TAMPA — A major, and perhaps underappreciated, part of the Lightning’s run to three straight Stanley Cup finals, including back-to-back wins, has been the team’s stability at the blue line.
Their formula for championship-level success long has been rooted in playing exemplary defense, and that starts with defensemen who execute their roles well.
On opening night Tuesday in New York, the Lightning will be missing three pieces of their defense corps from last season. Most integral was Ryan McDonagh, a leader on the back end who anchored the penalty kill and was the team’s top shot blocker before he was traded in the offseason to Nashville in a cap-cutting move.
The Lightning also will be without Jan Rutta, who masterfully merged with Victor Hedman to make up the team’s first defensive pairing but signed with the Penguins in the offseason. Veteran Zach Bogosian is slated to be out until late November/early December recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
“Obviously, it’s a little bit different than the past couple of years,” Hedman said. “We’re looking forward to making strides as a group, and we’ll help each other out.”
That has led to a restructuring of the blue line both in terms of personnel and pairings. The biggest question the Lightning face is whether they can replace lost contributions.
“If we’re working to get open for each other and we’re talking, we’re making it easy on each other, initially that’s important because, essentially, there’s probably going to be two or three different faces on that blue line,” said Lightning assistant coach Rob Zettler.
“If guys are guessing where people are, we’re going to be in trouble. If we know where people are and we’re communicating, then we’re going to be good. And then that will allow our talent to shine through. ... We’ve got to play predictable to make our game a little bit easier and a lot faster.”
Filling the holes
The Lightning brought in three new faces to help. After losing McDonagh, the team jumped at signing veteran defenseman Ian Cole, who won back-to-back Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh and can do some of the things McDonagh did, such as block shots and play on the penalty kill.
“It’s critical,” Zettler said of adding Cole. “He’s been on a few teams and in all kinds of different situations. So, you know, we’re not going to throw anything at him that he hasn’t seen before.”
While the Lightning like the stability Cole can provide, the team’s two other additions on defense, Philippe Myers and Haydn Fleury, are wild cards. Both were highly touted prospects still looking to find their footing as NHL regulars. Tampa Bay is the 25-year-old Myers’ third organization in three years and the fourth in three years for Fleury, 26.
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The Lightning have proven in the past that they can take retreads and turn them into key contributors, and there might be no better example than Rutta, who worked his way into a major role on the past two Stanley Cup teams.
Both Myers and Fleury will be relied on to possess the puck and push it out of the Tampa Bay end more quickly, Zettler said.
“We’ve got to do a better job of that, and defending,” he said. “If those guys can bring that to the table on a consistent basis, they’re going to play. Because the less time we spend in our own end, obviously, the better. And those little 10-foot, 15-foot passes, 10-foot support plays, if you have the ability to make those kinds of plays in traffic at the NHL level, it’s hard.
“And if you have the ability to make those plays, you’re going to have success, and we’re going to want you on the ice, because we want to get the hell out of our zone. That’s essentially the conversations I’ve had with them: ‘These are the plays we need you guys to make.’ "
Perhaps more crucial to the Lightning’s success are the increased roles for Mikhail Sergachev and Cal Foote.
Sergachev, who already ranked second in ice time among the team’s defensemen (22:28 per game) will move up to a top-four role. He’s been skating with Erik Cernak during camp, which will mean harder minutes and tougher matchups. McDonagh often was tasked with lining up against opponents’ top lines, and now that is Sergachev’s role.
“To me, it’s making sure we manage those, because they are harder minutes,” Zettler said. “They’re more physical minutes, they’re more speedy minutes. So it’s not necessarily about playing a lot more minutes. Just making sure we’re ready to play harder minutes.”
Sergachev is likely to take on a bigger role on the penalty kill in addition to his second-team power-play duties.
“I was trying to get stronger (in the offseason) a little bit and work on my endurance so I could play more,” Sergachev said. “Sometimes when you play a lot of minutes you make the decisions that you regret sometimes, and I was working on this, too, to get used to be able to play a lot of minutes and to make great decisions.”
Then there’s Foote, the former first-round pick who is entering a contract year. While grooming him to be an NHL regular, the Lightning slotted him as a third-pair defenseman the past two years. He showed growth in 56 games last season but struggled with consistency.
Foote will start this season paired with Hedman, which will mean increased minutes and tougher matchups for him as well. The team hopes that a full preseason — Foote missed camp last year with a hand injury — will help him establish himself in a new role. Playing with Hedman, whose game includes jumping up in the offense more than most defensemen, demands heightened awareness, and Foote said he has learned a lot from skating with the former Norris Trophy winner.
“Every time you’re on the ice with him in practice, you learn something new,” Foote said. “Every day, I feel I can get more comfortable with him. I feel like we’re building chemistry, knowing where each other is on the ice, and in my mind he is the best defenseman in the world. So I’m very fortunate to be able to play with a player of that caliber. So, hopefully we can stick this through and have a good start.”
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