Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Lightning Beat Up on the Blueline

The Tampa Bay Lightning have two games left in their season. As the season grinds to a close they have an outside chance of cracking the 50-win barrier for the first time in franchise history.  They also have a chance at cracking the 50 defensemen used barrier. At one point, around the time that it was announced that Andrej Sustr was hurt, I made a Twitter joke about the Bolts needing to look up Sergei Gusev to see if wanted some ice time. I was 90% joking, 10% serious.

In their last game, a 4-0 victory over the Florida Panthers, rookie Nikita Nesterov logged 21 minutes of ice time. Fellow rookie Luke Witkowski was on the ice for 15 minutes and uber-rookie Slater Koekkoek skated for 16. For a team fighting for the overall number one seed in the Eastern Conference that asking a lot out players with a combined 41 NHL games played. It’s also not sustainable.

Currently Victor Hedman, Jason Garrison, dark horse team-MVP candidate Andrej Sustr and deadline pick-up Brayden Coburn are all currently on the sidelines with various injuries (deadlocked at 2 upper body injuries and 2 lower body injuries). While the forwards have battled through some injuries as well (Alex Killorn is the latest member of the walking wounded) it’s the blue line that has suffered the most this season.

There was a concerted effort in the off-season to buoy the defense corps, mostly based on the fact that last year they had to trade for Michael Kostka in order to have enough defensemen on the roster.. It was a good thing that General Manager Steve Yzerman worked quickly to trade for Garrison and then back the free agent truck up to Anton Stralman’s house. The new imports haven’t necessarily turned the team into a clone of the mid-90s New Jersey Devils teams  and shut other team‘s offenses down (the team’s goals against this season is 2.51 as compared to 2.55 last season), but they have provided a bit of stability in front of the net.

Stralman is one of those defensemen that excels at both the old-fashioned “eye test” but also has the backing of the statistics crowd. He never displays panic when he has the puck and always seems to make the right pass.  When he is on the ice good things tend to happen - good things like more shots by the Lightning as evidenced by his 52.8 CF% (I think I did that right.  I’m still getting used to these advanced stats.)

Heading into the playoffs the Lightning will most likely get at least two of their big guns back.  NHL.com’s Bryan Burns reported that Coburn skated with the team (although in a red no-contact jersey) and Hedman participated fully in the practice. It bodes well that he will join the team for at least one of the last two games while Coburn is shooting for the first playoff game.

Having Hedman back will be instrumental in the team’s success in the post-season. It’s a shame that he hasn’t been able to stay healthy this year as he was putting together a season that would have had him in the Norris Trophy conversation. Over the last two seasons the big Swede has shown the talent that made him a top draft pick in 2009.

Hedman’s return will most likely mean that Koekkoek will find himself back in Syracuse for their playoff run. The former number one draft pick acquitted himself fairly well during his two games with the big club. There were moments where you could see his potential, especially when he got the puck in open ice and was able to use his skating skill to weave past opponents in the neutral zone. There were also times when he looked a little lost on the ice.

In all likelihood he will spend next season in  Syracuse since this is his first season of professional hockey.  The Lightning have six other defensemen already under contract with Sustr and Mark Barberio likely to have their restricted free agent options picked up by the club (and I would expect Sustr to turn his excellent play into a longer term deal). Koekkoek could use a little more experience in the AHL and will probably play the Witkowski role of first call up should injuries occur.

Compared to where the team stood last season (Ben Bishop hurt, Ondrej Palat and Valtteri Filppula banged up) the Lightning aren’t in that bad of shape.  Hedman and Coburn coming back will be a big boost and allow Coach Cooper to control the minutes of his younger players.  With home ice advantage locked up for the first round he’ll also be able to control the match ups.  

At this point should the Lightning even rush their injured players back? While it would be nice to be able to hand an Atlantic Division banner from the rafters, in the long run it doesn’t really matter that much. They have wrapped up home ice advantage in the first round which is the most important thing, but it’s not like they can dictate getting an easier opponent by winning the division. Most likely they will be facing Detroit, but there is also the chance that they will play the Bruins, the Penguins or even the Washington Capitals. Nothing is going to be sorted until the last day, so it would be better to rest the players an extra week then bring them back too soon and risk them re-injuring their upper or lower bodies.

 The good news for Lightning fans is that the team’s philosophy isn’t affected by who they play;  Coach Cooper and his staff believe that the Lightning, when healthy and clicking on all cylinders, can dictate their style of play no matter who is on the other side of the puck.

Hopefully whoever they play, they will play them with a full roster and Mr. Gusev can watch from his couch in Yekaterinburg.

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