Tampa Bay looks to rest Girardi and Coburn during the season which provides Koekkoek with more ice time and that wouldn’t be a bad thing. If there is a drop off between Koekkoek and Girardi or Coburn, it would be a small one. He provides a more offensive presence than either of them and is still one of the better skating defensemen the team has.

Foote, Cernak, or Masin getting callups during the season for spot duty wouldn’t be a surprise either. Cernak and Foote appear to be the prime candidates for this, but Masin could still sneak in a few starts. This wouldn’t hamper Syracuse’s season and would provide some NHL experience for all three—not a bad approach with veterans filling in the bottom portion of the defensive corps.

Tampa Bay is looking to go all in this season. They have the forward talent and a defensive unit strong enough to handle the postseason. By allowing Koekkoek, Foote, Cernak, and Masin to fill in when needed this season, Tampa Bay can groom them for roster spots next season when Stralman, Girardi, and Coburn have their contracts expire.

Much of this season’s defensive performance will be decided by how Todd Richards utilizes his personnel and the system he chooses to run. In my opinion, it isn’t going to be much different from last year. Under Bowness, the defense aided the offense quite well as a group in the offensive zone. The primary problem was the penalty.

One thing Richards could do to stabilize the defense is provide Hedman with a consistent partner. Richards could look to pair him with Stralman once again, and keep Sergachev on his offside (where’s he’s been very effective) to pair with McDonagh. This leaves Girardi and Coburn as the third pair, which is probably the optimal scenario for the personnel Tampa Bay has. Sergachev benefits from this with consistent top four minutes with a good partner. And it’ll provide Hedman with a partner he can trust, which will enable him to do what he does best.

It’s still possible that Tampa Bay looks for a right-handed defender at the trade deadline to bolster their depth. Moving Sergachev to the right is solid, but having a natural right-hander is significant in the NHL. But without moving another roster player, it’s hard to see how they fit in with how close to the cap they are. It’ll be interesting to see what new general manager Julien BriseBois does with this situation moving forward.

The Lightning are starting with the best defensive group they’ve had in years. Any improvements during the season will likely come around the margins either via prospects forcing their way into the lineup or smaller trades during the season.