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Sorting through Lightning’s looming blue line conundrum

If the team remains healthy, it will have to make moves when Zach Bogosian returns to an already-crowded defense corps.
Defenseman Cal Foote (52) takes the ice for warmups, along with forwards Nicholas Paul (20) and Brandon Hagel (38), before the Lightning's game against the Carolina Hurricanes earlier this month at Amalie Arena.
Defenseman Cal Foote (52) takes the ice for warmups, along with forwards Nicholas Paul (20) and Brandon Hagel (38), before the Lightning's game against the Carolina Hurricanes earlier this month at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 11|Updated Nov. 12

TAMPA — The Lightning defense corps remains a work in progress, and while the coaching staff has tried to let the competition for spots play out, it soon will face a roster crunch and the difficult decisions that go with it.

The Lightning are carrying eight defensemen (four left-shot and four right-shot), and with early season injuries, they’ve needed them all. Few teams carry so many defensemen, and even if Tampa Bay wanted to continue to do so, the expected return of right-shot defenseman Zach Bogosian from offseason shoulder surgery around Thanksgiving will likely force it to make changes even if everyone is healthy.

Health became a concern following Friday’s 5-1 loss to the Capitals. Right-shot defenseman Cal Foote exited the game after taking a hit to the head and did not return. Asked about Foote’s status after the game, coach Jon Cooper answered “not great” and said he doubted Foote would be around to see Sunday night’s home game against Washington.

The Lightning also had defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak leave late in the game after blocking shots by Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin while on the penalty kill. Cernak took a puck to the right leg and Sergachev a shot to his right elbow area. Tampa Bay had to finish the game with three defensemen.

Just one month into the season, there has already been a lot of movement on defense as the coaching staff searches for consistency. The Lightning entered the season with three spots to fill. Even with a strong returning core of Victor Hedman, Sergachev and Cernak, and the free-agent signing of veteran Ian Cole, the Lightning continue to seek the right mix, especially on the right side.

“It takes some getting used to, that’s for sure,” Hedman said. “We’ve just got to calm down and don’t overthink stuff. Trust in your skills, know that you’re in this league for a reason. We’re on this team for a reason. We’ve just got to go out there and trust ourselves and in what we’re doing, and good things are going to happen.”

Rookie right-shot defenseman Nick Perbix has pushed his way into the mix with his steady play, and 10 games into his career, he has found a solid spot alongside Sergachev on the second pair. Perbix has made few mistakes and has two goals and an assist over his last three games.

Perbix’s ascension makes decisions around Bogosian’s return more difficult because the Lightning don’t have much roster flexibility. Perbix is one of only two players on the roster who are waiver-exempt, but if he’s one of the top right-shot defensemen, he’s not going anywhere.

Right now, the Lightning would like to see someone emerge on the third pair alongside Cole.

“We’ve been happy with (Perbix), and now we need another guy to step up to fill that other role where night in and night out we know what we’re getting every single night, and that’s what we’re looking for,” said assistant coach Rob Zettler, who works with the defensemen. “We need someone to step up and grab it and take it.”

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Lightning defenseman Philippe Myers battles Florida Panthers right wing Patric Hornqvist (70) for the puck during a game last month in Sunrise.
Lightning defenseman Philippe Myers battles Florida Panthers right wing Patric Hornqvist (70) for the puck during a game last month in Sunrise. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]

Cooper has tried to find playing time for right-shot defenseman Philippe Myers, who was acquired in the Ryan McDonagh trade with the Predators in the offseason. Myers has been a healthy scratch in six of the last eight games.

Foote is trying to solidify his spot as a regular in his third NHL season. The Lightning experimented with Foote as Hedman’s partner in the top pair, but he has slid to the third pair and was scratched twice in the past week. He has been scratched four times this season.

Left-shot defenseman Haydn Fleury, also competing for ice time, has played in seven of the Lightning’s 14 games, including three of the last five.

It would appear that Foote, Fleury and Myers are competing for one — or at most two spots — depending on whether the Lightning carry seven or continue with eight defensemen when Bogosian returns. Any of the three would have to clear waivers before being assigned to the minors.

Lightning defenseman Haydn Fleury (7) checks Buffalo Sabres right wing JJ Peterka (77) during a game earlier this month at Amalie Arena.
Lightning defenseman Haydn Fleury (7) checks Buffalo Sabres right wing JJ Peterka (77) during a game earlier this month at Amalie Arena. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

“All those guys are jumping in and jumping out,” Cooper said. “Nobody’s really jumped out and secured a spot, but they’re all trying to contribute, and that’s what we like.”

The past two seasons, the Lightning had defensive depth, and Foote had to battle for minutes. The coaches thought he had his moments last season, especially in the first-round playoff series win over Toronto. But after Tampa Bay allowed an average of 24 scoring chances in 5-on-5 play over its first three games this season, dropping Foote from the top pair was one of the first changes the staff made.

“As a team, we weren’t playing very well,” Zettler said. “And that’s certainly not all on ‘Footer.’ It’s on us as a team. But then you look to make some changes to do some things to hopefully solve those issues.”

Any team claiming Myers, 25, off waivers would have to take on his $2.95 million salary cap hit over the next two seasons, which would make him less likely to be claimed. He cleared waivers once before the start of the season.

Fleury, who can play either side, carries a $1.525 million cap hit over the next two seasons. Foote, a 2017 first-round draft pick, carries a hit of $850,000, so it’s more likely he would get claimed if put on waivers. He can become a restricted free agent after the season.

With less than two weeks before Bogosian’s anticipated return, Zettler said the coaching staff is looking for consistency from its defensemen: moving the puck out of the defensive zone quickly and making a fundamentally sound pass to limit the turnovers that have led to scoring chances and goals against.

“We want to play (defense) fast, and we want to play offense fast, and you only do that by making plays and putting the puck on the tape and giving these guys a chance to make plays,” Zettler said. “In a nutshell, it’s kind of what we’re looking for — just consistent, let’s get it out, let’s play fast, let’s get it out of our zone.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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