Lightning defensemen make rotation work with uncommon trait: humility

Tampa Bay’s blue line unit accepts Jon Cooper’s shared playing time system.
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81) disrupts an offensive charge by San Jose Sharks left wing Marcus Sorensen (20) during the second period of Saturday's (1/19/19) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the San Jose Sharks at Amalie Arena in Tampa. Cernak is one of seven quality defensemen, so but the team plays only six each game. Its making it work with a rotation. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81) disrupts an offensive charge by San Jose Sharks left wing Marcus Sorensen (20) during the second period of Saturday's (1/19/19) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the San Jose Sharks at Amalie Arena in Tampa. Cernak is one of seven quality defensemen, so but the team plays only six each game. Its making it work with a rotation. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published January 21

The motivational words emblazoned on the walls of the Lightning's locker room catch the eye.

In big, white block letters, they greet the players at every Amalie Arena practice, every morning skate, every game.

Fearless. Tenacity. Integrity. Accountability.

But there’s a fifth word that stands out more than the others this year. A selfless term that may come to symbolize the defensemen who regularly play for the team.

Humility.

The Lightning has seven defensemen capable of contributing in a major way for any NHL team, but it routinely plays only six. In the games leading up to this week’s bye and All-Star break, the “rotation” has become a way of life for the unit. Six play, one sits out, watching from high above the ice or on a television in the bowels of the arena.

Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Ryan McDonagh have earned starts in almost every game since Stralman returned from injury in December. Dan Girardi, Braydon Coburn, Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev most often find themselves a healthy scratch in this game of musical chairs. All of them want to be on the ice. What player doesn’t?

But each defensemen asked to take a seat has accepted the assignment without complaint.

“It says a lot about the character on this team,” Victor Hedman said. “Guys have bought into it. They know they’re going to be back in the next game. We have seven that can play big minutes. It’s kind of a tough situation but a good thing to have as well.”

It’s especially a good thing for a team pointing towards a Stanley Cup bid and a long postseason. Five of these magnificent seven are 28 or older. Three are over the age of 30. The seeds of rest that Jon Cooper has planted should yield results in the playoffs.

“Eighty-two games is a lot of games,” Cooper said. “Players want to play and there’s no question about that, but in the end, if you play 72 instead of 82, it’s not a bad thing when it comes to playing in April, May or June.

“Nobody likes to sit out but when we’ve got a group like we have and guys are accepting of their roles and their putting the team first, it’s been a good experience.”

Another pleasing aspect of the rotation involves the varied skillsets of the players. The Lightning coaching staff has studied different pairings and mixed and matched the combinations depending on the opponent. While each is seen as a quality defender, they fill different roles, whether it’s the power play, the penalty kill or boxing out in 5-on-5 situations.

"Guys obviously have special teams as part of their role, their identity,” assistant coach Derek Lalonde said. “There’s a different makeup, there’s a little chemistry. Even our analytics has worked very hard (examining the) pairs. What’s been our best analytical numbers with this six on this night compared to this six in pairs? There’s a lot that goes into it.

“We understand each player has a different role, a different identity, but again, all seven help us win, all seven are valuable assets to our team.”

There’s even a degree of value in sitting out. Cernak takes the assignment as a learning opportunity when he watches from the press box.

If there’s a drawback, Lalonde said, it’s that some of the defensemen struggle to regain their rhythm after sitting out.

“But I think in the big picture, it’s worked out well,” Lalonde said. “As a teammate, as a group, “But I think it’s worked out very well.”

Lalonde credited Cooper for explaining the rotation to the players and getting them to buy in. He may have another discussion after the break. The team will re-evaluate the rotation and determine if it will continue the seven-for-six approach.

Regardless, it expects the luxury of defensive depth will prove valuable down the stretch. Cooper said the same principle applies to its four lines.

“If you want success in this league, it’s not the 20 players you put on the ice, it’s the 10 players that are waiting in line,” Cooper said. “Whether it’s injuries or what have you, those are the guys that help you have success as an organization.

“The more you can play them, the more you can put guys in different experiences and let them have those different experiences, the better off you are.”

Contact Ernest Hooper at [email protected] Follow him @hoop4you.

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