The Tampa Bay Lightning defense can no longer be considered a work in progress.
In the 2011-12 season following a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, it became apparent defensive success was the result of goaltender Dwyane Roloson playing out of his mind.
Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman brought in Sami Salo and Matt Carle as free agents in the summer of 2012 to shore up the back end.
After two years, the established core has not only clicked, but also produced results. Offensively, all of the Lightning’s full-time defenders produced double-digits in points. Victor Hedman finished among the top NHL 5 defenders with 55 points.
Defensively, along with the play of goaltender Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay ranked in the top 11 of team goals-against average, limiting opponents to 2.55 per game. Three defenders registered at least 100 blocked shots, and in the physicality department, Radko Gudas finished second in the NHL among defensemen with 273 hits.
From top to bottom, there’s incredible balance along the Bolts blueline, the kind that — if the financials can be worked out — can give Tampa Bay a defensive foundation similar to perennial Stanley Cup contenders like Los Angeles and Chicago.
Victor Hedman, 23: Last year proved to be Hedman’s breakout as he posted career highs in goals (13), assists (42) and points (55). Those numbers placed him among the top five defensemen in scoring in the NHL. He proved capable on both the power play and penalty kill, logging at least two minutes a game on each. During his first four seasons, there were questions as to whether the former second-overall pick would develop into a franchise defenseman. Now the question is whether his rise will allow him to evolve into a Norris Trophy candidate in the near future.
Matt Carle, 29: Carle continues to be the durable workhorse for Tampa Bay, having suited up in all games while leading the team in total ice time. Though he’s not as prolific a scorer as Hedman, Carle is a great puck mover and racks up assists. There were times last season where he’d either be on or off. On as in a seven-game points streak in January, and off as in two skids of at least seven games without a point. As is, there’s little to complain about with Carle’s effort. But if he ever masters consistency, it will only add to the Bolts’ blueline dominance.
Eric Brewer, 35: In his four seasons with Tampa Bay, Brewer has proved to be the reliable defensive defenseman who also can chip in offensively as well. He can log big minutes, play the role of shutdown defender when called upon and provides experience and leadership. Brewer may not put up the flashy numbers as Carle or Hedman, but his all-around capabilities complement so many of his teammates. Brewer is in the final year of his contract and given his performance, one has to believe an extension will be offered before the defenseman becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Radko Gudas, 24: The well-traveled Czech ended up taking on a full-time role in his second season with Tampa Bay and performed admirably. He exceeded expectations in his role as a physical defender and was the only Bolts defenseman to finish with triple digits in hits (273) and blocked shots (138). As a second-year NHLer, Gudas instilled enough confidence that coach Jon Cooper would have him log close to 20 minutes of ice time per game. Teammates love his almost untamed grit, although it occasionally got him into trouble by taking bad penalties.
Mattias Ohlund, 37: The Swede has not played for Tampa Bay since 2011 due to a debilitating knee injury that required major surgery. The chances of him returning are increasingly slim, but with $7.2 million and two years remaining on his contract, there’s little impetus to formalize retirement. Ideally, Tampa would like to use its second amnesty buyout on Ohlund — but the NHL collective bargaining agreement prohibits teams from exercising the option on injured players. The reality is Tampa Bay is probably stuck in keeping Ohlund on the rolls for two years which will impact the team’s ability to bring in another top-name defenseman to shore up its core.
IN THE SYSTEM
Slater Koekkoek, 20: The Lightning signed its top pick in 2012 to an entry-level contract in March. The defenseman suffered a shoulder injury which required surgery, although he is expected to be ready for training camp. A puck-moving defenseman with the ability to quarterback a power play, Koekkoek is likely to spend a decent amount of time honing his pro game in Syracuse before he becomes part of the NHL conversation.
Nikita Nesterov, 21: Although listed as a defenseman, Nesterov also saw some time at center while playing in the KHL before being drafted by Tampa Bay in 2011. In his first North American pro season with Syracuse, Nesterov finished with four goals and 12 assists while playing 54 games on defense. The Russian’s versatility factor is intriguing, but also makes him likely to see more playing time in the minors to see where he best fits.
Dylan Blujus, 20: Tampa Bay’s second-round pick in 2012, Blujus signed with Tampa Bay in May. During his junior career with Brampton and North Bay, Blujus put up numbers similar to what Brewer produces at the NHL level. He boats good size at 6-foot-3, 193-pounds and moves the puck well. Like Koekkoek and Nesterov, he’ll see time in the minors before the Lightning start to factor him in at the NHL level.
Andrej Sustr, 23 (RFA): Sustr could figure more prominently into the team’s defense in 2014-15 after a decent rookie effort. Second only in height to Boston’s Zdeno Chara, the Czech uses his 6-foot-8 frame well and played a well-rounded game in the 43 contests he appeared in For Tampa Bay. But he also spent time with Syracuse (AHL) before sustaining an injury which kept him out of action for the majority of the second half. With the Lightning keen on building from within — as they did with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat — logic suggests Sustr would next on that list with a little more seasoning in the minors before a full-time jump to the NHL.
Mark Barberio, 24 (RFA): Of Tampa Bay’s up-and-coming defensemen, Barberio saw the most time of all at the NHL level last season. He appeared in 49 games, registering five goals and five assists while logging a little more than 14 minutes per game as the team’s sixth or seventh defenseman. Expect to see him slotted for a similar role next season.
Keith Aulie, 24 (RFA): Another big guy along Tampa Bay’s blue line, Aulie battled injuries for most of last season which limited him to just 15 games last season. From a business standpoint, Aulie’s future with Tampa Bay may be nearing an end. He’s competing with Sustr and Barberio for playing time, and his status requires him to clear waivers to get playing time in the AHL. Is it worth the effort to qualify Aulie if his value remains unknown and his role projected to be limited?
Dmitry Korobov, 25 (RFA): Like Aulie, Korobov is another defender who finds himself pushed down the depth chart. The Russian made his NHL debut last season, recording an assist in three games. In the AHL, he was Syracuse’s top scoring defenseman with 26 points (three goals, 23 assists) in 71 games, but also registered a minus-12 rating. Given his slow progress, it is difficult envisioning Korobov in a role other than to provide depth in the minors.
Sami Salo, 39 (UFA): There’s a lot to like about the Finn, from his booming shot to experience, but now that Hedman has emerged as a franchise defenseman, how does the mentor fit into Tampa Bay’s picture? At this point, both financially and in terms of roster spots, Salo may not. It’s hard to envision Tampa Bay re-signing Salo for anything close to the $3.5 million he made last season.
Brian Lee, 27 (UFA): Lee missed the entire season with a torn ACL. In his brief two-year stint with Tampa Bay, Lee appeared in just 42 games, recording eight assists in that stretch. In the lockout-shortened 2013 season, he went without a point in 22 games before being sent to Syracuse. Assuming he’s healthy, expect the former first-round pick to test the free agent market.
Mike Kostka, 28 (UFA): Tampa Bay claimed Kostka off waivers from Chicago in February and the blueliner provided depth down the stretch. In 28 games, he registered four goals and seven assists. With Tampa shifting its focus to bringing in players like Sustr or Barberio to fill for the sixth and seventh slots, Kostka might be worthy of a two-way deal. He can up the competition level in training camp, and if he can’t claim a roster spot, would be valuable in bolstering Syracuse’s roster.