Tampa Bay Lightning will need different defensemen to step up this season
Tampa Bay Lightning defensemen Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak have all won back-to-back Stanley Cups. You can add new Lightning defenseman Ian Cole to this rare list, as he helped help the Pittsburgh Penguins win back-to-back cups in 2016 and 2017. Now the 33-year-old worker from Ann Arbor, Michigan, will fill the defensive holes left by the Ryan McDonagh losses and Jan Rutta, and the short-lived absence of Zach Bogosian. Joining Cole are newly acquired defensemen Philippe Myers and Haydn Fleury as well.
Can the Lightning’s proven veterans, along with the three new defensemen and Cal Foote, entering his third year with the team, can improve on last season’s defense and get back to the Stanley Cup — and win it? One thing is for sure, the new players are defensive backs, so what McDonagh and Rutta sometimes brought to the scoresheet may not be what Cole, Myers and Fleury bring in 2022-23. However, if you ask goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy, he’ll be more impressed with their shot blocking and crease awareness than the shots on goal. They have offensive superstars to cover that area, after all.
Welcome to Tampa Bay
The Lightning now have a good mix of young defensemen and talented veterans. Let’s take a look at the newest members of the Tampa defense.
When Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois traded McDonagh to the Nashville Predators, he acquired Myers, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound defenseman. At 25, he has played 142 career NHL games. He also has some playoff experience, playing in 16 games for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2020, where he scored four runs and had 50 hits. The Flyers then traded him the following season to the Predators where he only played 27 games but recorded 50 hits and 17 blocks.
Now, no one imagines that Myers will take over from McDonagh, or even from Rutta. He just doesn’t have the experience of playing in the top four defenders. However, with his size, he can be a presence on the ice for penalty kills and puck recoveries.
Related: Lightning’s 2022 Draft Recap: Another Classic BriseBois Class
When the announcement was made that the Lightning had signed Cole to a one-year contract worth $3 million, fans took notice. Having played against him as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes, Lightning players, coaches and fans don’t underestimate the 6-foot-1, 225-pound. Drafted 18e in the first round of the 2007 NHL Draft by the St. Louis Blues, he traveled to Notre Dame, where the team went all the way to the Frozen Four Championship. Leaving the Fighting Irish before his senior year, he signed with the St. Louis Blues and shuttled between the American Hockey League and the NHL for three seasons. In 2014-15, the Blues found him a permanent roster spot, where he spent five years playing 167 games before being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
As a member of the Penguins, Cole had a stellar season in 2016-17. The dependable defender missed just one game during the regular season and scored five goals and added 21 assists. He also logged 1,605 total minutes while blocking 194 shots and administering 164 hits to propel his team into the playoffs and ultimately win their second Stanley Cup. His durability is exactly what the Lightning need to complement their top two defensive duos.
To compete next season, BriseBois needed to add depth to its defensive corps, and it did so by adding Fleury. He’s a 6-foot-3, 208-pound Saskatchewan native whose NHL tour saw him move from the east coast to the west coast, racking up 215 career games along the way. He was drafted by the Hurricanes with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and spent four seasons with the team, playing in 17 playoff games before being traded to the Anaheim Ducks in 2021.
The Ducks left Fleury unprotected and he was selected by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 expansion draft, where he played 36 games and had 62 blocked shots and 60 hits in their inaugural season. Then the Lightning signed him as a free agent this offseason on a two-year deal worth $762,500. At 26, he should be at his peak, but he has yet to play a full NHL season. Although how much ice time he will see this season depends on whether Myers gets into the roster and when Bogosian returns after surgery.
2021-22 Lightning Defense
The Lightning are blessed with top-notch defensive players who could help the team advance to their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup Finals this season. Although the team had a lot of success, there were concerns about the Lightning’s defense heading into the playoffs last season. Critics have noted that the the defense was not as good as they had been in their two Stanley Cup-winning seasons. As was widely heralded in the 2022 playoffs, it wasn’t for lack of effort, as players sacrificed their bodies blocking shots and forechecking – and McDonagh and Cernak were often the beneficiaries of lots of stuck pucks which kept them away from the ice for long periods of time.
For example, when Brayden Point was injured in the first round of the Stanley Cup Finals last year, coach Jon Cooper often pitched seven defensemen and just 11 forwards. It turned out to be a smart move as defensive players moved in and out of the locker room to tend to various injuries, often due to blocked shots. Cernak, who is one of the Lightning’s toughest players, had to sit out Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals due to a lower-body injury caused by a blocked shot from Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.
However, even with considerable efforts and contributions from the entire defensive unit in the playoffs, the Lightning’s defense was not as good on the penalty kill, stopping only 78.1 percent of opposing power plays. In the previous two seasons when they won the Stanley Cup, their shorthanded percentages were 82.9% and 80.9%, respectively. Of course, that could be attributed to the fact that they faced tougher offensive opponents last season in the Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers, New York Rangers and Avalanche, all of whom were among the NHL’s best power play units during the regular season and the playoffs.
Help for veteran players
If the Lightning hope to extend their playoff streak, they will need more than Hedman, Sergachev and Cernak. Fans are waiting for Foote, the 6-foot-4, 227-pound player, to take on a bigger role with the team. Over the past two seasons, he’s averaged about 13 minutes per game. Drafted in the first round by the Lightning in 2017, 14th overall, he is only 23 years old and has played 91 career regular season games. By comparison, Sergachev is a year older and has already played 362 regular season games, and Cernak, who is 25, has 226 regular season games under his belt. Foote has great potential and the team needs him to keep improving. He played well at home in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Maple Leafs, where he had more than 20 minutes of ice time, three hits, three blocks and two shots on goal in the victory of the Lightning in overtime to force a Game 7.
Now that defensemen Sergachev and Cernak have signed long-term contracts and Victor Hedman is signed until 2025, the Lightning’s revamped defensive unit is in a good position to help the team reach the playoffs again. . Cole is expected to see a lot of ice time and he’s proven he can handle the workload. With veteran leaders, younger players who have logged less ice time in their careers can benefit from being on a team with a winning history.
Fans will have to wait to see if the Lightning will be better defensively than they were last season now that the team has lost two integral players in McDonagh and Rutta. McDonagh’s offensive production will be hard to replace, as will his leadership on and off the ice. However, with Coach Cooper’s emphasis on defense, the players should rise to the challenge.
Lydia Szyjka is a freelance writer for The Hockey Writers. Growing up in Tampa, she graduated from HB Plant High School, never imagining her Tampa Bay Lightning would win three Stanley Cups. She is the director of communications at a Catholic university, where she is the editor of the graduate magazine. Passionate about hockey, she and her husband live in Delaware with their two cats.